An Eruption of Fascinating Finds at the ROM’s Pompeii Exhibit

This image is no longer available

Garden Fresco Painted plaster MANN 8760 © The Superintendence for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples (SAHN)

Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano illuminates with a measure of haunting elegance one of ancient history’s most unthinkable disasters.

For a good chunk of its existence the ancient city of Pompeii enjoyed a reputation as a prosperous and picturesque resort town where rich Romans could hob nob in the public baths or sunbathe by the sea. The nearby Mount Vesuvius, however, ensured that the very name “Pompeii” became synonymous with human tragedy and suffering on two different occasions.

The first occasion came in 79 AD, when the volcano blew its top, annihilating the town with “a ‘pyroclastic surge’– a 100-miles-per-hour surge of superheated poison gas and pulverized rock.”

The second occasion came in 2014 AD, when Hollywood blew its top and a 3D “pyro-crap surge” hit movie theatres, annihilating the dreams of moviegoers who hoped this film may do history justice.

While the latter occasion has been largely forgotten, the former, and far more historically important one, is being unveiled and rediscovered at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum beginning tomorrow (June 13, 2015).

Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano illuminates with a measure of haunting elegance one of ancient history’s most unthinkable disasters. The quality, as well as the scope of artefacts here is impressive – one of the most inspired major exhibitions at the ROM in recent memory. The layout, too, of the exhibit leaves lots of space for visitors to spread around and gain full 360-degree views of some of the most eye-catching sights.

Presented in partnership with the Superintendence for Archaeological Heritage of Naples (SAHN) and the Soprintendenza Speciale per Pompei, Ercolano e Stabia (SSPES), the exhibit combines 200 artefacts directly from Pompeii and surrounding cities like Herculaneum – from frescos to jewellery to statues – all impeccably preserved by the ash that enveloped the town.

It begins on an unintentionally funny note, when visitors heading down the museum stairs encounter a massive ad depicting plumes of smoke and ash next to the museum’s fire exit sign, which shows a man running away from flames (see photo at right). If it was intentional, then it’s great to see a museum with a sense of humour.

Once inside the exhibit isn’t simply a collection of once buried Pompeii treasures. Instead, it begins by setting the stage for the disaster, exploring life in Rome during that time period, from politics to fashion to gladiators to ideologies surrounding beauty and class systems. Depending on how you feel about anatomically accurate sculptures depicting a mythical creature mating with a goat, or the most phallic wind chime I guarantee you have ever seen, you’ll either enjoy or hurry through the section that discusses sex in the ancient world.

And then, once you’ve grown comfortable among the authentic Roman scenery, the eruption hits. This is where the artefacts really hit home, from the cast of a canine caught in the disaster to multi-coloured glassware to the ornate gas lamps and mirror to pipes and pottery and tools to the bowl of figs that was set out to eat at the time of the eruption.

And just when you think you’ve seen the worst of it, you turn the corner at the end to discover the true human toll of this tragedy. But don’t worry, it’s not an impromptu screening of the aforementioned 2014 film Pompeii awaiting you. This exhibit focuses on a massive eruption, not a massive bomb.

Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano, which is most definitely worth checking out, runs from June 13, 2015 to January 3, 2016. For more information on the exhibit and related events, visit