Buried alive, reborn again: Review of “Pompei e Santorini: l’Eternità in un Giorno”, Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome
Perhaps the thing that makes the ancient sites of Pompeii and on Santorini so fascinating today is just how many priceless new artefacts they keep on bringing up — and ones that often revolutionise our field, at that. It is a testament to the very much alive paths that Classical scholarship can take in the future.
But what’s so fascinating about this exhibition’s approach, however, is that it illuminates just how relevant these finds can be for thinking about and finding improvements for some of the world’s most pressing issues today.
Indeed, at the time of writing this article, fascinating new remains had just been found at both sites. The way that people responded to them aptly captured how these can be used as starting points in thinking about ethical questions, refugee crises, and natural disasters that affect us today. On 23 January 2020, parts of a person’s brain was found turned to glass in Herculaneum, “vitrified” by the heat of the 24 August 79AD eruption. Extracted directly from the body’s skull, this has given scholars rare and valuable evidence to study ancient anatomies.
Yet it also very much comes from a victim’s skull. What has shocked some was the horrific pain that that person must have gone through; some argued the victim should be allowed to rest peacefully without being the object of scientific scrutiny. They weren’t just seeing a dead body and a repository of knowledge to be mined — they were looking at a human who was horrifically incinerated at 520˚C (based on the charred wood on which the person was sitting). The person was — without shying away — literally baked alive. And this person was not alone: (s)he was found crammed with many other bodies in Herculaneum’s stone boathouses, resorting to the ships to escape the pyroclastic flow. Ironically, they still likely died from asphyxiation, i.e. suffocation — not from the sea, but the heat. Now, based on a quick skim over the readers’ comments from some news reports, this unidentified victim became, for some, a resonant touch-stone for ethic debates about (ab)using the dead for science. Yet what is interesting is that it fostered a complex debate, not solely a one-dimensional view. “Harrowing and apocalyptic” are the words Linuxophile gave it on Arstechnica; on the other extreme, on the Washington Post, Morgoth_V commented, “I’m glad researchers are able to study these findings without being hampered by those insisting this is a grave or violating some sky fairies”. tr1698 aptly summarises: “This is interesting. Horrifying, but interesting”. These artefacts can be a deeply emotional experience for us today and feed into our debates about the suffering caused by natural disasters.
A week later in Akrotiri, on the south-east coast of the island of Santorini in the star-spangled Aegean, fascinating evidence of an inscription with Linear A letters and an ideogram, written in ink on a faience triton-shaped fragment, was announced to be discovered on 30th January 2020. What’s makes this special is that this would be our first evidence of writing in ink from that early a date. This and future evidence may change our understanding of the field, especially about the religious rituals in the likely religious space in which it was found (Xeste 3). Yet other artefacts found at the time were also used to justify more present concerns as well: while some readers likely used this evidence as showing the sophistication of Greek culture, others like P. Kapnistos in the comments section of the “Greece High Definition” Facebook post linked it to Christianity, rooting these Greek civilisations as the forefathers of these later Christian fathers: “They became “fathers” of Abraham…. “Your fathers dwelt on the other side of the flood in old time, even Terah, the father of Abraham” (Joshua 24:2)”. What’s interesting is how far these artefacts can be in such contemporary debates. In the same comments section, others went on to use the news of this discovery as a means to praise the reconstruction of the Parthenon in Nashville, US, and the American appropriation of Classical culture: “Today We’re the only ones in the world who honor Wisdom and Victory! 🦉🏆 Athena Parthenos Bless America Forever 🇺🇸 ✌️”. New evidence and reinterpreting old evidence helps us to answer current issues in today’s world, as much as finding new interpretations of the ancient evidence.
But people have been known to use ancient artefacts to consolidate their present identities — to select a recent example, Prof Christy Constantakopoulou has written about the effects that the Kastra tomb near Amphipolis, potentially believed to be that of Alexander’s “friend” Hephaistion or even Alexander himself, had on the Greek mentality at the hard times of its economic crisis, and how it transformed past narratives about Greece as the victim of broader powers to one now proud and descended from Alexander. Narratives of the past and new discoveries about them matter in present issues.
But it’s not just this new evidence and questions of identity that foster these links to today’s debates. The wealth of the extant evidence also allows us to keep on finetuning our interpretations and link them to bigger issues affecting us all. While new excavations at both Pompeii and Akrotiri are currently underway, it is important to remember that the vitrified brain was found in a reexamination of Herculaneum’s skeletons. It is this reevaluation of ancient material for broader debates beyond the ancient world that the exhibition does best and why it is so necessary today. Especially in the final section, the exhibition linked these finds to some of the most pressing problems facing the world today, such as natural disasters, the experienced of the displaced and refugees, and ways to respond and grow from them in art. What makes this exhibition so special, I argue, is that it helps us to think in new ways about these phenomena in the ancient world, making it a helpful tool to solve today’s issues.
Methodology: 1,600 years apart, united by fate—the validity of studying contextually unconnected ancient sites through natural disasters
I have been talking about the exhibition’s links to big issues for a good 1,000 words in this past section, yet we seem to immediately at the start encounter an even bigger methodological problem with the exhibition in the first place, quite literally: can we really accurately compare and draw useful comparisons between cultures that were separated by such a humongous time-span, around 1,700 years: Pompeii and prehistoric Akrotiri? Can this unconventional diachronic approach be both valid and useful?
Some clearly think so — and not just in the academic sense. A comment on “The History of Ancient Greece — Podcast” Facebook share about “The Highlights of Santorini’s Akrotiri” explicitly made the connection between the modern states of the sites: “La Pompeya del Egeo!!!!!”
Others clearly did not. Making some arguably fair points about the bad sides of visiting Santorini, in their section entitled “The ‘Archeological Sites’ Are Unimpressive”, The Lovely Escapist argues that Akrotiri is “much much much smaller”. Further, “Akrotiri is in decent shape — meaning you can see crumbling houses and a few frescos”. Finally, another point: “The citizens of Akrotiri saw the eruption coming and evacuated in a timely and orderly manner” — opposite to Pompeii’s body-strewn city. By consequence, “This means there aren’t any human or valuable remains” in Akrotiri (my Italics).
(This all comes after The Lovely Escapist kindly evaluates the other main visitable archaeological site on Santorini: “Ancient Thira looks like a pile of rocks”. Reason: “I know people might not think of Santorini for their archeological sites but when you Google ‘things to do in Santorini’ it’s always one of the top 10 activities. A lot of archeologists and historians believe Santorini is the location of the infamous Atlantis. You would expect somewhere with that reputation to have cool archeological sites”. Instead, quite simply, “Santorini does not.”. Some redemption? “Some say they are the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean”. The authorial answer to that is: “I seriously doubt it.” The Lovely Escapist’s blog is a genuinely interesting read Classicists often aren’t exposed to — would highly recommend).
Yet for some reason, Santorini keeps on being paired with Pompeii. Even The Lovely Escapist’s is drawn into using Pompeii as a benchmark for Santorini (albeit rather much more negatively, see above). In the modern imagination, Pompeii and Santorini’s fates link them together. Whether this is because of their death by volcano, their subsequent excellent state of preservation, or their famous frescoes, they are linked in the present world today. Yet these cultures are undeniably separate and unconnected by time: 1,700 years apart precludes any direct (and perhaps even indirect) influence. Santorini seems to be historically forgotten once it was covered; likewise, it does not seem that people tried to dig up Pompeii until Fontana came along in the 16th century. This is to assert: it was highly unlikely these sites influenced or drew from each other historically in the ancient world. They belong to entirely different cultures. So, reiterating the first question but sticking to the ancient evidence: Is it valid to explore this anachronistic link in the academic field?
Can we compare cultures more than 1,700 years apart?
Remarkably perhaps, yes — and for two good reasons. The first, scholarly: the exhibition’s self-reflective focus engenders new, valuable questions rarely asked about the sites and their methodological underpinnings. The second, relevance: the thematic focus and links to natural disasters and refugee crises use the ancient evidence to think about issues very much affecting our present.
First, stepping beyond other exhibitions’ usual focus on the remains of a discrete city or culture, this exhibition stresses the broader similarities behind the unique type and nature of these two sites, and the resultant methodological constraints and approaches pegged to studying them. The exhibition’s introductory panel starts off by justifying the broad approach through the similarities between 1) the severe impacts of volcanic catastrophes and 2) their consistency over time (“volcanic disasters have marked the course of history”). This is not so much about exploring the material of a city’s culture, even as big as Pompeii or Santorini. It is about studying just how they are different as “sites” as a concept, what distinguishes them in their evidence and preservation. Specifically, both sites were destroyed; both equally allowed us to piece together countless facets of religious, social, and political life on an unimaginable scale of detail otherwise impossible. This exhibition therefore allows a broader study of two sites of the same but highly unusual type. This study is significant precisely because Pompeii and Santorini are so different from any other extant site, largely due to the possibility of studying these sites on the macro scale. They require a whole new set of approach and interpretations — which have often been taken on and not received as much critical reflection before. As the sign notes, no one has studied these sites in combination before.
Consequently, in this more methodological vein, this exhibition also enables reflection on our own modern study, preconceptions, and approaches to these ancient sites. This would help to finetune ways forward in improving our analytical skills for future discoveries. Hence, one of the two things that makes this exhibition valuable today is that it extends one step beyond the typical exhibition by asking innovative questions about the types and limitations of our evidence, and how we can study it.
At the same time, however, we must also be slightly cautious of the depth and genuineness of this academic reason. Although we often overlook it, museum exhibitions are often as much about manoeuvring politics as enhancing education. After all, cultural heritage is a fundamental force in politics (what kinds of monuments that were attacked by ISIS were those that most provoked international outrage?) and access to culture is often subjected to politics (as a discussion between the Classics Society and the curator of the Troy Exhibition in the BM suggested with the Troy archaeological material held in Russia). One must look behind the scenes and ask whether the exhibition is equally the product of an alliance with economical, political, or other priorities. The exhibition sign states the project was produced by the ALES (Arte Lavoro e Sevizi) “company”, and jointly organised by the Cyclades Ephorate of Antiquities and the Archaeological Park of Pompeii. If not done properly, such alliances can distort the educational aspect of the material to create a more sensational or “theme-park” effect, to engage the broader public at the expense of accurate, if less entertaining, information. The introductory information panel ends with such a more sensationalist exhortation describing the exhibition’s purpose: “to recount the birth and development of our culture”. If you’ve just stressed how separate the cultures of Pompeii & Santorini are given their good 1,700-year gap, why add another 1,900 to our world today? But perhaps the point is more valid than we might at first think, as we’ll see in my last point. Whether due to patriotism, political agendas, or simple money, these are important things to consider (especially in Italy, I say as a resident of Rome).
Yet it’s certainly not all bad — indeed I would argue this alliance between the three groups did more good than not. Second, perhaps the best thing that came from this collaboration was accessibility to rare and sometimes undisplayed artefacts. The exhibition recognises the novelty and risks of the approach of comparing these two disjointed cultures: the introductory sign highlights its “unprecedented” nature (although as Alina Kozlovski notes in a great recent review, already in the 2nd century CE Marcus Aurelius compared the naturally destroyed cities of Pompeii and Helike, by a volcano and earthquake in 373BCE respectively, in his Meditations (4.48)). Yet the exhibition also counters or remedies this task with its own unprecedented move: many of the objects displayed are being shared to the world beyond their home museums for the first time, therefore aiming to make this link explicit. Indeed, when I first saw the advertisement for the exhibition while eating gelato at the (indisputably) best gelateria in Rome, Giolitti, I was struck by the coincidence. I had just returned from a two week trip around the Cyclades. Yet, when I was at both the Thera Archaeological and Akrotiri Prehistoric museums at Santorini (the latter which did albeit have a recent and stunning reconstruction of the frescoes), I was surprised and slightly disheartened not to find some of the famous fragments of Akrotiri’s frescoes there. Some are held in Athens’ National Archaeological Museum, yet often seem to be roped off from the public or under conservation even there. Accessibility makes some of the displays here significant.
And this accessibility does not just stay in the field of artefacts and academia — but also extends to the modern world. Third and finally, perhaps the most valuable aspect of this exhibition is how it engages with more contemporary global issues today, becoming relevant beyond the academic field. While the panel’s final sentence ambiguously links the study of these cultures to better (and patriotically) understanding today’s world, there might be some more sense to it when we consider the current political and social climate at the time. There were three major issues in the exhibition: the immediate effects of natural disasters, the displacement of peoples and refugees due to them, and the artistic response such events inspire. Internationally, while no volcanic eruptions had occurred, there was certainly one big environmental factor that was rapidly increasing at the time: climate change. From the rise of activists like Greta Thunberg and the spread of ever more alarming information, to the forest fires of Australia and mass floods in the UK, the worrying effects of climate change are being strongly felt on the fabric of our society. The timing could not be more perfect. Just sticking to Europe, although caused predominantly by war, refugee crises and displacements have been recent and ongoing issues in the news. We hear horrific stories about them, and yet are doing nowhere near enough to help the situation (as neither governmental bodies are). Perhaps raising awareness about these sticky and often ignored issues today by using the ancient evidence, which people put so much interest and faith into, might force people to see the reality of these situations. Focusing our narratives about the glory of these sites on the harsh realities of loss and death of those who died through the archaeology might make people reflect on these current issues with an honesty and urgency otherwise difficult to achieve. This is certainly what the striking last section of the exhibition did for me — and in particular one provocative sculpture.
This focus on today’s world is nicely captured in the exhibition’s subtitle: “Eternity in one day”. This highlights the interplay of two aspects between the ancient and present perspectives: destruction and salvation, eternity and temporality. On the one hand, for us today, it highlights how all of eternity has faced the same problems of natural disasters; eternity and these cites becomes condensed into one experience. On the other hand, seeing that “one day” as our very own, it makes us realise that we are facing the same issues in our current age and day. It affects us all — the examples of Pompeii and Santorini perhaps are simply a blip in a broader continuum.
Closer to home in Italy, this exhibition’s location in Rome was equally loaded. Given that Italy’s politicians like its Interior Minister Salvini have seen a rise in popularity for their appalling and unconstitutional anti-immigrant policies, epitomised by the denial for migrants on ships to land on Italian soil in Sicily in July 2019, this exhibition might be especially resonant to an Italian population to realising broader issues of refugees. It was at this time that many activist groups were heard, and one way they did this was through art. In this vein, especially in the final section, the exhibition productively explored attempts to raise awareness of these issues in art and culture. Arguably, both for academic and current reasons, it was an exhibition that could not be better timed in opening our eyes to the experience of refugees, natural disasters, and the power of art.
(At the time of writing, it was pleasing to hear that Salvini was being tried at court for his crimes).
Therefore, although as we’ll see the exhibition does have some more sensationalist aspects (and at times lacks the advertised comparative links between the sites), it does follow the guiding focus on an innovative and fascinating cross-cultural and diachronic approach remarkably well.
Thereby, following the exhibition's layout as a roughly “chronological approach”, I will structure this review on the exhibition’s roughly tripartite division. First, I will study the remains in Akrotiri and Santorini, focusing on frescoes and religion, and precisely how the eruption has given us a rare and very focused snapshot of life at Akrotiri around the time of its destruction ca.1600BCE. Then, I will move onto the second section on Pompeii with parallel aims, and will especially draw out its best part — the presence of so many famous artworks from Pompeii together as rarely before and the carefully thought-out museological presentation. Finally, I will explore the exhibition’s last section on the experience of natural disasters today and receptions of Pompeii and Santorini in art. This will provide a useful lens with which to explore broader academic questions, alongside the more outward-facing aspect of opening our eyes to natural disasters and refugee crises afflicting our world today.
Part 1: Saffron-pickers, old fish, and swallows — Santorini, between frescoes, religion, and the main archaeological trends of excavation
After you walk up the impressive, low-gradient stairs where the Pope once used to go up (low-gradient so that the horses could easily climb them), the first room tackles the methodological aspect of comparing these two sites head-on. Entitled “La Macchina del Tempo” (The Time Machine: Pompeii and Santorini), the room first justifies the “synchronic reading” of the two cities and indeed our relationship with their history through the metaphor of a “time-machine”, building on the fact that Pompeii is about chronologically halfway between the Late Bronze Age and our world today (1,700 : 2,000 years). One could ask whether this coincidence is merely good timing or has a deeper significance; we shall see more later. Second, the exhibition justifies making the link between the sites and to us today by stressing the influential role and “meaning” of Pompeii and Santorini in our own imagination today.
What is significant about this room is how it explicitly compares Santorini and Pompeii, and maps this comparison and contrast between them onto the thematic dichotomy between instantaneous destruction and eternal salvation, between their world and ours today. It is the only room in the first parts of the exhibition that explicitly compares the artefacts of Pompeii and Santorini side by side until we reach the final section — and it is done very nicely.
In this light, the room displays artefacts that best capture the images of both buried cities in our own imagination — yet they specifically use them to contrast the positive and negative sides of the volcanic destruction of each city: the eternal commemoration and immediate sense of suffering respectively. On the one hand, the room contains the famous frescoes from Akrotiri, some of the earliest (and most magnificent) extant examples of monumental painting around the Mediterranean. This selection focalises on the apex of Akrotiri, its “eternal” positive memory and salvation. Aside from some vases and tubs, what really stands out is one of the most famous frescoes from the site: the Fresco of the (so-called) Three Priestesses, or “Adorants”.
Found in Xeste 3, which likely had a religious and ritual function, the paintings have often been interpreted to depict three priestesses undergoing different stages of initiation or rites of passage. In the context of the other surrounding mural paintings of the room, the women were walking towards a “Sacred Precinct” on the East wall. Perhaps one of the most stunning and “enduring” aspects of these paintings is the remarkably high quality of the painting. As seen from the surrounding images, the women are wearing remarkably lavishly-decorated clothes and expensive jewellery. On one reading, each woman represents a different stage of the initiation right. First, the woman in the centre bears an expression of pain: sitting on the rock, in one hand she holds her bleeding foot and with her other, she cradles her head from that pain. Second, the woman on the left holds out an elaborate neckless of gems as a “dedicatory” gift. The exposed breasts of this figure suggest a religious function as well. Finally, the woman most on the right (from our perspective) lifts her veil as she heads towards the sacred precinct, suggesting a clearly religious ritual. Moreover, the fact that she is younger, signalled by the iconographic details and hairstyle, suggests that this is an intergenerational ceremony, and supports the idea that it represents a rite of passage. Between the woman holding a neckless and seated women are what is often interpreted as mountain peaks, with plants (potentially saffron) growing on them; this might symbolise the domain that the goddess, to whose altar the women process, controls.
What’s so interesting about this fresco is how its survival and relevance extends beyond a simple single interpretation and to current scholarship, questioning our methodological approaches to such rarely preserved evidence. Although many scholars have interpreted this relatively uncontestedly as representing an initiation scene, other scholars more recently like Simons (2014), 41 have argued that these women might simply function as decoration for the room without a symbolic function. Indeed, she has interpreted the structure that the women head towards as a palace, rather than a religious shrine: the horns in front, rather than symbolically dripping with blood, instead are garlanded with saffron plants. This works by linking both scenes with the saffron, and suggests a more royal, non-religious scene. On the other hand, while many have taken the procession of women as forming a narrative with the other scenes in the room, Simons (2014), 43 argues each woman could be read separately without connection between them, and therefore not all priests: the woman on the furthest left appears to be dressed more like a royal queen, and could simply be swinging a neckless as an object that women used within the room. Whatever the case, this remarkably well-preserved evidence and reconstructed fresco challenge the way we can think about this rare evidence. The diversity of interpretations will keep on helping us come closer to pinpoint new, more accurate interpretations. Enriched by the current revived archaeological excavations currently taking place there, these pieces of evidence matter in current scholarly debate, and will continue to survive and take on new guises, just as when they were reassembled so carefully back from the thousands of pieces.
On a lighter tone, the baggy trousers that the women wear (especially the necklace-bearer below) seem to be in vogue at this current day and age (!).
Moreover, the exhibition is careful to point out just how precarious and fragile this salvation and preservation is. The mosaic was actually found in thousands of fragments, torn apart by the force of the eruption. It was only by an excellent team of restorers and years of study that it was able to be pieced together as we see it today. Even though it might be famous and preserved for salvation, they still had a share in destruction. Indeed, for most of the time, it was buried beneath the ground, broken and destroyed. It was with modern societies and innovative academic techniques that we can reconstruct these pieces and the past. This helps to draw out just how much the perfect images we have today were broken and subjected to a very violent fate; behind the facade of perfect salvation looms the sentence of destruction and time.
Luckily, the people of Akrotiri were able to escape before the eruption destroyed their houses — this is evidenced by the noticeable lack of any human remains among the buildings. Yet many Pompeiians was not so lucky — and the exhibition nicely brings that out by selecting objects in this room alongside the Akrotiri evidence that highlight the opposite perspective of salvation in the destruction-salvation, eternity-one day dichotomy: the destruction of the remains of actual humans and their possessions. The Pompeiian evidence by contrast instead highlights the violent force of the eruption by displaying the bronze vessels from Pompeii that still have the lapilli and pumice stone from the eruption ingrained into their rims, shot in there by the force and speed of the pyroclastic flow.
Second, this Pompeii section also nicely stresses the links between the destructive nature back them and our modern interpretation of it. Fiorelli’s famous plaster-cast bodies (ca. 1870) are strewn on the ground in front of us. This makes them much more human, vulnerable, and indicative of how they felt in their moments of death. Among them are famous two people embracing, lying prostrate on the floor. The evocative final actions of these people are caught before us, their contortions and crouches of fear; they bring out the truly emotional and personal suffering from that experience. Moreover, by the same token, their subsequent separation from their original contexts and placement on a cold concrete floor in a polished, white-walled museum brings out the eternal aspect as well. While it might take away the emotion, having albeit not-the-most-perfectly-contoured plaster casts stare out at you, this setting equally asks us to realise that this could be any one of us, at home, in any context. The minimalism and removal from the ancient context into a “general” human one focuses on the act of suffering — and places its right in front of us, starring with chilling, empty eyes. It mimics the aftermath of a destructive volcanic eruption today. While we may or may not associate with it, one thing is clear — the suffering from natural disasters and displacements is eternal. This is made clear right before our eyes, forcing us to consider these questions and new ones. This ambiguity is also created by the layout of these casts. The many people crowding around them at once make them feel like works of art; yet focusing on the actual gestures highlights their deeply personal moments of suffering. Are we transgressing their space? Should we be watching this?
It’s a difficult and ambiguous question — but that is precisely what the exhibition aims to invoke. The slippage and uncertainty between destruction and salvation, eternity and temporality, in these artefacts can forge links to the present and give us a rare lens to understand how they affect us today. Equally, they also programmatically begin to make us think about the broader methodological questions before we embark in each respective exhibition part. While this programmatically prepares us for the last section of the exhibition, it is nevertheless a striking and carefully thought-out introduction.
Returning to Santorini, the exhibition then moves onto a different aspect of the destruction and salvation dichotomy: it highlights how destruction can preserve remarkably well the facets of Akrotiri’s life that are often impossible to reconstruct in other sites. Here, the exhibition focuses on the daily life of Akrotiri (a thematic focus on the main archaeological trends at the site). While this thematic focus on the main artefacts of Akrotiri might reflect that the curators were unable to create pertinent links with the themes in the Pompeian section or find objects necessary to show it, this technique nevertheless asks methodological questions about the study of Akrotiri as a large and well-preserved site. Moving to the second floor of the exhibition (past the Pompeii sections for now), we see the objects that defined the Akrotirians in day to day life before the eruption. Given that the evidence represents a snapshot of the last days before the eruption hit Akrotiri, this part of the exhibition nicely captures the idea of “eternity in a day”. Second, this part also stresses the opposite implication: the evidence represents the product of generations of development in Akrotiri, petrified in one single day.
These two points are most explicitly captured in the daily objects that people were using for food consumption and dietary habits. What we that this dietary imagery and vegetation pervaded many spheres in the Akrotirians ways of life. This equally shows how much as modern students we can gloss and learn about other forms of evidence across the huge site of Akrotiri from these same motifs.
Regarding actual food consumption, we find the community using complex systems. While organic remains including bones and seeds tell us about their standard diets like elsewhere, there are also man-made implements such as grinders, pestle and mortars, and jars to transport wine and oil that richly highlight the trade links and diverse consumption of these Akrotirians. On display is even a nice wine press, as well as a 3,600-year-old beehive. This is mirrored in the evidence of frescoes: depictions of boys holding fish in their fishing nets suggests the consumption of fish. This evidence of continuous and well-established agricultural life spans various media, including on vase paintings and the monumental frescoes, another showing shepherds and their flocks (Flotilla Frieze). What this evidence does, as the exhibition presents it, is capture the vibrant and ongoing life that the Akrotirians were living well before the eruption and up to it. Although life was stopped in a day, there was much more before it — especially in the aspects of life we sometimes don’t see as well preserved in other sites. Eternity also covered the more menial aspects of life, including dietary habits — yet methodologically we can tell a lot from studying that single motif.
Indeed, the theme of dietary habits also allows the exhibition to study social classes at Akrotiri, and especially the higher class lifestyle, through the theme of religion and cults. The motifs of crops, including barley and grapes, found on vessels and nippled ewer jars suggest that some of these objects were used in cults for agricultural activities and deities (through libations). We similarly see more expensive objects that the elite had access to decorated with other agricultural and zoomorphic motifs, including the bull’s head-shaped rhyton and triton-shaped shell. Indeed, the information panels argue that the objects that were most intricately carved and displayed the most movement were those most valued by the elite. Therefore, these agricultural symbols can be also read in certain contexts to understand “prestige objects”, social statuses, and the activities of the elite.
Finally, these daily habits and food consumption also attests to another major area, in the spirit of reconstructing a society from the rich archaeological remains of Akrotiri: commerce and trade. The similarities of the vessels, and the sometimes agricultural motifs on them, in Akrotiri with those found elsewhere in the Aegean, especially Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean (Syria, Egypt), highlights high levels of contact and imports in Akrotiri. This is perhaps nicely seen in the spectacularly detailed fresco depicting a griffin, the notably Eastern creature, and a river scene with “exotic” fauna and agriculture. Beyond the actual abundance of evidence we have, which might skew comparative views about Akrotiri’s wealth given the comparative less evidence elsewhere, this attests to the broad contacts and cosmopolitan nature of the site. Therefore, this final section on the ancient material of Akrotiri, in my view, highlights (on the more academic front) how its evidence has enabled us to shed light on a whole range of life and culture from dietary consumption to social classes and trading otherwise more difficult in other sites. This helps us understand both the wealth but also the limitations that come with studying such well-preserved sites like Akrotiri and Pompeii. All this is done through the theme of agriculture, consumption, and daily life.
Finally for this section, it is interesting to see how the parallel section in the Pompeian section treats this subject differently. Instead of focusing on the objects that were left behind in Akrotiri, largely due to the fact that the inhabitants of Akrotiri had all fled already, the Pompeian section takes the opposite perspective — and focuses on the objects that the refugees took away with them and which were found on their bodies. In this light, it focuses its attention directly on the experience of refugees and immigrants forced to leave due to natural disasters — it is here where modern parallels become clear, presenting us with the “human dimensions of the tragedy”.
This is perhaps most interestingly seen in what they select to take away with them. Many bronze keys have been found, suggesting that the fugitives had some hope that they could return to collect more significant possessions later. In times of great hurry, they decided to obtain the means to their resources over the resources themselves. It might also hint at the fact that they did not expect the eruption to be so devastating. Likewise, they continued to think practically by taking lamps and torches with them, to see in the darkness from the ash. These people were thinking practically. At the same time, however, many still did bring their portable valuables — many bodies were found with coins and precious jewellery, while others resorted to higher powers than earthly money to purchase their salvation: many bronze figurines of the gods were found with them. What we see here is perhaps how similar the thought-process and priorities of these ancient refugees were: turn to the practical aspects and those that can ensure wealth to survive. It is difficult to know if the Akrotirians did a similar thing, but it might represent a broader trend in these unique sites destroyed by a volcano.
This fruitful combination of the academic field and personal experience of the sufferers is nicely mirrored throughout part 2, in the case of Pompeii. Here, however, it does so through a wonderful usage of the space of the exhibition, and, beyond focusing on one main theme (e.g. dietary habits as in the Akrotiri section), invites you instead to explore an entire Roman domus as if in situ.
Part 2: Pompeii — constructing a site in the museum & the benefits of studying on the macro-scale
Immediately after the very first room comparing Pompeii and Santorini, you begin the section dedicated to Pompeii. But you don’t just begin it — you relive the experience, quite literally. Rather than focusing on the major archaeological interests in Akrotiri and dividing the display by it (dietary habits, daily life, cult, social status, and ritual), the next four rooms of the Pompeii section are set out with art from each individual part of a Roman house, all in their original order. In other words, the exhibition phenomenologically enables you to walk through an ancient Pompeian domus (a seemingly “standard” one, given the constituent parts are taken from different houses) as close as possible through the different artefacts borrowed from each part and placed in relatively accurate positions. This nicely shows just how museum exhibits can enhance the experience of the visitor and transport them back into the ancient context, trying to understand the experience of a Roman house better.
To achieve this, they display many individual parts of each component room in Pompeii’s houses. This was perhaps one of the strongest or most impressive parts of the Pompeii part of the exhibition — it grouped together a huge number of some of the most famous frescoes from Pompeii together. By putting them into a room in what scholars think would have been their conventional locations, it quite magically felt as though one was walking through the “best” ancient domus, going through the constituent parts in order. There are a few limitations below, especially the anachronistic issue of piling together evidence from different houses and times, but it more powerfully helped focus attention on what an ancient household actually was like, presenting us with a rare snapshot of a medium-sized town in Italy.
This recreated experience of an original Roman household starts when you enter through a set of doors, preserved in plaster, from the original. You can still see the imprints of the closing lock mechanism and panels intact, made from wood and iron. Moreover, the frescoes just outside of this door (not necessarily belonging to the same house) depict two versions and scenes of Venus, the tutelary deity of Pompeii. Thereby, this layout attempts to capture the outer space and beliefs of the public life of Pompeii. This is nicely contrasted with the artefact just behind this wall.
Then, following the path of an ancient inhabitant, the visitor passes by a lararium from Terzigno Villa 6, or shrine to the household gods (including the Lares, Penates, and Genius), remarkably reconstructed and well preserved. As one of the most sacred places in the domus, its prominent location and size contribute to its significance. This was where the family members used to honour their dead ancestors, rather than the Venus who protected the city of Pompeii in the public sphere (not exclusively of course, there were other Venus frescoes in the houses in private contexts). Just like the layout today, the painting on the lararium is also didactic — the pig’s head, skewered eel, and ham leg might signal the types of sacrificial food needing to be offered.
This is then surrounded by frescoes on the walls of what would have been the atrium (some however which originally might have been in other rooms). Following the exhibition’s aim of displaying just how much of a society, both diachronically and synoptically, we can discern from the sites of Pompeii (and Akrotiri), the exhibition breaks convention a little by including frescoes from each of Pompeii’s four fresco styles. By placing these side by side, it nicely captures how these images morphed over time. Indeed, by placing the frescoes of the first style from the House of the Orchard, with its simple dividing and decorative measures, alongside the narrative frescoes of Dionysus and Ariadne or Alexander and Roxane of the third/fourth style from the Insula Occidentalis, they make use of the different time periods and locations (which might obscure the academic accuracy of it) to highlight the conceptual changes and functions of frescoes over time. Finally, the exhibition does not solely focus on changes over time— it also tells us about the different audiences. One of the frescoes, from the House of the Cryptoporticus, contains etched graffiti by children, depicting bears and huntsmen (maybe gladiators) fighting. It nicely captures how vibrant the domus would have been, and perhaps how similar it is to ours today (at the time of writing self-isolation from Covid-19 had taken hold).
At the same time, however, that very fact is also one thing to be wary of: the layout meshes together frescoes of different styles in what seems to be a single household. To an unconscious audience, this combination might equally elide the focus on the development of these frescoes by suggesting they belong to the same time period. For example, the big and exquisitely decorated strongbox preserved at the end of the “atrium” comes not from Pompeii but from nearby Oplontis (current Torre Annunziata — although the panel argues that such objects were common in elite households in that position). Equally, at times the density of such famous frescoes placed all together overshadows the fact that they were found over a great variety of houses: it collapses the real social distinctions and classes as the Akrotiri part does less. However, in the final room (the peristyle), they do better in the opposite perspective of remaining accurate to the evidence: they include three magnificent and huge frescoes all from the House of the Golden Bracelet, thereby giving a sense of the overarching composition and intention of the artists within the same domus (Room 32 dating from the second quarter of the 1st century BCE). Here, we nicely see the symbolic nature of this painting through the depiction of plants, which in nature would not be able to grow next to each other due to their different necessary climates to grow. Moreover, it plays into the early example set by the House of Livia and its similar magnificent fresco there. The frescoes at Pompeii thereby enable us to make links with other buildings. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between these links to present accurate information; otherwise, the exhibition runs the risk of suggesting they come from the same household.
Thereby, for an audience that is less acquainted with Pompeian households, the exhibition’s presentation and layout are fundamental in influencing how we perceive and understand the monuments. The clever layout of mimicking an ancient domus and having so many famous frescoes in one place at times obfuscate the fact that they belong to the same house (as they do in the peristyle); consistency is key.
Continuing with the theme of frescoes, we then move into the garden (hortus), which became the new focus and“ revolving point” of the house from the 2nd century BCE following Hellenistic models. Likewise, the ornamental elements within them became masterpieces to be looked at. Taken from the House of the Golden Cupids, the garden reconstruction in the exhibition, along with its decoration of small pillars with vegetal motifs, mosaic, herms, and pinakes (panels), creates an “imaginary microcosm in which the Dionysiac universe predominated”, one of controlled nature within the house. Perhaps similar to what we see at Akrotiri with the Fresco of the three Adorants, the use of archaic gods and their cults might have become simple decorative means now empty of their original religious connotations. In this way, perhaps, we can see the development of thought and decoration within the Pompeiian household. Nevertheless, the most impressive point here is just how much it looks like an actual garden in the grey space of the museum: the combination of many great artworks and the subtle touch of the blue glass in the nymphaeum creates a sense of the ancient garden full of water and transports you back there.
Finally, the exhibition adds one more room about the reception of Pompeii’s destruction in ancient times, before moving onto modern receptions of it in art. This is nicely depicted by a relief panel from the House of Caecilius Jucundus, which forces us to question our understanding of Pompeii’s final days and how the ancient Pompeiians themselves understood the eruption and their fates. Here, we see the effects of the 62BCE earthquake in the ancient forum (with the slanted Temple of Jupiter in the background), as also described by Seneca in his Naturales Questiones Book 6. (Indeed, it is interesting to see how Seneca moulds the earthquake for his own present aims, namely to inculcate the Stoic doctrine and highlight the people feared not so much the earthquake but death). Although not necessarily suggesting a temporary move to another nearby place as the Akrotirians did, this evidence does show that people continued to stay in Pompeii (as the reconstruction at Akrotiri likewise suggests) even after the forewarning earthquakes of 62BCE, before the volcanic eruption 17 years later. As at Akrotiri, the city was in a partial phase of large-scale reconstruction when the city erupted — highlighting how attached the Pompeiians were to their homes and lives, and the importance of their repatriation as fugitives. As the relevant panel says, perhaps it is this constant return and fascination with the city that helped solidify the “contemporary legend of Pompeii”. Even here, it’s not so much about the destructive fate which buried the city that formed this fascination of Pompeii, but perhaps the continuation of habitation and permanence of their city and lives, always hoping to return even in the face of imminent destruction.
Just before ending this fantastic section on the ancient city of Pompeii, however, the exhibition does stray a bit and, to signal the progression to the modern reception of Pompeii’s destruction, includes Andy Warhol’s exploding Mt Vesuvius (1985) and places it right behind a hole in the fresco of the triclinium. This creates a stark contrast and nice sense of continuity between the past and present, as though the present rethinkings of them can provide a window into the past world (or vice versa). At the same time, however, it also signals a potentially more murky aspect: the ancient past is often conditioned and interpreted by present agendas. The exhibition’s deliberate mixing between ancient and modern artefacts in these rooms, and later more pronounced in the final section, signals the importance of this confluence between past and present. This mixing of the past and present, this engagement with Vesuvius and its lava, also extends back to the ancient world: as the modern panel says, part of the nymphaeum in the garden was decorated with actual solidified lava to give the impression of a grotto. This helps to transition to the more “sublime” aspect of Mt Vesuvius, as the exhibition will go on to explore in the final part.
Thereby, the first Pompeii section nicely brings out methodological questions about how we can approach the ancient site, replete with so much information, and how we can display and learn about it. Equally, however, its distortions of certain facts such as provenance and date accentuate these questions, and compels us to think more self-reflectively on our own approaches and find new ones to the evidence. It is herein that I found the exhibition most useful — opening up a whole range of semantic questions I would otherwise have taken a long time to come up with myself without having the evidence before me. It is perhaps this mixing between the academic and purely stunning aesthetic quality of the famous frescoes that makes this exhibition so useful and effective.
Part 3: The horror and terror today: Classical Receptions of the sites and volcanic eruptions today
Perhaps the very transition between the final section of Santorini with that of modern receptions of eruptions and the cities was the best way at describing this final section. There was a video projection of a simulation of the tsunami hitting ancient Thera on three sides of the wall — it is an immersive experience, full of sound, full of colours, and meant to make you understand just how devastating it would have been. This use of video and 3D simulation to reconstruct the ancient experience of natural disaster is a powerful step to making us understand not just their experience in the academic sense, but also how similar it must have been to modern ones, and urges us to think about it — as it does in a particularly vivid image at that room’s end.
This final section aimed to highlight the horror and suffering caused by these natural disasters, our responses to them today, and our fascination with the ancient sites as conduits for our own experiences. Indeed, this video effectively conveyed the horror of the scale of the destruction at Santorini. The eruption of 1630–1600BCE, “one of the greatest ancient cataclysms”, was so destructive that it split the island of Santorini into the three separate islands we see today and was even (potentially) recorded in ancient literary sources including the Egyptian records (Tempest Stele of Ahmose I) and Old Testament. How to capture the great extent of the suffering? How to visualise the metres of ash that covered the remains when archaeologists were digging them up?
How would the ancients have understood this disaster? To a certain extent, we can reconstruct some sort of image from the ancient site (as we saw in one of the final artefacts discussed in the Pompeii section). Although Pompeii and Santorini are often contrasted by the presence of the dead in the city when the eruption occurred (Akrotiri none, Pompeii some), several bodies have been recently uncovered at Akrotiri. What does this mean? Not everyone evacuated in time. Why — and what specifically does “in time” entail? Archaeologists believe that some people had returned to the site and were in the middle of rebuilding the city when the volcanic eruption occurred. The paucity of actual bodies in the site suggested that Akrotiri was evacuated long before and not in a rushed manner, likely instigated by and forewarned of the eruption by the many earthquakes that occurred beforehand. However, these likely happened several weeks before the actual eruption, a timespan which justified some people to return home and start repairs on their houses from the earthquakes. Therefore, rather than being frozen in a specific day all of a sudden, Akrotiri was buried in the middle of a brief reconstruction phase — a period that had likely been planned, suggesting that some of the evidence is not fully reflective of the innocent daily life of the Akrotirians. Already here, therefore, we see Akrotiri as a place where people kept on trying to come back and live in; relating to modern issues, it also makes us try to think about refugee repatriations and the processes (and sometimes failures) behind them.
In this final section, the exhibition explores two more aspects: the horrors of volcanic destructions and the suffering that it inflicts on refugees, and the artistic representations that sprung from these and from the archaeological excavations of them.
First, the exhibition goes on to talk about “Volcanoes and the Sublime”, studying the interests in erupting volcanoes as the sublime aspect of nature; yet it also highlights the much more human and suffering aspect. This highlights the already very rich and contested reception of the two sites in the popular imagination, and their links to natural disasters and refugees in the contemporary world. On the one hand, the exhibition first shows the fascination with volcanoes in the vivid paintings of Vesuvius by Souffrier (1815) and Turner (1817), with people standing and watching the lava flow rather than escaping away. Indeed, part of the aura and vivid colours depicted in these paintings was created by the eruption of Tambora in Indonesia around the time of painting.
Yet something is not quite right about them. They elide the loss of human life. When faced with the actual horrific facts of these natural disasters, we start to see how these artists were glorifying the calamities and human suffering involved, as Robby Sexton has noted in a recent blogpost (“Mount Vesuvius and the Dark Romance of Disaster”). But other paintings in this room equally focus on the more destructive and human consequences of this eruption. The paintings of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, Frederi Schopin, and Giovanni Maria Benzoni all stress the inevitable, harsh death and suffering that the people displaced by these eruptions must undergo. In one, we see soldiers and women frantically trying to run away in every direction from the oncoming red glow, which has already obliterated half-standing buildings on the background. Bulls drown, carts are overturned, people already fall and mourn their dead. The confusion of the image captures the harrowing truth of the physical destruction and displacement that these natural disasters cause. These paintings are also very much a product of their own times, their own disasters and population displacements.
Likewise, artists also sometimes highlighted this suffering for Akrotiri, drawing on some scholars’ connection (whether real or more general) of Plato’s mythical Atlantis with the island of Santorini and reversing that utopia with the suffering. The Russian painter of Italian scenes, Andrei Taovlevich Beloborodov, depicts one such Atlantis in his watercolours, stressing its destruction by the “horrendous cataclysm”. These natural disasters are equally about the pain and suffering of these everyday people — and the fact that certain artists have realised this and commemorated them in these forms of art attests to the need to spread awareness about the issues of natural disasters and refugees that very much affect us today.
And perhaps the most striking and provocative image of the entire exhibition comes in here — precisely because it bridges the gap so close and almost seems too real. I end on this piece. As you enter the first room of the final modern receptions part, you notice a body lying in the far left-hand side corner of the room. The body if fully clothed, in black — the hair and posture make the figure look pretty realistic. They are supine, sideways on the floor, face turned away from visitor, and the limp enough to be a human. What makes it a bit eery is the rest of the atmosphere of the room, which has ancient utensils and other modern representations of eruptions — alongside other human bodies in the form of Fiorelli’s plaster casts and modern orange geometric reconstructions of them. In fact, the body is dressed exactly like a guard standing at the opposite end of the room — they say nothing. I instinctively went towards the body and tried to help it up, quite shocked at the image — until I realised that the face was made of wire and it was indeed a statue. It was the shock of thinking that this was genuinely a real person, not thinking that it was a simulation, that partly made it terrifying: intensifying what the bodies we had seen in the first room did, it made you realise just how human such casts (whether plaster or wire) of bodies actually were — how they had lives, how they suffered and cannot move from the ground. It makes you want to help them because they are so real. For me, it struck a hard chord because it was only until I went to help it up and realised it was a cast that it suddenly resembled one of the drowned bodies on the coast of Turkey and Greece of refugees we constantly see in the news. These are real people, and in one image you realise just how much they have suffered and how similar they are to victims of war and natural disaster today.
How can we deal with this? Can we find any solutions? The other artworks in the room now fit in, and suggest alternative ways of coping and trying to deal with these problems. On the one hand, there are modern paintings and reconstructions of these bodies, suggesting that we can use art as a medium to tackle the suffering and the pain, whether it be for activist groups, refugees and survivors themselves, or us in the audience. On the other, the useful discussion and stories of kindness and altruism to these people that lined some information panels around the room inform us to keep on trying to make us become more opening and welcoming to these suffering humans. Finally, the very fact that this exhibition displays these issues and compares the ancient and modern disasters makes us realise the need to think about them and find solutions urgently — and one of the best ways to do this is to turn back to the ancient evidence that we so often glamorise and highlight the real experiences already present within it. We can yet learn from the past.
And yet that prone sculpture also worked in the other way, as well: it also makes you realise how that person could be any one of us — either a dead Pompeian, a general refugee, or ourselves. We are all the same in death. By doing so, it made me come closer to realising and empathising just how awful such destructions are. And it was from then that I looked around the rest of the room and read the panels about current natural disasters and displacements spread around the room, with this image in mind. It might do different things to different people, but the forcefulness of that image and its and closeness to us certainly aims to help us understand just how close and real these natural disasters and displacements are today — and the need to think about solutions and contribute our part to them.
Conclusion: Moving forwards into eternity or back into the past? (Aka we lava bit of intertextual references)
Alongside the horrific impact, the placement of that sculpture in that room about modern receptions of displacements, natural disasters, artistic representations of them and ways to respond to them urges us to think about solutions today, whether involving our academic world or more generally. Indeed, its placement after all the ancient evidence, some already stressing the suffering, that we saw bridges the gap of those 3,700 years and makes it much closer to us. Perhaps the first panel’s claim to highlight how these two cultures influence our culture even today, albeit being so far apart from us, contains an important grain of truth. It asks us to think about it and our relation to such modern issues — and asks us to act on it.
There are still flaws with this final section of the exhibition: as Kozlovski has noted, it is a pity that all of the artworks are by men, lacking the equally present female perspective in these sufferings. Moreover in general, the exhibition might take its title too seriously: by saying that it “propone un confronto straordinario e inedito fra i due siti antichi” (advocates for an extraordinary and unedited confrontation between the two ancient sites, my Italics), the site does exactly that and ironically highlights very few intersections between Pompeii and Santorini in their bare forms without stretching the facts (perhaps precisely because there are so few apart from the destruction and later archaeology).
But that does not limit the broader message it sends. It’s precisely how much the exhibition makes you think about current issues that showed just how successful it was. It elevates the past evidence of Pompeii and Santorini beyond the academic methodological questions and relates it to the real world — and for that it is commendable. The past becomes a unique lens with which to think about these questions — whether they be academic concerning how we can approach these sites and use them to enhance our understanding of these cultures impossible at other sites, trying to think about solutions for today’s problems, or at least learning to feel some empathy and understand the horrific experience such displaced peoples and refugees of natural disasters undergo.
And what’s so promising is that even this exhibition and thought process will keep on giving. Just like the new finds at both sites that we discussed at the beginning of this piece, this exhibition is continually helping us not just to reshape our understanding of the ancient cities for academic scholarship, but also to link it to the present day and change a general audience’s view about it. Perhaps what I like most about this is how it emphasises how Classics, with its evidence and thinking process needed for it, can be relevant to thinking about and tackling the problems of today.
So returning the initial scepticism that we had about the first panel’s links between using those two 1,700-year-separated cultures to understand our own even greater distanced one, perhaps it is there where the value of this exhibition lies. We can best see this value in action in one of the last paintings in the final room — Palizzi’s “Fanciulla negli scavi di Pompei” (Young girl in the excavations of Pompeii). This nicely encapsulates all of the aspects relating to today we have discussed so far: the woman reflects upon the past, which gives her a conduit to reimagine herself and think about the present and herself. The intense stare between these women, even given their differences from hir colour to clothing, highlights the pertinent link between us. The girl is standing upon those people who died ages ago in an instant, while she lives on; and yet she is equally a speck in time in the eternal and enduring presence of this fresco — salvation and destruction, death and rebirth, become blurred again with useful focuses on the present issues. Academically, what we can see here is a paradigm shift, a different way of thinking about the past given the magnificent excavations at Pompeii that brought the ancient world so much closer, made it so much more tangible. And so she is brought back into the present — who knows, perhaps she herself will change the way that we think about the ancient remains of Pompeii and Santorini as we do today.
Most importantly, she too is bridging the span of long-lost, distant cultures that the exhibition “Pompei e Santorini: L’Eternità in un Giorno” dauntingly tackles and does so successfully.
Many thanks to my friend Nana for coming along with me and experiencing the exhibition, and listening to my incessant comments throughout. This is for you. It was a nice follow-up to my trip to Santorini earlier in the summer.
“Pompei e Santorini: L’Eternità in un Giorno” was exhibited at the Scuderie del Quirinale (Via Ventiquattro Maggio, 16, 00186 Roma) from 11 October 2019– 6 January 2020. Entrance ticket is €15,00 for full price, € 13,00 for reduced (the Scuederie tickets are always more expensive as a palazzo held by the President). Opening times: Sunday to Thursday: 10:00–20:00; Friday and Saturday: 10:00–22:30. Closest metro stop: Colosseo or Cavour. Highly recommended!
For the best review out there yet, see Alina Kozlovski’s for the British School at Rome: https://britishschoolatrome.wordpress.com/2019/12/20/pompei-e-santorini-leternita-in-un-giorno-exhibition-at-the-scuderie-del-quirinale/.
Other reviews: https://www.romeing.it/pompeii-santorini-eternity-in-a-day-exhibition-rome/.
For the official site: https://www.scuderiequirinale.it/mostra/pompei-e-santorini-leternita-in-un-giorno.