It was comprised of an amazing collection of the city’s paintings, mosaics, statuary, jewelry, furniture, fountains, bath items, kitchen utensils, fishing implements, engineering tools, medical instruments, bowls and glassware… What turned out to be my favorite part of the exhibit—the gladiator armor and weaponry… And ultimately a glimpse of the poor souls caught in Mt. Vesuvius’ violent expulsion. There was even an adults-only room with household items decorated in phallic imagery intended to enhance a family’s virility, strength and power both at home and within the community.
The history lesson opens with a look at a the layout of the houses, which not only served the family’s needs, but also hosted guests and business associates, as well as political attachés. The dwellings were arranged around an atrium or garden, ornamented with elegant Frescos and marble statuary, designed to display the family’s wealth. The residents often brought the furniture outside and dined beneath the stars in good weather. At least that was the life of the elite. The majority of Pompeii residents were poor, and lived in modest apartments.
In the next two rooms, the lesson continues with a glimpse of residents’ sea-dwelling life—implements of fishing, farming and commerce, and associated furniture and kitchen-wares. Amphora, or jugs, for olive oil and Garum stand as tall as a ten-year-old child. Garum, a fermented fish sauce used for flavoring bland food, was one of Pompeii’s largest exports, and they were known throughout the Roman empire for it. One of their wealthiest citizens, Asulus Umbricius, amassed his fortune from producing and selling garum.
The next big room is a plethora of artifacts representing Pompeii life, ranging from a temperature controlled bathtub and bathing implements, to blown glass, gold jewelry, a glimpse of theatrical life, engineering and medicine, and a gladiator’s tools of the trade. It is truly amazing how advanced their technology was in the first century, as evidenced by the tiny, tiny links in the gold chains, the intricately formed glassware, the elaborately adorned bronze armor and helms, their hydraulic valves, and even a sophisticated specula.
After a well-rendered cinematic recreation of the 48 hour period during which the volcano erupted, the movie screen rises to allow admittance to the final room of the exhibit. Lying in what amounts to Plexiglas coffins, a few of the victims of the ordeal express their pain. These are not the actual plaster casts excavated from the Pompeii dig site, but rather resin copies. Photos of their actual discoveries line the walls behind them.
It certainly paints a clear picture of the fragility of life, no matter how sophisticated its origins.