The way the ROM tells it – the exhibition, by the way, ends on Sunday, so if you’re in Toronto and you haven’t seen it yet, now is the time to do so – the story of Pompeii is as much about lives lived, enjoyed and celebrated as it is about lives lost and a town destroyed.
You pass, on the way in, the cast of a dog curled in flight and fear, struggling vainly to escape the fire and ashes: an opening statement, if you like, for what is still to come – and then quickly move on to busts and statues, the faces often exquisitely detailed, exercises in wealth and politics as much as they are of art and humanity; then figures of gods, artefacts, jewellery – mosaics and frescoes of the utmost delicacy and sensitivity – sculptures of anatomically precise and explicit sexuality – pictures of food, glass bowls, pottery, amphorae, oil lamps, all the material and substance of everyday life, surprisingly fresh and immediate so that you wonder, perhaps, if you could just stand still for a few moments, if you wouldn’t hear voices – and then, in a final, sombre succession, the casts of the dead – someone sitting, arms drawn up against his chest; a mother and daughter, reaching out to each other; an infant sleeping.
Evidently the initial eruption took place at midday, and many were able in the next few hours to flee; by evening flight had become difficult if not impossible; and then came the final cataclysm that killed all those who were still remaining. You get a sense, certainly, of a titanic catastrophe befalling the city, and the human tragedy: it is a reminder, if you need one, of the ‘Black Swan’ events that may lay in wait for any of us. But instead of the vanity of things, and their impermanence, what the exhibition succeeds in doing is remind you also of the richness and vitality that lies in the most ordinary activities, and the need to get on with the business of living.
A New Year’s Message, if you like, from a world which was as real and meaningful to the citizens of Pompeii as ours is to us.