Battered gold coins with melted bent edges. A towering funerary statue of a noblewoman chiseled in marble down to the varying thickness and thinness of the folds of her cloak.
Pompeii: Life And Death In The Shadow Of Vesuvius is a moving and comprehensive exhibit of day-to-day life before the volcano erupted and rained down lava, dust, cinders and volcanic ash onto the thriving Roman port city along with the neighboring coastal city Herculaneum on August 24, 79 AD. It is estimated that several thousand citizens died from extreme heat shock as they attempted to take refuge in their homes, other buildings or flee. The temperature raged between 300 and 500 degrees. Humming with commerce and hundreds of bars, inns and restaurants, a city that had existed for more than 700 years and housed over 20,000 people was flattened. The exhibit contains the largest number of artifacts and cast replicas ever shown outside Italy.
Situated on the Bay of Naples, Pompeii was a popular vacation spot. Its rich volcanic soil, ultimately so destructive, yielded many viable crops (grapes, wheat, and more). Merchants sold goods in the Macellum, the marketplace that evokes an image of walking through the Union Square farmer’s market minus the livestock. Within the marketplace was thermopolia—establishments which served ready-made food for those who did not have kitchens in their homes . A perfectly preserved round loaf of bread, black from carbonization (one of over eighty found in a baker’s oven in Pompeii) can be viewed along with walnuts and olives, maybe to be sold at market that day
Behind the glass of the displays are amphorae, large gracefully shaped jugs used to carry goods such as olive oil, figs, and wine for sale. Bronze dishes and pots. streaked with green, along with cauldrons, oil lamp,s and other kitchen and household items were also recovered. Small god and goddess statuettes and fishhooks in multiple sizes seem to speak from their shelves. Simple objects with unexpectedly intimate touches pull aside the curtain of time. For example, jewelry findings include a gold bracelet in the shape of a coiled snake with with an inscription that reads, “From the master to his slave girl.” In homes, elaborately painted frescoes such as a serene garden abounded. Pompeiians typically lived in two-story townhouses, some with running water and outfitted with hot tubs. A detailed blueprint at the exhibit provides the layout of houses built during that period.
An intricately designed bronze gladiator helmet and ornate shin guards speak for the entertainment and caste system of Pompeii’s time (gladiators were usually political prisoners or slaves). Buried under eight to ten feet of hardened ash for close to 1700 years, a kind of abovewater stone Atlantis, in 1748 the first full-scale excavations of Pompeii began. In the mid-19th century,Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Forelli poured plaster into cavities in the hardened ash and in doing so recovered the shapes of people who had died down to their facial features and even the details of the clothes they wore in their dying postures. Replicas of those original casts at Discovery Times Square allowed a visual portal into a cataclysmic tragedy. Curled draped and flung across platforms in a darkened area with deep blue lighting (maybe to emulate the darkness of the ash cloud that blackened Pompeii’s sky) crumpled casts of skeletons, men, woman, children animals and families huddled together are chilling.
Seeing graffiti scrawled across a marble slab reading “Marcus loves Julia” and the amusing proclamation “I came I saw I had sex I went home” written across the wall of one of Pompeii’s 41 brothels brings together the past and the present quite neatly. Graffiti was used to communicate everything from sexual bragging to warn the public about merchants serving bad food. A recreation of what a brothel might have looked like in 79 A.D. features a small room with a brick floor, gritty walls and a narrow bed.
After a brief film chronicling Pompeii’s destruction with three-dimensional effects along with the shaking of the ground under your feet in the viewing room, the doors open onto the second half of the exhibit, the casts. Here, the atmosphere is somber and hushed as visitors circle the displays of felled Pompeiians, seeing their frozen final death postures. In a darkened spare room, visitors meet a family in the House of The Golden Bracelet. The extreme surges of heat and poisonous gases would have caused death within fractions of a second, literally boiling blood and flesh down to the bone, vaporizing it. Other chilling structures reveal a downed teenage boy the creases of his tunic visible, and a man attempting to raise himself up on his elbows or thrown down onto them by the pyroclastic cloud—a figure from the Garden of the Fugitives. Remains include a dog twisted and contorted into almost a hook trying to escape its collar and the horror that was approaching. There’s a young woman fallen facedown, killed by an immense surge of heat from the volcano near her home, parts of her clothing still visible against her form. One cast shows a man reaching out to a woman as if to shield or comfort her. A cast of 32 skeletons shows those struck down in Herculaneum.
The relics of a people long gone (Pompeii today has a population of 3.5 million; Vesuvius last erupted in 1944) the remains and souls of a vanquished but still-visible society speak at this exhibit. Fresco, wine jug, fallen adult and child, their voices come through the centuries, the ash and the rubble: “I was here. This is what happened to me. This was my life.”
Discovery Times Square
226 West 44th Street
Through September 5, 2011