Frescoes, mosaics with plenty of other artefacts at the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum, including a gladiator graffito that I haven't seen before. The exhibition is laid out like a Roman villa with the finds on show in each room corresponding to the rooms in which the artefacts would have originated. This works really well as a grouping though makes progression through the exhibition a bit strained as this is inevitably a popular show. Three complete frescoes of entire walls are presented in a space similar to the original building in Pompeii, which gives a great sense of the geography and also makes sense of the mirroring of the imagery between the panels.
It takes me a while for my eye to adjust to the visual language and codes of Roman art, however the painting of the frescoes is fluid and immediate (the faces and clothing are particularly striking) but the overall interpretation doesn't come easily as it relies on the particular conventions of Roman art. Thus a serpent can mean luck, an image of Bacchus in a picture can indicate drink and dining or a sexual adventure and a phallus wards off evil, and so on. And the use of perspective is to different graphic conventions than the “classic” Renaissance conventions that we are used to. There's an interesting display showing the progression of the three periods of interior design at Pompeii and a frescoe which shows the profile and verdant slopes of the volcano Vesuvius before it “blew its top”.
The sculptures and ornaments shown are of similarly stunning quality of craftsmanship as the frescoes There’s a Cave canem mosaic warning of a dog in the house. Perhaps most surprising is the amount of glass we see, both window panes and complete drinking vessels, which were preserved by the results of the eruption of Vesuvius.
The Roman cultural sensitivities are also presented as they were: the art from the Pompeii toilet, with motto cacator cave malu(m), is shown in the same space as the kitchen artefacts implements. But although this horrifies modern notions of bacterial hygiene, there’s no explanation as to why the Roman civilisation did not decline prematurely due to dysentery.
And the Romans had their own codes with regard to nudity: nudity was taboo but not in the same situations as nudity is taboo to us. The famous and fabulous phallic tyntabulum is on display, as are a number of frescoes depicting love-making. And the notorious “Bacchus and the goat” sculpture is in a glass cabinet so that visitors can see all aspects of this unusual and disturbing but erotic piece, that was kept under lock and key in the reserved collection in Naples for several centuries after its discovery.
The exhibition ends with a display of the time line of the eruptions of the volcano Vesuvius and - having helped us to identify with the people of Pompeii of AD 79 - shows some heart-rending displays of the casts and personal possessions of people who have been identified only by the voids in the larva vacated by their incinerated bodies.
Tickets are for timed entry: it was definitely worth booking in advance to avoid the queue, despite the booking fee.