Art, death and decay: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

The British Museum's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is a wonderful way to start to appreciate the richness and beauty that has been uncovered from these two ancient towns. Over 250 artifacts, some which have never ventured out of Italy are on display and attempt to piece together the ordinary life of the Roman home and the people who lived in them.

There are the obligatory pieces of information that explain the eruption, how it engulfed the cities and how those who were not able to flee died. But what is more interesting than the plaster casts and the bone fragments as others have noted is how you can see firsthand the various lost art forms from the Roman Empire that were rediscovered and reinterpreted from the Renaissance onwards.
Rooms showing statues and frescoes of a variety of styles are shown off to impressive effect that look familiar yet still from a different world. After all, nobody in the Renaissance was thinking about carving Pan making tender love to a nanny goat. The museum is keen to point out Pan is half goat anyway (so its not bestiality) and the exhibition (unlike in Naples where it is in a dark, restricted room) gives it as prominent display as it would have been in a Herculaneum garden.

You are not able to photograph any of the works, so I have used my photo taken in 2011 from Naples where no such restrictions (other than no flash photography) to show the Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife uncovered from Pompeii and believed to be from AD 55–79. In an exhibition about the people who lived in these ancient towns it is fitting to have a portrait of a what could be a rather sophisticated couple looking at you. As one other visitor quipped, while they were carving these magnificent pieces the English were probably in tree houses. I'm not sure about that, but looking at the people does make you feel that some things may not have changed that much over time...

Of course to really appreciate the treasures that have been found to date in Pompeii and Herculaneum, a trip to Naples to see the National Archaeological Museum is essential and an almost overwhelming assault on the senses as there is room after room of beautiful frescoes, sculptures and artifacts. Although perhaps leave the visit until after September when at least some of them have returned... Until then this exhibition will give you a whirlwind tour that will have you wanting more. The exhibition runs at the British Museum until 29 September. Be sure to book online as this is the only way to ensure access.

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