Shadows of Pompeii

Originally published on Torontoist on June 11, 2015.

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Bronze of a woman fastening her peplos, positioned in front of an animated display of Mount Vesuvius erupting.

The cloud first appeared in Pompeii in the early afternoon. As the day wore on, the shower of pumice and other debris spewing out of Mount Vesuvius increased. People were crushed to death in their homes as the barrage of volcanic rock caused their roofs to collapse. By the next morning, escape was impossible, as the cloud gave way to lethal pyroclastic flows of ash and gas. Those remaining in Pompeii suffocated or burned to death. Covered over, the city buried in 79 AD became a tomb which wouldn’t be explored until the 18th century.

But while Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano covers the lethal aspects of the disaster, it also provides a rounded portrait of what life was like in the city before Vesuvius exploded. Over 200 artifacts tell the story of its people and their lifestyles.

There’s plenty of humour on display, playing into the bawdy, debauched imagery surrounding aspects of Roman life. Interpretive panels depict the Roman equivalent of graffiti, including a gladiator match drawn on a tomb. Panel titles play off modern culture, from “Better Homes and Villas” to “Sex in the City.” The latter, tucked into a corner of the exhibit, includes a fresco of the god Priapus shown weighing a generous physical endowment.

There are also scenes which resemble everyday life in the modern world. Whether it’s a painting of a woman fixing her hair while holding a hand mirror, or a display of cookware, these artifacts make it easier for visitors to relate with the Roman world.

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While light or bright colours dominate the displays through its initial sections, the backdrop turns black when you reach those covering the disaster. One of the few surviving bronze statues haunts the viewer thanks to its placement in front of an animated recreation of the eruption. Even more haunting are plaster casts of animal and human victims depicting their final expressions.

Though the exhibition officially opens on Saturday, there are several tie-in events on Friday night. Outside, the crystal will become the canvas for a multimedia show depicting the disaster, climaxing with the eruption at 10 p.m. Inside, those attending Friday Night Live can check out the exhibition. The evening’s title—“Toga! Toga!”—suggests the possibility of homages to John Belushi amidst the demonstrations, entertainment, and talks.

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