Last supper in Pompeii: a review

Art Culture

Image description: bronze reclining satyr figure

The art and artefacts of Pompeii radiate life and death in this Ashmolean exhibition.

AD79: the eruption of Vesuvius marked the end of the lives of the Pompeiians. The rediscovery of the city in the 18th century marked the beginning of what could be argued to be a new life for the world of Pompeii and its inhabitants. Plaster filled the hollows left by organic matter held in the hardened ash, and from these casts the last moments of the ancient city were revealed. These were not the only remains to be recovered from Pompeii: art, architecture, possessions of both rich and poor have all been excavated. It was these that took centre stage in this Ashmolean exhibition.

There is an underlying theme, beyond food and drink, captured by the Ashmolean in all the artefacts displayed: carpe diem. To know the fate of Pompeiians is to appreciate the importance of enjoying life while it lasts, and the Roman preoccupation with death is an aspect of many of the pieces on display.

The beauty of some of the artefacts on display is excuse enough for you to find the time to experience this exhibition for yourself.

The Roman world completely surrounds visitors in this exhibition. From backdrops of Italian countryside to sounds of rippling water, the curators have certainly made the effort to add a Roman ambience to the setting of these artefacts. Most of the exhibition is held in a space which incorporates features of a Roman villa. Large doorways and window openings separate different areas of the home, with artefacts subsequently arranged in ‘atrium’, ‘garden’, ‘dining room’ and ‘kitchen’ sections.

The decision to construct separate spaces within this exhibition creates a flow between areas and guides the viewer on a beautiful and informative journey through Roman life. The beauty of some of the artefacts on display is excuse enough for you to find the time to experience this exhibition for yourself. A stunning sea creature mosaic and a richly coloured dining room fresco were some personal highlights of mine.

I would argue another strength of this exhibition is the choice of artefacts and how well they illustrate that the lives of those almost 2000 years ago perhaps weren’t that different from our own. A painted tavern sign with a phoenix reminded me of many pub signs from my hometown. A carbonised loaf of bread could have easily been a (albeit burnt) version of what we would see in any bakery, and the remains of dates, walnuts, figs and dried plums reflect a diet not so unrecognisable from our own. All of this serves to reiterate the underlying theme of carpe diem. The Pompeiians were not so different from ourselves, perhaps like them we should be more proactive in making the most of each day while it lasts.

There is a real strength in this exhibition’s ability to engage with people in a wide variety of ways due to the many different features incorporated by the curators. Different types of visuals enable a variety of levels of engagement with the content. A virtual tour of a reconstructed Roman villa shows possible original contexts of the artefacts on display, whilst projections of reconstructed architecture and water features far better complement the artefacts than a blank white exhibition space ever could.

If I were to criticise any aspect of this exhibition, it would be the inclusion of the Lady of Oplontis. Excavated in 1984, the remains of this body are unique in that they were cast in wax and then resin, rather than the usual plaster viewers are more familiar with seeing. This process creates a papery looking exterior, through which the victim’s bones, skull and teeth can all be seen inside.

I struggle to see how this victim’s body relates to the main exhibition theme: food and drink in the Roman world.

The presentation of the Lady of Oplontis is, especially considering the many growing debates over human remains being displayed, well thought out. She is separately displayed in a dimply lit room with the only other present artefacts being her jewellery. However, there are two comments I want to make.

The first is to question the relevance of the Lady of Oplontis to the exhibition which ‘celebrates the Roman love affair with food and wine’. The carpe diem point relating to impending death seems well illustrated in the exhibition even before visitors are confronted by actual human remains, and beyond the secondary carpe diem theme I struggle to see how this victim’s body relates to the main exhibition theme: food and drink in the Roman world.

My second comment is concerning signage. Even if the inclusion of the Lady of Oplontis can be completely justified, there was not sufficient warning for the public that around the next corner they would be confronted with human remains. In an exhibition which up until this final room has not included human remains, I think the museum has a responsibility to better inform guests who may be distressed by the sight of a human body (whether a wax cast or not) that this is a part of the exhibition and specifically when it will be featured.

Ultimately however, the main takeaway of this article should be that if you are able to then you should go and see this exhibition for yourself. The huge array of artefacts offer a stunning insight into life in the Roman world, and the focus on food and drink connects us with the past in a way most other themes could not. I can guarantee something in this exhibition will capture your imagination, or even whet your appetite.

Last Supper in Pompeii is open until 12th January 2020.

Image credit: Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.