One of the most moving art experiences I’ve ever had didn’t take place in a museum or even an art gallery. It was when Annie, my wife, and I visited Pompeii, the ancient Roman city of 20,000 people tragically destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD. Today, Vesuvius looms with a deceptive calm over the ruins of Pompeii (above), but experts believe that it will erupt again one day, perhaps undoing all of the excavations that have brought back this ancient world to us today.
Walking the streets of Pompeii, many things strike you. There’s a flatness to the town that inaccurately portrays what it once looked like. The upper stories of all the buildings were crushed under the tons of volcanic ash, leaving only the bottom stories standing. Stray dogs amble among the ruins, begging for scraps from the tourists. But what strikes you the most are the figures of the dead. When the early archaeologists working on the site discovered empty pockets in the ash, they soon realized that those pockets once contained the remains of the dead. The remains decomposed over time, but the shape of their bodies was preserved in the ash. Filling the pockets with plaster and then digging the ash away, researchers created macabre sculptures (such as the one above) of people and animals in their final moments. Although the figure above appears to be praying, he most likely was trying to cover his mouth as the deadly fumes and falling ash suffocated him. A “statue” of a pregnant woman may be the most disturbing of these figures. Seeing these figures in books always made them seem “clean” or antiseptic, not “real” people. (I’ve always wondered if George Segal modeled his depersonalized figures after Pompeii’s dead.) However, many of these plaster casts themselves are now decaying, revealing the skeletons inside, bringing back very vividly the reality that these are indeed human remains deserving of our tender care.
Many of the great frescos and statuary no longer remain in Pompeii out of fear of robbery. Some of the lesser frescos remain, however, in situ. Others, now in museums, such as the Dionysiac Mystery Frieze (above) from the Villa of the Mysteries, show the vivid color that survived millennia. If you get the right tour guide (and we were lucky enough to have a great one), he’ll show you some of the more risqué frescos that still grace the insides and even some of the outsides of the homes of Pompeii. The more pious may see Vesuvius’ eruption as a judgment on this sexual licentiousness, but I found it not only amusing but also enlightening to see these people as living, sexual, vivacious human beings just like we are today.
Perhaps my favorite Pompeii memory was seeing the Cave Canem mosaic (above) (Latin for “Beware of Dog”) on the doorstep of one of the homes. This homely touch powerfully brought home the reality of these people living back then when tragedy struck. The end came so fast that archaeologists found half-baked bread still in ovens when they dug out one bakery. The Romans of Pompeii lived a life of pleasure and art that sadly ended in a whirlwind of flame and destruction. The least we can do today is look back, marvel for a moment, and carpe diem in their memory.