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.

The Historic Homes Where Jimi Hendrix And George Frideric Handel Were Neighbors (250 Years Apart)

Jimi Hendrix, Handel House
When walking in London, keep an eye out for the Blue Plaques. These historic markers will tell you where famous people once lived, and occasionally make for strange combinations.

One blue plaque at 23 Brook Street in the exclusive Mayfair neighborhood tells how Jimi Hendrix lived there from 1968-1969. Next door at number 25 is another Blue Plaque, this time for Classical composer George Frideric Handel, who lived in the house from 1723 until his death in 1759. Sadly, there’s no record of what Jimi thought about living so close to an earlier and slightly different composer.

The upper stories of these two homes are now the Handel House Museum, which, as the name implies, is dedicated to Handel and not Hendrix. The house has been refurnished with period furniture and paintings and contains a collection of Handel’s personal items. The museum hosts many special events and concerts throughout the year, including weekly recitals. My wife is a big Classical music fan and taking her here to listen to a string quartet is something she still talks about years later.

One disappointment was not being able to see where Jimi Hendrix stayed. He loved London and loved his place, calling it his first real home of his own. At that time he had no neighbors and so he could practice his music as loudly as he wanted.

When the Handel House Museum opened in 2001, his apartment was restored to look like it had when he lived there, minus the large amount of drugs scattered about. Sadly, the apartment is now used as museum’s administrative offices and isn’t generally shown to the public.

[Photo courtesy David Holt]

Victoria & Albert Museum Showcases Treasures From Royal Courts

Victoria & Albert Museum
The Victoria & Albert Museum in London has just opened a new exhibition about the development of trade and official relations between Russia and the United Kingdom.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” brings together more than 150 objects for a look at the interaction between both courts from the accession of Henry VIII in 1509. He and later Tudor monarchs were eager to expand contacts with Russia to tap into the lucrative fur trade, selling English wool and luxury items in return. The artifacts show how the courts affected one another through the reigns of two English dynasties.

Timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the founding of the dynasty of the Romanovs, the exhibition focuses on gifts and cultural exchanges between the two royal courts instead of the rather humble trade that financed them. Included are Shakespeare’s first folio, a little-seen portrait of Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s suit of processional armor and royal jewelry.

The exhibition also includes objects loaned from Russian institutions, such as this odd silver basin showing a dolphin from 1635. It’s part of a collection of English and French silver given to the Tsars by the British royal family. Examples of this kind of silver are rare in England because most of it was melted down to finance the English Civil War. What’s interesting about this basin is the way the dolphin is portrayed – more like those seen in Greek and Roman art than what dolphins look like in reality. It appears the silversmith had a Classical education but not much contact with the sea!

%Gallery-180975%There’s also quite a bit about the Muscovy Company, an English firm given a monopoly on trading rights with Russia from 1555 until 1698. The company’s captains made a fortune trading with Russia and even tried to open a route to China by sailing north of Siberia. The so-called Northeast Passage was as bad of an idea as it sounds and many sailors froze to death in the attempt.

The Northeast Passage remained a dream until 1878, when the Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld sailed the Vega from Europe to Japan via Siberia. Sadly for him, the Suez Canal had opened nine years before and there already was a shorter route to China.

“Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars” runs until July 14.

[Photo courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London]

ARTSPACE London Showcases Photography Of Iraqi Artist Halim Al Karim

Artspace LondonARTSPACE London is one of London’s lesser-known art venues for out-of-town visitors. It opened in May of 2012 and focuses on Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art. The original ARTSPACE is in Dubai, and the owners decided to open a London branch to expose these Eastern artists to a Western audience.

The latest London exhibition is of Iraqi photographer Halim Al Karim, opening this year to mark the tenth anniversary of the invasion that led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government.

Al Karim felt the oppression of that regime as much as any Iraqi. He was an opponent of the dictatorship and refused to serve his compulsory military service. To avoid being imprisoned and tortured by Saddam’s goons, he hid out in the desert for three years, where he lived in a hole in the ground and was fed by local Bedouin.

How that experience morphed into the surreal yet delicate image shown here is for the viewer to resolve. His show, “Witness from Baghdad,” displays a range of works from throughout his career. Many confront the issues of war and oppression head on, yet always in a creative and distinct way.

“Halim Al Karim: Witness from Baghdad 2013 runs until February 23. If you won’t be in London in time to catch it, show up at ARTSPACE London anyway. It’s fast becoming a landmark on the London art scene.

For more on contemporary Iraq, see our series on traveling in Iraq.

[Photo courtesy ARTSPACE London]

London Construction Reveals Medieval Graves, Bronze Age Road

London, medieval, funeralLondon is built on layers of its own past. Occasionally they poke through to the present, like the old Roman walls and the Temple of Mithras. Now two current construction projects have revealed glimpses of the city’s previous epochs.

Work to build a leisure center at Elephant and Castle has uncovered some 500 medieval skeletons, the London Evening Standard reports. They were interred in 25 crypts. It appears they were relocated into the crypts in 1875 to accommodate a widening of the road but date as far back as the early 14th century. Now new construction dictates they’ll have to be reinterred again. Not even the dead get to rest long in London!

Another project creating a new tunnel for Crossrail at Plumstead has uncovered a much older transport system, the BBC reports. Archaeologists believe timbers they’ve discovered at the site are part of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway.

These wooden roads were used to ease travel across rough areas, especially wetlands. Similar trackways have been found in many locations in the UK and continental Europe. The odd thing about this one is that it runs along the same route as the new Crossrail route.

One great place to explore London’s history is the Museum of London. The British Museum has good galleries about prehistoric, Roman and Medieval England. The Crossrail Visitor Information Centre also has an archaeology exhibit until October 27 showing off some of their discoveries. The finds range from the prehistoric to the Industrial Revolution, although these latest finds are still being analyzed and will not be on display.

[Image of 15th century funeral procession at the Old St. Paul’s cathedral courtesy Project Gutenberg]