Review - Show us the death before the life

5th April 2013 at 01:00

The problem with the new exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum is that there is altogether too much life and not nearly enough death.

Or, more accurately, it gives us all the living first and only then confronts us with the dying. And it is the death that made Pompeii famous: those plaster-cast figures, frozen for perpetuity in their final poses of helpless terror.

Some of these figures are in the exhibition at the British Museum. Most affectingly, there is an entire family: parents thrown backwards by the sudden blast of heat; elder child contorted on the floor; younger child sitting on a parental lap, clawing desperately at the wall.

But we do not see them until the end. First, we have to deal with the living. This is not to say that life in Pompeii and Herculaneum was not fascinating. When Vesuvius erupted, in AD79, it buried the two cities entirely. As a result, they remained more or less perfectly preserved until their discovery in the 18th century. "Mount Vesuvius is our greatest benefactor," the exhibition commentary says, with a hint of the macabre.

The exhibition imitates the arrangement of a Roman villa. And so visitors first wander the streets outside. Taverns were decorated with frescoes of bantering, gaming, brawling drinkers. ("Te fellator," one says to another, in the midst of an argument. You can work out the translation for yourself.)

The Roman proclivity for showing off is, well, shown off: when we enter the villa, there are lavish statues and ornate tables displaying the family silver. Touches such as these are poignantly human; so, too, is the fresco portrait of a woman, her hair styled in AD60s high fashion.

Similarly, we see children's drawings on the walls: pictures of hunters and deer scratched into the plasterwork (2,000 years ago, it would have earned them a beating; today, it is displayed in the British Museum. Consider this a lesson for us all). And we discover that Romans placed the toilet in the kitchen, painting a deity nearby to compensate for the lack of soap.

But until we see the bodies, this is just a collection - albeit an interesting one - of historical artefacts. Once you have seen the bodies, however, this all changes.

There is something disconcertingly voyeuristic about looking at people in the throes of death. You cannot witness such a personal moment without feeling in some way involved in people's lives. You want to know that there is more to them than the way that they died.

Give us the death first, and the life that preceded it will become so much more meaningful.

Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum is open until 29 September.

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