Thursday, February 26, 2009

Notes from the Underground

[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.


Eileen Joy said...

The so-called "last days" of Pompei occupied a good part of my childhood nightmares. My parents went there when I was 10 or so and returned with all sorts of photographs, etc., which then induced all sorts of phobias about volcanos in my feverish childhood imagination. I was mainly freaked out by the plaster casts that archaeologists took of bodies in their moment of, "oh fuck, hot lava!" It fascinated me that a whole city could kind of be caught forever in its last moments of mortis rictus. I never want to go there, but have fun! [haha]

meli said...

I went to Pompeii with a dreamy history obsessed friend just after we'd both finished our MA in medieval studies. It was great. I also fell completely in love with Romanesque churches. And sunshine. And sparkly oceans. You'll have a brilliant time. Ah... the south of Europe is just the best.

Lucia said...

I need to get to that exhibit. I've seen exhibits on Pompeii before, but I'm sure they're all different, right?

And I'll be looking forward to your blog from Pompeii ... and from Rome too, right? You have to blog from Rome. My brother and I were there for a few days in the Summer of '06. Unfortunately, what I remember most is that we had horrid weather. It was overcast and rainy almost the entire time. And one day it hailed! In June! Despite all that, though, I fell in love with the place. I remember being on a tour of the Roman Forum and the tour guide told us that the stone paths underneath us were from the 1st century B.C. Everyone nodded and moved on and I stood there, staring at the ground, thinking "Cicero walked on these stones!"