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

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.

A Traveler’s Confession: I Hate Sightseeing

I love to travel but I hate to see the sights. Have you ever found yourself running around looking for obscure museums and other tourist attractions while on a trip and wondered what the point was? I prefer to spend my travel time on the road the same way I enjoy my leisure time at home: wandering around, meeting people and indulging my curiosity when I stumble upon something of interest.

Depending on who your travel companion is, it might be a struggle to avoid sightseeing. My wife, for example, is much better at sightseeing than I am. I enjoy museums, but I prefer strolling through, stopping to read only the most interesting exhibits. She, on the other hand, is often quite content to read every word on every plaque in the entire place while I roam around looking for a bench and a newspaper to pass the time.

Our biggest tourism incompatibility, though, is our divergence on archaeological sites. I’m more of a history buff than my wife is. In fact, I like to read history books and, with some rare exceptions, she does not. But I hate schlepping around archeological sites and she loves it. These places, by their nature, lack shade and somehow it always seems to be 100 degrees when you visit them. I’m not ashamed to admit that when given the choice between visiting Pompeii this summer and eating at the world’s best pizzeria in Naples, I chose the pizza and I don’t regret it. (I can read a book or watch a documentary on Pompeii, but reading about pizza isn’t the same)

My worst nightmare is being part of a guided tour where I’m herded around and lectured. If the guide is outstanding, it’s barely tolerable for me, but most of the time I’m looking at my watch or searching for an emergency exit I can slip out of. If the attraction only offers guided tours, I’m most likely to give it a pass. I’d much rather look around on my own and have a guidebook or brochure I can read at my leisure. For me, travel is all about freedom and having to abide by someone else’s schedule and tastes is not my cup of tea.

I’ve been to London twice in the last decade. On the first trip, I ran around like a mad dog visiting all the “must do” sights listed in my guidebook and, while I enjoyed many of the attractions, I felt tired and ready to go home after three or four days of hardcore sightseeing. I went back in August of this year on another four-day visit but this time I made a point of visiting just one real tourist attraction-the British Museum. The rest of the time I just picked a neighborhood that sounded interesting, took the tube there and wandered around.

If I saw something of interest, I went in, but I wasn’t out searching for specific attractions. I spent a lot of time walking on quiet, residential side streets, taking the pulse of the city and its residents. It was a stark contrast to my previous visit because when you “see the sights” in any city, you’re surrounded by fellow travelers, who know little about the place you are trying to digest.

I enjoyed my second, non-sightseeing trip to London infinitely more than the first and by the end of the four days, I wanted more, not less of London. I’m not suggesting that people visit Cairo and skip the pyramids or travel to China and pass on the Great Wall, but if you just run around from one tourist attraction to the next, you won’t get much of a flavor of what a place is really like. Take my advice and don’t obsess over seeing the sights. You’ll save some money and you might have a better time too.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]

Italy’s Famous Monuments Hit By Austerity Measures

Hard economic times in Italy are threatening that country’s priceless cultural heritage.

The Times of Oman reports that billionaire Diego Della Valle said he’s thinking of withdrawing the 25 million euros ($33 million) he promised last year to restore the Colosseum, which has been crumbling due to lack of maintenance. An even more serious problem is Pompeii, which suffered a couple of spectacular collapses in 2010.

The Times reports that the government is increasingly looking to private investors to save the day, and is also promising to release 105 million euros ($138 million) from the European Union for a four-year maintenance plan for Pompeii.

Italy only spends 1.8 billion euros ($2.4 billion) annually on culture, just 0.21 percent of the gross domestic product and barely enough for basic maintenance. With tourism being a major portion of the Italian economy, it seems shortsighted not to preserve and restore the very sites that tourists come to see.

Not all news coming from Italy is bad. The government has finally cracked down on the fake Roman centurions and gladiators who prowl around the Colosseum, bullying tourists into taking pictures with them for exorbitant prices. The government says they are all ex-cons and are operating without a license. Some of the fake gladiators climbed onto the Colosseum to protest, showing that they care more about money than preserving their national heritage.

[Photo courtesy Adam Kahtava]

Trekking mobility chairs make planet accessible to all

Travelers challenged with mobility issues often had to take a back seat to adventure travelers in the past, viewing dreams-of-a-lifetime from a distance. Now, dedicated companies and organizations are making destinations around the planet accessible to all, even in unlikely places.

Visiting Italy‘s iconic attractions can be a daunting task for the handicapped. Ancient ruins, preserved and protected to maintain their integrity, are far-removed from today’s accessibility laws that bring ramps, assistance and modified facilities. In the past, challenged travelers would most commonly view popular sites such as the Roman Forum, Pompeii and Herculaneum from a distance. Now, a specially designed trekking-wheelchair makes destination immersion possible for many disabled travelers.

“It is our great pleasure to make all of Italy accessible to everyone who would like to visit. This chair is the first of its kind and opens doors to those challenged by walking on our country’s ancient streets,” says Program Director Stefano Sghinolfi of Rome and Italy Tourist Services.

Using a one-of-a-kind chair, every Italian archaeological site can be visited by those with mobility challenges, no matter what the ground surface might be. Using a seat and frame with only one wheel, two arms in the front and back to support the chair when not in motion and allow for movement up or down hills.

The chair is easily rolled and carried by two trained guides and offers 360° degree maneuverability around obstacles such as centuries-old stones or holes and ancient streets or steps.

Another trekking wheelchair is the Black Diamond TrailRider, developed for the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society (BCMOS) in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.

The single-wheeled TrailRider looks like a cross between a rickshaw and a wheelbarrow and has opened the door to wilderness areas in the United States, Canada and the Himalayas. Two times, this one has made the 19,334-foot ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa.

Is the Colosseum crumbling?

Economic instability, a change of government, and now this.

It looks like Italy’s most famous landmark, the Colosseum, may be crumbling. The Culture Ministry has launched an investigation after eyewitnesses spotted bits of stone falling off the Roman ruin on two different occasions in recent days.

An Italian shoe company has promised to restore the Colosseum with an ambitious 25 million euro ($34 million) project, but work won’t start until March.

If the reports are true, the Colosseum isn’t the only monument in trouble. Pompeii has suffered a series of collapses that has raised questions about the site’s management and has escalated into a major scandal. With Italian government deeply in debt and struggling with unpopular austerity measures, it’s doubtful if the glorious legacy of ancient Rome will receive much official funding in the coming fiscal year.

Photo courtesy Sebastian Bergmann.