Friday, 26 July 2013


Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum - follow the link for details of the exhibition

A couple of weeks ago, I took my little boy up to London, and we met up with a friend and then visited the exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum.  The exhibition is truly outstanding - it contains a wonderful range of objects and paintings, and some artefacts of incredible beauty.

My responses to the exhibition are threefold.  

First - I was just bowled over by the sheer elegance of even the most everyday objects.  Medieval art is very beautiful (more on this anon, of course), but the grace of this stuff does make me a little envious of classicists.

Second - I found it all very moving, and, like many people I expect, was particularly touched by the baby's cradle on display:

It provided such an emotional insight into the lives of people who suddenly seemed very much like us. And at the same time, as Mary Beard pointed out, many of their attitudes and interests were so very very different.  Perhaps the point is that it's all the more extraordinary to realise that even in intensely contrasting cultures, there is much that is constant, not just in practical but in emotional terms - we all love our children, we all suffer from the sleepless nights, and we all treasure their tiny achievements.

My third response was a more troubled one.  I find it problematic looking at corpses (though these were casts) on display.  In particular, as one leaves the exhibition, an important section on the human cost of the eruption is pretty hard-hitting.  It's very important to include constant reminders that, however amazing the remains, this was a terrible human tragedy.  But is it right to look at the corpses of the victims? - the visitor is presented with a family in its last moments - a small child lies oddly with its tendons contracted, another struggles to escape from its mother's knee, and the mother and father are clearly in agony.  

I'm sure that many think I'm over-reacting.  After all, these weren't the actual corpses - they're casts of the bodies found in the ash - and in any case, they're just bodies.  But they weren't able to give permission, and so many cultures have a long history of complex attitudes towards the dead body.  

I've just been re-reading the fascinating article by Elizabeth Brown (Viator, 1981, pp. 221-70) about the 1299 bull Detestande feritatis issued by Pope Boniface VIII, against the practice of dismemberment of corpses - a practice popular both because one could increase the number of post mortem prayers for one's soul by putting bits of one's body in different churches, and because it seemed like a nice way to ensure physical proximity to lots of different family members.  Boniface's bull was extremely controversial, and in many ways, Brown argues, only lent distinction to the practice, as the elite could request special dispensation and further demonstrate how special they were in that the usual rules didn't apply.  Philip IV, king of France obtained permission from Clement V to allow his body to be eviscerated, boiled, split or divided as he wished (and, in due course, it was).  It wasn't really until the fifteenth century that practice began to recede.  What this suggests to me is that, across cultures, humans care enormously about their bodies after death and find it very hard to let go of the idea that it matters what happens to them.  Thirteenth and fourteenth-century theologians and popes could point out that there was no rational reason to divide the body after death (rational taken in the sense of their own frameworks of belief), but they could not overcome a kind of popular attachment to the sense that one would want to ensure physical continuation in some form.

So... I loved the exhibition, but I felt uncomfortable towards the end.  I guess that the ranks of teenagers eating sandwiches opposite the dead family didn't help...

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