The Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s A Day in Pompeii is simply amazing, an exhibit the likes of which I have not seen in a Denver museum for several years. Twenty years ago I traveled to Italy to see Pompeii. I was stunned by what I saw, but as a high school student was too young to truly understand or appreciate what had happened. Now it was a totally different experience, one more moving than the one on my school trip, something much more significant; the distance of thousands of miles cannot outweigh what age and knowledge have accumulated over time.
I felt excited, cheery even, when I walked through the doors and into the exhibition. The chance to return to Pompeii, so to speak, and see similar artifacts to those I gazed upon twenty years ago was thrilling. It was an opportunity I had thought of several times over the years, returning to Italy so I could better appreciate what I saw as a student, but nothing I really put a lot of stock in. I’d get there someday, it just might take a while; it’s a big world and there’s a lot out there to see. Now, as I stared at a small statue of Venus – the Roman goddess of beauty and sensual love – in the entrance hall, I realized Pompeii had come to me.
“A fearful black cloud was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame … darkness fell … as if a lamp had been put out in a dark room.”
Pompeii was once a town of approximately 20,000 people. The walled city was no bigger than about half the size of Denver’s City Park, or approximately 170 acres. That isn’t terribly large, all things considered, especially since at that time Pompeii was a busy coastal town with a nearby port used to bring in goods to be shipped up to Rome and other parts of the country. It was also a busy vacation town with villas outside of the walls for vacationing Romans. When Mt. Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 AD, all of it was completely buried for approximately 1,700.
It is not easy to imagine the artifacts on display being buried in 25 meters of volcanic ash and rock. So many of them are likely in as good of shape today as when they were first created, preserved and protected for centuries from eroding elements. Others, like many of the frescoes, have suffered over the years, but still have appealing and striking qualities the likes of which I have only seen on my travels to Pompeii in high school. I saw the first of these – marble posts with sculpted with the faces of the god Bacchus and his attendants, as well as three paintings on plaster – when walking into the Outdoor Living section of A Day in Pompeii.
I continued through the exhibit and into the section on Home Life. This is where the thought hit me much more forcefully than it had before, even when I was actually in Pompeii; this was a town of real people with real lives, many with similar struggles we have today, and these items are all we have to remember them by. To take a moment and contemplate it, what they must have felt and experienced at 1 p.m. when Mt. Vesuvius first began to erupt, made the experience tangible, and all because of a decorative lamp stand and golden necklace on display.
They are such little things – decorations similar to what we may wear or have around our own homes – but when put into the context of the person it changed my viewpoint of the exhibit. No longer was this simply something in a museum, these were possessions, some that may have been quite important and dear, owned by people just like me. This was all much more than just another sculpture or painting in a museum for me, A Day in Pompeii became exactly that – a day in what life must have been like for real life people who lived, worked, or vacationed in and near the port town.
I thought about this as I walked into the halls describing Trade and Commerce and Entertainment. Here the streets of Pompeii came alive, literally. There were other previous hands-on stops for kids to learn more about the UNESCO World Heritage Site, but in this room museum volunteers were in period garb wonderfully playing the part of a Pompeian and interacting with the guests. Some talked about the displays, pointing out finer points you may otherwise miss – did you know the decorations on the gladiator’s helmet is just like a trophy you’d receive for sports today? – and others interacted by playing games and showing what life might have been like at a market stand. It was all really quite impressive and entertaining.
I passed through the small section on Religious Beliefs, stopping only to briefly admire the statuettes from a home shrine. They were interesting, and I was again amazed at how well such things have been preserved over the centuries. But there wasn’t much beyond them and a couple of other small items on display, one of which was one of only a handful of replicas on display in the whole exhibition; most everything on display, no matter how new or well preserved it may appear, actually came from the buried city that more than 2.5 million people annually travel to see in person. This makes it one of the most-visited sites in all of Italy.
Pompeii was founded sometime between the eighth and sixth century BC. It is believed that even then the city suffered from volcanic and seismic events, since artifacts from that period have been found in dirt and rubble. Some researchers believe they were buried from previous landslides and other events. One such incident occurred on February 5, 62 AD. On that day the city suffered a large earthquake, somewhere between 5 and 6 on today’s Richter scale. Neighboring communities – like Herculaneum and Nuceria – were also affected, as they were with the eruption 17 years later.
The earthquake of 62 AD chased some people from Pompeii, but many remained and continued to rebuild until the day Mt. Vesuvius erupted. Those who did, and were unable to escape at the time of the eruption that buried the city, were either killed instantly by 250° Celsius temperatures or suffocated in the cloud of ash. Most people were dead by 8 a.m. on the following day, almost twenty hours after the initial eruption.
The buried cities were initially rediscovered in 1599 during an underground project to divert the river Sarno. They were reburied, though, and left to be uncovered in 1738 when workers digging foundations for a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon, found them. Pompeii was rediscovered 10 years later during an intentional excavation of the area. It wasn’t until 1860, though, that the remnants of those who remained in the city were discovered, in a manner of speaking, by a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli.
I noticed a video was beginning, one of several throughout A Day in Pompeii, so I quickly ducked in to watch. It was an animated time lapse of what is believed to have happened from when Mt. Vesuvius first erupted at 1 p.m. on August 24, 79, and when the city was buried the following morning. In the layers of ash and rock were the bodies of those who remained or were covered while attempting to flee the city. Over the centuries those bodies decomposed, leaving behind nothing more than an empty cavity in the layers of dirt. It was Fiorelli who put the thought together and first dumped plaster into the empty spaces. What he came up with was nothing short of both amazing and horrific, a firsthand image of what Pompeians looked like when they died.
When I walked out of the video screening it was like walking into a graveyard. Several bodies in different poses were spread out in the final room. A cast of 32 skeletons, nine of them children, from nearby Herculaneum was the opening display, and one that certainly put the rest of it into perspective. Just like Pompeians, they were trying to escape the eruption. Some fled, others hid in buildings, or along the shoreline in boathouses as they awaited and hoped for rescue.
Many people didn’t have time or take the opportunity to run. Instead they died together, reaching out to or holding each other, suffocated while trying to protect themselves under cloaks or by covering their own mouths, while chained up in jail, or while making a final and feeble attempt to flee. Even animals suffered and died. Here are several of the plaster casts on display at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, all more than worth it to see in person:
Much of Pompeii still remains covered. What is unearthed, though, has started to deteriorate now that it is once again exposed to the elements, including humans. The exhibition at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is on display until January 13, 2013. Sadly, though, there is no IMAX film – my one disappointment of the whole exhibition. But, for several other reasons – whether it is the deterioration of Pompeii or that this is simply the most amazing museum exhibition to arrive in Denver in years – A Day in Pompeii is a must see, even more than once in my book.
“Finally, the cloud lifted and vanished in a sort of smoke or fog … the sun even reappeared, but livid, as in when there is an eclipse … the landscape looked change and covered by a thick blanket of ash, as if it had snowed.”
~ Pliny the Younger, in a letter to the historian Tacitus