When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square
Source:The New York Times Author:Edward Rothstein Date: 2011-03-05 Size:
There is a lot of traffic these days in well-preserved bodies, human and otherwise. They are sliced and pickled for artistic effect or uncannily dissected and plasticized, with every blood vessel visible.

Plaster casts made from hollowed-out molds of rock, where bodies had been captured a moment before they ceased to be

There is a lot of traffic these days in well-preserved bodies, human and otherwise. They are sliced and pickled for artistic effect or uncannily dissected and plasticized, with every blood vessel visible. They have toured the world, wrapped and mummified in the manner of ancient Egypt, or have been displayed, more modestly preserved by the dry desert sands of the Silk Road. And there are many, many more mummies yet to come.

Why this onslaught of the almost-living dead in museums? Are we latter-day Ezekiels seeking prophetic messages from ancient skeletal remnants? Has the technology used to prepare the dead for world travel suddenly advanced? Or has the need for income by the overseers of mummies suddenly increased?

Perhaps all are true. But “Pompeii the Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius,” which opens on Friday at Discovery Times Square, is unusual because its dead bodies are not really dead, and they are not really bodies. They are, however, often more affecting, and they form the fulcrum of an absorbing show about a place more widely heard of than thoroughly understood.

The bodies are made of white plaster, and their rough surfaces allow only vague outlines. But, like death masks, they capture a moment when their subjects ceased to be. A man sits crouched, his legs pulled up to his chest, covering his face, as if in despair. A girl desperately thrusts herself at her mother, grasping for comfort. A man, prostrate, begins to pull himself up a staircase but can go no farther. These bodies are writhing, groping, reaching, protecting. And their white forms are starkly displayed on black platforms in a dimly lighted gallery, looking like otherworldly figures enduring infernal agonies.

They are plaster casts from Pompeii — more, we are told, than have ever been gathered together for an exhibition. Pompeii, of course, was the Roman village near Naples that was entirely wiped out in the year 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted, engorging the town with its ash and lava, preserving it as if it were a bug caught in sap that would turn to amber.

Waves of volcanic ash, heat and poisonous gases trapped the fleeing remnants of the town’s population, often in midstride, some carrying keys and valuables. Others cowered in basements or clung to family. The plaster is rough, but we can see touching detail, including the delicate folds of a dead child’s tunic. And there are suggestions of bronze studs in a collar on a chained dog’s neck: did it strangle itself as it strained to escape, its body rolled into a contorted ball?

Volcanic detritus swept over these beings, liquid eventually solidifying into tombs of stone. Flesh and muscle decayed, leaving for later archaeological study hollowed-out molds of rock. A 19th-century archaeologist had the brilliant idea of pouring plaster into those hollows, then shattering the rock. What remained were life-size reproductions of animals and humans caught in the final moments of life.

These images also confirm the account of the eruption by Pliny the Younger, who was a safe-enough distance away to observe, but close enough to want to flee: “You could hear women shrieking, children screaming, men shouting,” he wrote. (The words are cited on the exhibition walls.) “Some called for their children, others for their parents or husbands.”

Some, he continued, “raised their hands to the gods, but most of them thought there were no gods at all.”

One room here is devoted to casts of 32 skeletal remains found four miles away from Pompeii, in Herculaneum, which was also destroyed. Nine of the skeletons were of children younger than 12. Another was accompanied by a complete set of surgical instruments, suggesting, perhaps, preparation and precaution, but no recognition of the forces unleashed.

These scenes are all the more stark because the exhibition — deftly designed and planned by Ralph Appelbaum Associates — makes sure that we encounter them only after we have come to know something about Pompeii as a thriving town. The volcanic debris that destroyed it also preserved it, along with elaborately painted frescoes, exquisite mosaics, tools of business and trade, gladiators’ armor, and artifacts and murals that this exhibition associates with bordellos. The show provides a brief glimpse of that world. It decorously places erotically explicit items in a nearly private space, prefaced by a warning and tucked away inside the main galleries.

Since the ruins of Pompeii were discovered and recognized in the 18th century, there have been debates over how to interpret these and other objects. (The classicist Mary Beard is particularly evocative and provocatively irreverent in her 2008 book, “The Fires of Vesuvius.”) But the selection of artifacts here suggests that Pompeii was an earthy, cosmopolitan society, thriving on trade that came through Naples, seeded with influences from the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans and local mountain tribes.

The volcanic debris that destroyed Pompeii also preserved many artifacts, like this funerary statue and garden fresco

 The statues of Dionysus and the brass miniatures of hybrid deities (including some allusions to Eastern religions) are as sybaritic as they are refined. The frescoes, whose colors still amaze, would have graced fine dining rooms and villas; omitted here are examples of the iconoclastic and comic first-century graffiti found in public places.

At least as portrayed here, this was a culture preoccupied with vitality, almost devoted to the life force until confronting its opposite. We are given some suggestion of what happened when we enter a bare room, and the doors close. On a screen a computer simulation chronicles what inhabitants of Pompeii might have seen during the day and a half of destruction. As the tumult grows, the walls and floor vibrate. Images of volcanic activity become more apocalyptic, and after the climactic devastation, the room’s panels open, and we face the darkened gallery of ghostly figures.

After passing through that realm, we are led into Pompeii’s afterlife. A timeline maps the history of the site, something that is traced in more detail in the book “Pompeii Awakened,” by Judith Harris, a consultant for the exhibition.

The story is ripe with carelessness, dishonesty and political jockeying. It would have been good to find even more of this material here, along with a sense of how Pompeii’s exploration led to the development of modern archaeology. The discoveries also, as the exhibition suggests, fed the 19th-century Romantic fascination with Nature’s wild powers. Pompeii became a site of international pilgrimage.

Here too are the intriguing artifacts of daily life: carbonized olives, figs and a walnut; burnished glazed bowls; Roman-inspired plumbing; an enormous glass funerary jar miraculously unshattered; and jewelry, including a winding gold snake bracelet inscribed by a master to his slave.

This exhibition was created by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Pompei, which oversees Pompeii, in conjunction with Discovery Times Square and Running Subway Productions. The $25 adult ticket price will, no doubt, help provide some support for the archaeological site, which has long suffered from poor maintenance, low budgets, large crowds and plunder.

But the best evidence of the show’s success is that though touch screens provide some glimpses of Pompeii, no one can see this exhibition’s small fraction of the site’s relics and not also wish to see them all.

[Editor] Lola Xu