Saturday, 14 September 2013

Life and death, plus sex

Terentius Neo and his wife
The current exhibition at the British Museum, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, has an awful lot going for it in terms of selling points: after all, it’s not only got life and death, but sex too.

But let’s tackle those title elements first.

This is a quite extraordinary exhibition – little wonder that it’s a sell out.

The exhibition area – the old Reading Room – is perhaps a little crowded, but it’s well arranged.

There’s a remarkable amount to see, and ‘armed’ with the knowledge gained from Mary Beard’s excellent Pompeii, which we both read last year, we were able to gain a great deal from it.

Many of the exhibits are in astonishing condition given the cataclysmic force unleashed by Vesuvius in 79CE.

Mosaic of sea creatures
There are vast expanses of frescos, which provide both a real insight into the artistic skill of the era, as well as offering a window onto the social life of the two towns in the period before their destruction.

The subjects include not just the social life of the towns, but also individuals who (presumably) lived there, including the exhibition’s poster couple, the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, together with a mosaic Portrait of a Woman.

Some of the mosaics are utterly incredible: the minute size of the tiles makes you think of pointillism rather than mosaic. The detail is stunning, the skill evident.

The large mosaic of sea creatures is remarkable, as are the small mosaics of theatrical masks.

Lucius Caecilius
There is sculpture too: the marble statue of Eumachia is wonderful, but for me, the humorous Hercules – naked, with a middle-aged paunch and peeing drunkenly – is a particular treat.

But so too is the bronze bust of Lucius Caecilius, which sits on top of a marble herm, complete with large wart on the left cheek: it’s such a lifelike creation.

One of the biggest ‘wows’ of the exhibition is a series of frescos from a garden room in The House of the Orchards. They are wonderful and vibrant. Indeed, you leave the exhibition as a whole with a real sense of colour: the Roman world was no more all white than ancient Greece.

There is jewellery and there are glass bottles; jars for garum, the fermented fish sauce of which the Romans were so fond; wine bottles and bread. That’s right: a carbonated but perfectly preserved loaf of bread. Other carbonated foodstuffs have survived too, such as dates, which would have been imported.

The way in which Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed was different, so that wooden items in the latter have survived. A cradle is one example.

There are pieces of engineering – for waterworks, for instance – kitchen utensils, garden tools and plant pots, lamps and moulds for lamps, chamber pots and stools (the sort you sit on, not the sort you might have found in the chamber pots).

What we have presents a remarkably full and coherent picture of life in the towns. But the reason that we have so much – the towns have produced more Roman frescos than the rest of the world put together – is precisely because of the natural catastrophe that struck and killed so many.

Cradle from Herculaneum
And so it is entirely fitting that, while there is a reminder of it at the beginning, with the plaster cast of a dog’s body, the exhibition concludes with three displays of casts made of the bodies of people whose deaths, in effect, ensured that we were left with such a treasure trove of evidence of life in the Roman world.

There is the Resin Lady, who was found outside Pompeii, and who – uniquely thus far, given the expense – was preserved with transparent resin, which even reveals her bone structure.

The muleteer is one of the ‘bodies’ that was created by pouring plaster of paris into the space left by the destroyed body. He crouches down, placed against a wall, as he was found, as he died; and many visitors seem to miss him as they pass by.

And then there is a family group of mother and father and two young children, with the youngest on the mother’s lap as she falls back, the infant clawing at the wall next to their place of death.

However much you have heard or read about the bodies and how theses casts were made, to see some of them is incredibly moving.

Plaster coast of the body of a dog
Impressions of people, as they died, in terror, seeing death approach inexorably. Seeing this just two days after the anniversary of 9/11, one
was reminded, again, of the horror of the last moment of the victims there as they too saw inevitable death coming toward them. It’s impossible to imagine.

But before death was life. And life cannot exist without sex – and there’s a fair bit of sex in this exhibition too.

The first hint of this comes with a bronze wind chime. Little bells hang from a male figure with a vast phallus – a good luck symbol in the Roman world – while a lamp hangs below.

There is another, similarly-themed lamp later in the exhibition, plus several frescos showing sexual scenes.

Part of the Garden Room frescos
But the most ‘controversial’ exhibit is on display in the smallest room available, with a small warning notice just outside.

This is Pan and the Goat, a sculpture found at Herculaneum in 1752, of approximately a foot and a half in length, showing the half-man-half-goat god having sex with a goat. They look like they’re both rather enjoying themselves in a really rather tender embrace.

As I’ve mentioned before, this was one of the pieces that was hidden away for years, away from the delicate – and easily corrupted – eyes of women, children and anyone of the lower classes.

The chance to see such a piece was a major motive for me to go to the exhibition.

It is, quite simply, an absolutely outstanding work. It’s interesting to see the faded paint – just as on other sculptures and statues from the ancient world.

This is full of humour too, and was almost certainly not meant to arouse – or offend.

Carbonised loaf of bread
But this is the England and this is the 21st century. The description beneath the exhibit touches on the ‘difficulties’ and the catalogue, having explained it’s known history at length, notes: “The piece is confusing and disorienting and does not correspond to any other, more conventionally ‘naughty’ Roman art. Is it raw eroticism, is it affectionate, or is it simply meant to raise a smile?”

As we walked up to it, a very plummy male voice behind us could be heard: “Oh dear,” it said in a somewhat flustered tone.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” said a similarly plummy female voice in echo.

Then there was a pause.

“Shall we have just a quick look?”

I was biting my tongue not to either burst out laughing or start a best stage voice gush about how utterly magnificent it was.

Not that their discomfort was unique.

The little room, which was otherwise filled with totally ‘innocent’ items, was crowded, as people tried to look without being seen to look, casting glances from the other exhibits.

Well, apart from me (and The Other Half), who both got as up-close as possible and took the time to admire properly.

Pan and the Goat
Oddly, this was one of the areas of the exhibition that didn't have sound effects – the most annoying aspect of an otherwise excellent event.

Unfortunately, the museum had not had reproductions made as souvenirs to buy.

No, you could buy a marble coaster with a reproduction of a beautiful fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife, who might well have perished rather unpleasantly beneath the pyroclastic flow, but not even a postcard with Pan and his beloved (there is a reproduction in the catalogue, thank goodness, but that’s hardly the cheapest item around).

Now, am I alone in finding that a reflection of a rather odd attitude toward the subjects in question?

It reminded me a little of seeing the Barbican’s excellent exhibition, Seduced: Art and Sex from Antiquity to Now, in 2007. Actually, one of the frescos from Pompeii depicting sex had been in that exhibition too.

Fresco showing a couple having sex
But there, as in the little room with Pan and the Goat, people were pretty much reduced to a silence, wandering around exhibits depicting sex – and as a pleasure – as though they were in a library, albeit with (presumably) somewhat less surprise at what they were seeing, apart from the room containing the display of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe.

The curators of Seduced didn’t bother with any warnings once you were past the door, but they had had the police in before opening to check that they weren’t breaking any laws.

Good for the British Museum for not sticking it behind a curtain and saying ‘over 18s only’, but the nature of the questions about it in the catalogue merely add to the impression that we have to work hard not to offend the easily offended.

It was reminiscent of the ludicrous decision (later rescinded) by the National Trust to add a comment at the Giant’s Causeway visitor centre suggesting that fundamentalist creationists think it only occurred within the last 6,000 years.

Why give credence to idiocy? Why behave in an apologetic manner to those who are likely to be offended by an historic item?

Perversely, we remain, it seems, more confused about sex than we are about death. But then, since we censor violence in entertainment less than we censor sex in entertainment, and given that we still bow to the religious beliefs of parents rather than insisting that every child has a sex education that is factual and open and clear, perhaps it's not really too surprising.

Oh dear, one might say. Oh dear, oh dear.

• Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is on at the British Museum until 29 September. It has sold out, but there are some on-the-day tickets available. See here for details.

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