A new MAC exhibit brings Pompeii's victims of Mount Vesuvius's eruption back to vivid life

click to enlarge Various artifacts on display at the MAC.
Various artifacts on display at the MAC.

Italy's Pompeii is the stuff of legend, conjuring images of humans huddled or sprawled as if in torment, forever encased in the massive cloud of hot ash from nearby Mount Vesuvius, which erupted in 79 AD. And yet, as the new Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture's exhibit Pompeii: The Immortal City illustrates, life in Pompeii has transcended time. The exhibition presents a kind of living history gracefully preserved through careful study of its remains, balancing the destructive potential of an active volcano with a celebration of first century Roman life.

The international traveling exhibition has broad appeal. The first American host, for example, was the Science Museum of Virginia and after the show leaves the MAC, it will head to Orlando Science Museum in Florida before returning to Italy for refurbishing.

STEM-minded individuals may appreciate the exploration of ancient machinery, such as the models of a crane used to lift segments of architectural columns and an odometer that enabled horse-drawn carts to accurately measure distance in real-time. Among the 2,000-year-old artifacts are weight scales, medical devices and an extraordinary bronze stand with four lamps and a statue of Dionysius. The presence of a marble sundial is a reminder of our debt to the Romans for our modern calendar.

Those interested in archaeology will appreciate the role Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum played in the development of archaeology. Although discovered in the early 1700s, excavation didn't commence until almost 50 years later, and is still ongoing, with roughly one-third of the city still buried. In the mid-1800s, an Italian archeologist formalized the excavation process and developed a method of preserving the bodies immortalized in ash by pouring concrete into the hollow where their bodies stood or lay or crouched in their final moments.

Replicas of two such body casts are included on an elevated platform inside one of two immersive enclosed displays. One figure, identified only as "a slave," lies prone, his (or her) bare feet visible, as are wrinkles of fabric and a possible head covering, all appearing as if sprayed with sand. The surrounding video depicts nine modern dramatizations of typical citizens of Pompeii, underscoring the human element of the disaster.

An even more powerful video plays inside the 360-degree, immersive projection room, which features 16 projectors and a dramatic sound and musical score. It takes viewers from a bluebird day in (recreated) first century AD Pompeii through the rapid escalation of thick, rolling smoke, furious rumbling, fire and falling ash. It's a compelling video, ending with images of figures engulfed in gray ash. It's well worth seeing several times.

Another section addresses how ancient Pompeians ate and drank — and drink they did, the region being known for winemaking. The Roman god Bacchus figures in several frescoes, a kind of painting whereby pigment is applied to damp, plaster-covered walls. Artifacts include clay amphorae — large, sturdy elongated vessels with thick walls and handles for carrying things like wine and oil — and a model of a device that epitomizes the Bacchanalian lifestyle: a glass vessel which allowed one to drink wine while reclining.

Looking more like a flattened cloche from atop a Parisian woman's head than a loaf of bread, the world's earliest evidence of baking is otherwise perfectly preserved. It's one of several items of everyday life that still fascinate several thousand years later.

Look for the metal bathing tub, quite small by today's standards, plus jewelry, farm implements and a model of a first century olive press that looks uncannily similar to those still in use.

There's something for art lovers in the exhibition, too. Frescoes, for example, provide a fascinating cross-reference to other artifacts, illustrating food, clothing, hairstyle and recreation. Still others show the pantheon of Roman gods and goddesses, highlighting their importance in everyday life. There are also several pieces of Roman glass, most of it pale turquoise.

"Crafting Glass: From Roman Pompeii to Today," a lecture by WSU art historian Hallie Meredith, is one of numerous events accompanying the exhibition, which runs through May. Other events address such topics as Roman gladiators, prostitution in the ancient city, and epicurean delights, including an April exploration of winemaking using clay vessels, and a May event investigating Pompeian foods and wines.

And, lest we forget that we, too, live in an area vulnerable to volcanoes, the MAC's companion exhibit highlighting the 1980 eruption of Washington's Mount St. Helens runs through Sept. 6. ♦

Pompeii: The Immortal City • Through May 3; Tue-Sun from 11 am-5 pm • $10-$19.50 • Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture • 2316 W. First • northwestmuseum.org • 456-3931

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