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Large, lavish and irresistable
on 17 March 2013
As a lifelong enthusiast for the history and cultures of Greece and Rome and as a lover of the art of the classical world, I'm an absolute sucker for these large, glossy and lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogues. The Italian museums and their publishing houses like Electa always produce superlative examples as does the British Museum and I've collected many of them in recent years. The BM's latest publication, Life And Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, issued to accompany an exhibition due to run from the 28 March to the 29 September 2013, does not disappoint. Although virtually all of the exhibits are illustrated, it's perhaps wrong to classify it as a catalogue since it doesn't follow the common format of a series of essays followed by extensive descriptions and discussion of each exhibit (although it does contain a concise summary at the end of all of them and where to locate them in the text.) It is perhaps best described as a companion volume intended to give a wide overview of everyday life in the Roman world as it can be reconstructed from the evidence found at Pompeii and Heculaneum.
After briefly summarizing the history of the two cities, the book takes us on a journey through their urban landscapes, taking in their streets, shops, snack bars, commercial premises, public buildings etc and the people who populated them - the freeborn, the slaves, the freedmen, and the nouveau riche who were rapidly elbowing aside the "old money". We then get an extended tour of the Roman Home under the headings Atrium, Cubiculum, Gardens, Living Rooms and Interior Design, Dining, Kitchens, Toilets and Baths, covering diverse topics such as perfumes, hairstyles, erotica, graffiti, food, toilets and sewage, frescoes, marble and mosaic floors, silverware and much more. Finally we come to the Death of the Cities. Exactly how they met their fate has become clearer in recent years, in particular the part played by the series of pyroclastic surges, the gaseous avalanches that overwhelmed the cities and instantly incinerated all those who hadn't made a getaway.
A fascinating journey, then, that enables you to immerse yourself, indeed lose yourself, in the richness and endless fascination that is the Roman world. The book is splendidly illustrated, indeed some of the colour photographs are so vibrant that the objects almost seem to leap off the page and their clarity enables you to see every pore and wart on the face of the banker Lucius Caecilius Jucundus. And, in case you're wondering, yes you do get to see the notorious statue of Pan humping the she-goat and those rather gruesome but deeply affecting plaster casts of the dead bodies. The photographs also reveal, alas, that some of the frescoes left in situ, like the famous ones in the Villa Of The Mysteries, have deteriorated since I first saw them as a kid in the late 60s (Herculaneum has benefited from a major conservation project in recent years and I believe a new conservation project has been announced for Pompeii which has rapidly started to crumble under the combined onslaught of the elements, mismanagement and hordes of tourists.)
Congratulations to curator Paul Roberts and the BM for producing an irresistable book which I gobbled up in a couple of days. The softback version has good strong card covers that should resist creasing so I don't think you need to shell out the extra for the hardback. If you buy the book at the exhibition you will of course have to pay the full whack of £25. I got mine for £16 postage-paid from Amazon, a real bargain in my opinion, although I notice the Amazon price has a mysterious tendency to bob up and down.
Of course no single volume can hope to do justice to every aspect of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some highly recommendable books I've acquired in recent years include the large and lavishly illustrated tomes Herculaneum by Andrew Wallace Hadrill; Pompeii: The History, Life and Art of the Buried City edited by Marisa Ranieri Panetta; The Buried Art of Pompeii edited by Filippo Coarelli; and The Complete Pompeii by Joanne Berry. Less lavish but certainly heavyweight in terms of pagination and scholarship are The World of Pompeii edited by John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss (arguably the best single resource book but not one for the casual reader) and the rather more reader-friendly Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard. A handsome and beautifully illustrated paperback book I picked up in Naples a few years ago is Pompeii by Francesco Paolo Mantucci (English edition), which deals primarily with the public buildings and individual houses. And I still have a soft spot for my first Pompeii book: Marcel Brion's Pompeii and Herculaneum - The Glory And The Grief, first published fifty years ago and in its day renowned for the quality of its colour photography. Going even further back in time, there's an excellent 2 volume reprint from the Cambridge University Press of Sir William Gell's 19th century classic Pompeiana, obviously not up-to-date but containing many charming illustrations; and if your Pompeii budget will stretch far enough there's the very beautiful Getty publication Houses and Monuments of Pompeii - The Work of Fausto and Felice Niccolini which comes in a slipcase and features vivid recreations of the frescoes and other artworks by two 19th century painters.