Rising from the ashes of Pompeii

Both glamorous and brutal, the lifestyle of ancient Romans continues to fascinate

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In the Christian era that succeeded the pagan one, the destruction of the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD was always thought of in apocalyptic terms, much like the Biblical destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by “fire and brimstone.” It was felt that the sudden devastation of the beautiful Italian coastal cities was an act of God, a punishment for the peoples’ worldly and decadent lifestyles.

This view is reflected in Edward Lytton’s famous novel from 1834, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” and has served as the template for subsequent responses to the stirrings of the Earth, even influencing the recent response to the European air-travel chaos caused by the eruption of the Icelandic volcano, which some of the ecologically-minded saw as “Gaia’s revenge” for our wasteful high-carbon lifestyles.

In a country in which a sleeping volcano — Mount Fuji — is the national icon, however, a less guilt-ridden view prevails, as seen at the exhibition of statues, frescoes and other artifacts from the excavated Roman cities now on display at the Yokohama Museum of Art.

As with the recently departed hanami (cherry blossom viewing) season, the conjunction of sensual pleasures with their transience, rather than evoking guilt and a sense of futility, actually intensifies their appreciation: If Sodom or Pompeii were destroyed, then surely whatever they were up to before the cataclysm has an added relish and fascination. So, the title “Vivere a Pompei” (“To Live in Pompeii”) and the emphasis on the pleasurable lifestyles of the better-off Romans is a perfect fit with the attitude of the audience, many of whom view the Roman Empire as yet another fascinating source of foreign inspiration for their own lifestyles.

The last time I saw an exhibition of Pompeian artifacts in Tokyo was the Edo-Tokyo Museum’s 2001 show “Pompeii and its Inhabitants.” Although that was an interesting and enjoyable exhibition, “Vivere a Pompei” is better by an impressive margin. There are fine statues, a wide range of artifacts and especially excellent frescoes, many of which are brightly colored. These murals, such as the affecting “Achilles and Chiron,” showing the Homeric hero receiving tuition from his centaur teacher, reveal an excellence of artistic technique that was only surpassed by the painters of the Renaissance.

As for the sculptural technique on show, that has perhaps never really been bettered, whether it is the beardless “Statue of Poseidon” (complete with dolphin) or “Statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus.” The latter shows the Roman proconsul (governor of a province), who was a major benefactor of Herculaneum before its destruction. The swirling, fluted folds of his toga and contrapposto pose enliven the sculpture without sacrificing one iota of the patrician’s dignity.

But perhaps the touchstone for the whole show is the “Caldarium of the Villa Pisanelli di Boscoreale,” a functional-looking marble bath connected to bronze water tanks by lead pipes. It is hard to believe that this complex and well-preserved piece of plumbing is older than, say, the Victorian age, when it is in fact almost 2,000 years old. This, more than anything, helps us to see the Romans of these doomed cities through our own eyes.

Those with an interest in accessories will be charmed by several examples of gold and gem jewelry that would not look out of place on a modern high-society socialite, while some of the items from the section “Relaxing Gardens” could easily fit into a high-class garden center. All these remind us that the Romans, despite their legions, mass slavery, crucifixions and gladiatorial contests, were people not that dissimilar from us.

Or were they? Other items suggest they lived much closer to raw, physical realities. “Service accessories for an athlete” is a thick bronze ring with several brutal-looking strigils (skin scrapers), a washing bowl, and a small container for oil attached. In this case, bath time clearly wasn’t a cozy time of soapy soft suds and rubber duckies but rather a rigorous physical ritual.

This impression of the Romans as scrubbed and scraped regimented thugs is further strengthened by the gladiatorial artifacts, perhaps the most striking being the bronze hand detached from a statue of a boxer, which shows the cestae, a band of lead worn round the knuckles to maximize physical damage during the fight.

It is this mixture between those elements that bring the Romans closer to us and make then seem so familiar, and those objects that emphasize how very different they were that makes this such a fascinating show.

“Vivere a Pompei” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs till June 13; admission ¥1,400; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (till 8 p.m. on Fri.), closed Thurs. For more information, visit www.ntv.co.jp/pompei/english/index.html