[illustration: Cohen child looks dubiously at Vesuvius. National Gallery, Washington DC]
by J J Cohen
A few weeks ago the Cohens finally wandered to the National Gallery to see the Pompeii exhibit.
A reconstruction of villa life in the resorts frequented by wealthy Romans, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples is quite a treat: a mixture of artifacts and reconstructions, with plenty of space to wander and just enough signage to inform the masses while keeping them moving. Bacchanals and hermaphrodites aplenty please the adults, while cutesy items are there for the kids (e.g. the famous cave canem mosaic "doormat" had been recreated, and you had to step over it to enter a reconstructed villa).
I enjoyed the multiple histories evoked by the exhibit, the last third or so of which focuses on the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum during the 18th century. Just when the value of a classical education was at a high point, classical Greece and Rome (the societies upon which contemporary Europe considered itself built) began sending messages up from deep below that foundation, up from the depths of the distant past, validating and feeding the Graeco-romanaphilia of a latter day. The excavation of Pompeii was so spectacular that the site quickly became a required stop on the Grand Tour. Here, after all, was a little slice of the classical past, seemingly unmediated by intervening centuries, a direct experience of temps perdu (though in actuality as much a reconstruction as the Pompeii exhibit at the National Gallery: still, the objects of everyday life were there to be glimpsed as if time istelf had preserved them tenderly).
My family will be in Rome for a week this summer, so expect a blog post on Pompeii itself as a tourist destination. To get ready for the experience, I have been reading the National Gallery exhibit catalogue (which is excellent) and The Last Days of Pompeii by Sir Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, which is not so great (too! many! exclamation points!! and way too melodramtic) ... but which stoked an obsession with secrets proffered by the earth that resonates very well with my current research project.