'Pompeii' erupts at Franklin Institute

A plaster cast of one of the people of Pompeii killed by the eruption is part of the exhibition "One Day in Pompeii" at the Franklin Institute.
A plaster cast of one of the people of Pompeii killed by the eruption is part of the exhibition "One Day in Pompeii" at the Franklin Institute.
Posted: November 15, 2013

Few ancient sites stimulate the imagination as vividly as Pompeii.

The Great Pyramids of Giza have passed down to us void of life - save for the souls buried there. But Pompeii was teeming with activity, with the lives of men, women, and children when it was buried - and preserved - under ash and pumice after Mount Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24 in A.D. 79.

The Franklin Institute pays homage to Pompeii's vibrant life with One Day in Pompeii, an exhibition of 150 artifacts from the famous Italian city now through April 24. Produced by Premier Exhibitions, Inc., the exhibition will have its world premiere at the Franklin before touring the rest of the country.

"It's one of those moments in history that's entirely unique," said Alexandra Klingelhofer, vice president of collections for Premier. "An entire city has been buried and its population captured in a moment in time. . . . It allows us to recreate the time, the people and their lives and to give a unique window into a culture."

Objects in the show range from candleholders and spoons to stunning frescoes, bronze sculptures and gladiator helmets - even a bathtub. All are on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy, which excavated them from Pompeii and the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Boscoreale, which also were affected by the volcano.

The exhibition's creative director, Mark Lach, said during a guided tour that the show was designed to give visitors an organic journey through the ancient Roman city.

Visitors first walk through the various rooms of a typical upper-class villa. They emerge into the public areas. Displays illuminate the layout of the marketplace, the public baths, and the House of Gladiators.

The tour ends with a dramatic immersive experience of the various stages of the volcanic eruption and a haunting display of plaster casts of the Pompeii dead.

Made from plaster poured into body-shaped cavities left in the ash as each body decomposed, some of the figures are on their feet, some crouched on the ground, some in groups.

One Day in Pompeii gives "us a broad overview of all the different walks of life who were in operation on that particular day," said Brian Rose, a University of Pennsylvania archaeologist who served as one of the exhibition's technical advisers: "Not only are you seeing the kinds of houses they had, but the kinds of objects and tools they used."

This level of detail is rarely found in other archaeological digs in Italy, said Rose.

UCLA historian Ronald Mellor concurs. "We didn't have any examples of ancient Roman kitchens in Rome, because the city has been built and rebuilt over the ages."

Pompeii does.

Pompeii was first excavated during the height of the neoclassical movement, which idolized Greco-Roman art and architecture for its clean lines, its supposedly pristine whiteness, and its idealized, asexual presentation of the human body.

"That white, classical look is the inspiration behind the White House and the Capitol," said Mellor, whose works include a book on the Annals of Tacitus.

Ironically, the finds at Pompeii began challenging many of these prevailing assumptions. Archaeologists discovered lewd graffiti, and sexually explicit frescoes and statues. (The Franklin's is a family show and does not include any explicit material.)

Archaeologists also began to find statues that bore signs of having been painted in bright colors. It turns out that the idea that all statues from that era were gleaming white was an invention of the 18th century.

"For a very long time archaeologists were resistant to the evidence of the paint that would have covered the monuments," said Rose. "Statues were restored in terms of what you wanted them to look like, not what they might really have been like."

The explicit materials also were ignored and locked away.

Mellor said a view of Rome as it truly was would be jarring to most modern people.

"If we visited it as it was then, everything would be covered in red, yellow and black paint," said Mellor. "We'd probably say, 'Oh. My God, this is Disneyland! It's Las Vegas!"

The Pompeii presented at the Franklin Institute is hardly Vegas. But it is certainly alive and vibrant.


 Through April 24 at the Franklin Institute, 222 N. 20th Street.

Tickets: $27.50; $21.50 under 12 for daytime; $18; $11 under 12 for evening shows.

Information: 215-448-1200 or www.fi.edu



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