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Review: Last Supper in Pompeii

at the Ashmolean Museum

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Helen McCombie

The Ashmolean has done it again, with another breathtaking exhibition to add it to its long list of successes. Since the arrival of current director Xa Sturgis in 2014, the museum has gone from strength to strength. The latest exhibition takes an archaeological turn, examining the richness of the Roman life which was wiped out on that fateful night in AD79. By exploring the Roman love of food, wine and generally having a good time, the exhibition succeeds in bringing a touching immediacy to those long-lost lives.

The story of Pompeii can’t fail to catch the attention; the high and mighty of the Roman world living hedonistic and hearty lives in a gorgeously decorated city, brought down in a single tragic event, but preserved to tell their tale hundreds of years later. But it is one with which we have all become rather familiar. We learn about it in school, there are dozens of documentaries available, and even Hollywood has taken a stab at dramatising the story. The Ashmolean exhibition cuts through all this by speaking to a wholly different type of familiarity: our shared love of good food, close friends, and a swinging party. It expertly brings to life the world of Pompeii. Nothing makes you feel quite so close to these ancient people as a loaf of bread, carbonised in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, as it sat waiting to be bought on a shop shelf. The exhibition makes fantastic use of items such as this, many of which have never been allowed out of Italy before. They sit alongside fascinating displays which tell of the culture these objects were a part of. The breadth of the exhibition is astonishing; from wine glasses and mosaics, to wall-paintings, shop signs and cooking pots, there is a real sense that these objects have only just been left, as if their owner might simply have gone into the other room.

Last Supper in Pompeii is a masterpiece, making the past tangible, and inviting empathy for people it is all too easy to think of in caricatures. We are very lucky that, if only briefly, we need not travel to Italy to have a chance to step back into the Roman world, and come face to face with a people closer to ourselves than we might realise.
Last Supper in Pompeii runs until 12 January

Read more of Helen’s work at thefeministgadabout.com

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