Pompeii at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Volcano

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts just opened a large exhibition on Pompeii, with over 220 archeological artifacts.

I was completely blown away (yikes, pun not intended). The objects were exceptional, from the colorful wall frescoes to the almost 2000-year-old bowl of olives. And the scenography was gorgeous; I especially appreciated the use of projections to set the ambiance. Rustling trees and a wandering peacock set the scene for the garden statuary; an immersive video of the exploding Mount Vesuvius surrounds visitors as they approach the room with plaster casts of the victims. 

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Statue
Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Dog

The exhibition does a superb job of storytelling. The first room clearly establishes the where (with a model of the city), when (with a timeline illustrated by Roman coins from each period) and who (with busts of Pompeian citizens). Then, visitors get to know both Pompeii and its inhabitants through glimpses of daily life, religion, entertainment, commerce, decorative arts... The objects are displayed thematically, and are extensive without being overwhelming.

Pompeii's tragic fate is handled very respectfully. In 79 C.E., an estimated 2,000 people lost their lives in only 24 hours. The exhibition takes two rooms to remember the human aspect of the disaster, stepping away from the historian's delight in the perfect preservation of a Roman town. 

Here are some of my favorite stories and objects from the exhibition

An earthquake, 17 years earlier

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Earthquake Relief

This marble relief shows the effects of the huge earthquake that hit Pompeii in 62 C.E., seventeen years before the volcanic eruption. Two-thirds of the town was destroyed, and rebuilding was still going on at the time of the eruption.

I love the precariously tilted temple and equestrian statues in this relief; it's unlike anything I've ever seen. The relief decorated the household shrine of a wealthy Pompeian banker.

On the Campaign Trail

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Politician

This fresco, of a man in a white toga handing out bread, actually depicts a political candidate campaigning by wooing voters with free loaves. Candidates would show that they were running for office by wearing these robes, the white symbolizing their righteous intentions. I tried to imagine all the US presidential candidates parading around in togas (though I'm not sure all of them would be qualified to wear the righteous white color...).

Who could run for office? Free and 'respectable' men, at least 25-years-old, who had a lot of money. They needed to be rich to be able to pay for grandiose gestures (like handing out bread), but also for financing public projects and entertainment. Basically, you had to pay for the privilege of being elected.

Side note: bread was a big deal in Pompeii. There were over 40 bakeries. 

First Century Power Suits

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Matrona Woman Statue

This elegant lady is making a statement with her outfit. Her clothing establishes her as a matrona (a "virtuous and faithful wife of a Roman citizen") and sets her apart from slaves and artisans. A woolen stola (a straight-cut garment) is worn over the tunica (the slip-like layer). At first the stola was always beige, but eventually they started to be worn in colors.

I tried to imagine how I would feel wearing this outfit around Pompeii, knowing that when people looked at me, they would see a woman to be respected. I also wondered what color I would want my stola and tunica to be in (I'm guessing hot pink was not available?). 

The Secret Cabinet (Il Gabinetto Segreto)

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Phallus Wind Chime

The Romans had a different, more accepting, outlook on sex and sexual imagery than we do today. This "Polyphallic" wind chime, for example, was not meant to be lewd; rather, the phallus and the noise of the chimes would have been seen as scaring away evil.

When the sexually explicit imagery on some objects from Pompeii were first excavated, they were deemed to be far to scandalous to be viewed. They were kept in a "secret cabinet", only visible to scholars (and male visitors who could bribe the guards). This secret cabinet grew in notoriety and became a popular stop for gentlemen traveling through Europe on the Grand Tour. It wasn't until the year 2000 that the collection finally became visible to the public.


Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Goblet

Banqueting was a big deal in Pompeii. People would eat reclined on couches, while musicians, wrestlers or poets would entertain them throughout the evening. 

The cup pictured here is decorated with ivy, a plant related to Bacchus and that was used for garlands in banquets. Wine was very important in Pompeii: everyone (even kids!) drank wine, though they thought it was "barbaric" to drink wine that had not been watered down. They had all sorts of recipes for spiced, mulled or iced wines. But watch out, because etiquette was essential, and bad behavior could bring dishonor to the host, the guests... and even the gods.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts created a mobile site for the exhibition that includes the wall texts and images of the displayed objects.

Pompeii at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (until September 5, 2016)

Address: 1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montréal ∣ MétroStation Peel or Station Guy-Concordia (Green Line) ∣ Opening hoursTuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, major exhibition open until 9pm on Wednesday

Pompeii, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mosaic Woman Face