British Museum Opens Exhibition On Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii
Today the British Museum in London opens what is sure to be the hit exhibition of the year.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” examines the daily life of the Roman world, as it was preserved in two cities buried under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Through fine art and mundane objects, we get to see what life was like for ordinary Romans.

Romans like the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, whose likenesses were preserved in a fresco on the wall of their house. “Baker” is a misleadingly humble term for Terentius, who was obviously well-to-do, and who had a literate wife who is shown as his business partner.

The exhibition is laid out like the House of the Tragic Poet, one of the homes excavated at Pompeii. A video reconstruction prepared by Giunta Regionale della Campania shows what it looked like when it was being used. As you wander through the atrium, bedroom, kitchen and garden, you learn about different aspects of Roman culture.

The ash that buried the cities and killed its inhabitants preserved frescoes and graffiti that show us a snapshot from the time. Slogans from an election held a few months before still adorn public walls, including a painting of a candidate distributing free bread. Other graffiti boasted of sexual conquests or lost love.

A large amount of the exhibition space is devoted to brightly colored frescoes that once decorated interior walls. Some show religious or natural scenes. One room that overlooked a garden had walls painted like a garden, giving the illusion of being outside.

%Gallery-183881%While much of the focus is on the upper classes, several displays show how the more common Romans lived. In the kitchen, for example, we see the workplace of the slaves. Here, there’s a simple altar for them to worship their gods, and a worktable covered in carbonized food. One blackened loaf of bread bears the stamp, “Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus.”

The kitchen also revealed an odd fact about Roman homes – it was where the toilet was usually located. One wonders how many Romans died because of this ignorance of microbiology.

Another oddity of Roman life was how sexual the art was. What we may see as crude today was considered funny or magical to the Romans. A young woman wore a pendent in the shape of a penis to ensure luck and fertility. A phallic wind chime was supposed to bring luck to the household. Then there’s the sculpture of the god Pan porking a goat. Nobody is sure what the Romans were thinking when they made that one.

The final part of the exhibition is dedicated to the sobering casts of the dead. When the citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by the eruption, they rotted away, leaving their ghostly shapes in the hardened ash. Archaeologists have poured plaster into many of these cavities to reveal men, woman, and children in their death throes. A particularly poignant scene is of a family of four. One child still sits on the mother’s lap, while another, who could have been no more than four, lies nearby, her face so well preserved as to be recognizable.

These bodies will be one of the main draws to the exhibition, but I have to admit to a certain guilt at my voyeuristic fascination with them. What does our obsession with these casts say about ourselves? Cambridge historian Mary Beard has written a thoughtful essay on this and comes up with no easy answers.

This sort of blockbuster exhibition is something the British Museum does well, and this is one of their best yet. From the high art to crude graffiti, from naughty sculptures to a baby’s cradle, the breadth and richness of Roman life are brought to life in an experience no one with an interest in the ancient world will want to miss.

“Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” runs until September 29.

Madrid day trip: Segovia

Segovia, Madrid, Spain
Madrid offers a wide range of interesting day trips, from a Renaissance castle and Spanish Civil War bunker to challenging hikes. My personal favorite is the ancient town of Segovia just on the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. With a beautiful cathedral and castle, one of the best preserved Roman aqueducts anywhere, winding medieval streets, and delicious cuisine, it’s a great choice for a day trip or overnight stay.

The best way to get to Segovia is by bus, which takes a little over an hour. Segovia’s Wikipedia entry says a high-speed train gets there in half an hour, but the high speed train doesn’t go to Segovia, it goes to a station called Segovia several kilometers away from town. You have to take a bus from there. To get to the train station in Segovia proper you go on a local train that takes an hour and fifty minutes. Wikipedia has mistakes!? Shocking!!!!

Anyway, Segovia is a convenient, delightful trip from Madrid. The three big hits are the aqueduct, the cathedral, and the Alcázar, or castle. The Roman aqueduct dates to the late first century AD. Segovia, like many Spanish cities, was a Roman town and perhaps has more ancient roots. The aqueduct is one of the best preserved anywhere and stands 93.5 feet tall in some places and starts at a water source almost ten miles away. It supplied the city with water until the early 20th century. The Romans sure knew how to build things!

The Santa Iglesia Catedral is an impressive Gothic pile started in 1525 and consecrated after many remodels in 1768, making it possibly the youngest Gothic cathedral in Europe. The expansive Plaza Mayor stands to one side. Take time to sip a coffee at one of the many outdoor cafes and enjoy the view. Inside are a series of chapels with often gruesome art, like a dinner party atop a tree. Death is cutting down the trunk with his scythe while Jesus rings a bell. Everyone is ignoring Jesus and a demon is about to pull the tottering tree into Hell. Nice!

%Gallery-128499%Segovia is built on a promontory, and its 12th century castle, the Alcázar, sits at the highest end like the prow of a ship. A rectangular tower soars towards the sky, topped by a beautiful set of round turrets. Inside are the usual displays of armor, weapons, and medieval art that you’d expect in a castle, and a large artillery museum too. The most impressive part of the castle is the view from the top. You get sweeping vistas of the Renaissance skyline of Segovia with its many churches and old houses, as well as the rolling countryside around the city. It gets my vote as one of the best views you can get anywhere close to Madrid.

To learn more about Segovia’s past, check out the Casa del Sol Museo de Segovia. Here you’ll see prehistoric artifacts, Roman sculpture, Visigothic jewelry, medieval and Renaissance art, and tools from Segovia’s early modern period. It’s a great museum but easy to miss, so don’t miss it!

After seeing these sites, take a stroll through the medieval streets of the old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Harar, Ethiopia, another medieval walled city that’s on UNESCO’s list, the labyrinthine streets and alleys can get you lost pretty quickly, but the city’s small enough that you won’t stay lost for long. Check out the local artisans specializing in ceramics, the food shops selling tasty meats and cheeses, and more than a score of Romanesque churches.

Segovia gets pretty full in summer, so book your hotel well ahead. Two hotels I’ve stayed at and enjoyed are Natura and Los Linajes. Spring and fall are better times to go, especially September when it’s still warm but the school groups and university backpackers have left. Winter can be bitterly cold.

There are plenty of places to eat. Many restaurants serve two local specialties: cochinillo, roast suckling pig; and Judiones de la granja, which is faba beans with chorizo, garlic, and, if you’re being traditional, a pig’s ear! For a cheap lunch option find a place offering menú del día, a set menu where you have three or four choices for appetizer, main course, and dessert with a drink included. La Taberna de Abraham Seneor at Calle Judería Vieja 17 & 19 in the old Jewish quarter serves up a filling one for €11.90. There are also numerous cafes with outdoor seating in good weather. My favorite place to sit is Plazuela de San Martín, where you can gaze out on a sparkling fountain, a 15th century house, and a Romanesque church.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking more about the Alcázar, my favorite castle in Spain, and Wednesday I’ll be exploring the many beautiful churches of Segovia. Stay tuned!

Tod’s shoe company to restore Rome’s Colosseum

Rome, romeThe Colosseum in Rome will get some much-needed repairs thanks to the sponsorship of Tod’s, an Italian luxury shoe manufacturer, the BBC reports.

The restoration will cost about 25 million euros ($34 million). The iconic gladiator arena is right next to a busy road in a polluted city, and a subway line runs close by. Many stones have shifted and require bracing, and the whole things needs a good wash.

Don’t expect to see a dramatic change soon, though. Restoration won’t even begin until the end of 2011 and will take two and a half years to complete. The Colosseum will remain open the entire time, although some parts will almost certainly have to be put off-limits on a temporary basis.

Many of Italy’s monuments are in a sad state of disrepair. The problem received international attention last year when several ancient structures collapsed in Pompeii.

[Photo courtesy user AlexSven via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Controversy rages as Pompeii continues to crumble

Pompeii, Romean, archaeology, archeologyMore bad news from Pompeii. The famous Roman city, preserved by volcanic ash from an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD, is starting to fall apart.

The BBC reports that two ancient walls have fallen down this week in separate parts of the city.

Officials say the problems are due to heavy rainfall, but the site has been underfunded for years. A recent cash injection was so badly managed that there’s now an investigation into possible mob connections. There are also calls for Italy’s culture minister to step down.

The problem first received global attention with the collapse of the House of Gladiators early in November. Unlike the House of Gladiators, officials say the walls that fell down this week had no artistic value, which is totally missing the point. They have a priceless archaeological value, so much so that Pompeii has long been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hopefully Italy will realize that a site can be taken off the World Heritage List if it’s not properly maintained, and find some money to save one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations.

[Photo courtesy user jon|k via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Archaeologists discover Roman swimming pool in Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Israel, archaeology
Roman soldiers liked a good swim, especially after a hard day’s work suppressing rebellions.

Archaeologists digging in Jerusalem have discovered the remains of a Roman swimming pool. Some roof tiles at the site bear the inscription “LEG X FR”, which stands for Tenth Legion Fretensis (“of the sea strait”, referring to one of the legion’s early victories). This legion was responsible for controlling Jerusalem. During the Jewish rebellion of 70 AD it besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the Jewish Temple, as seen here in an 1850 painting by David Roberts. During the bloody Bar Kokhba Rebellion of 135 AD the Roman legions were again kicked out of the city but were again able to recapture it.

The pools are more like large bathtubs lined with plaster. They’re part of a large complex of buildings housing pools and of course Roman baths. It’s not unusual for Roman military bases to have such luxuries, especially if the legion stayed put for any length of time.

The site is in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter. One surprising find was a ceramic roof tile that a dog walked over while it was still wet. Check out this article for a photo. Tiles from the Roman baths in York, England, bear human footprints, some so clear you can see the nails used to attach the sole of the sandal to the upper.