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  • Writer's pictureEmily Brantley

The Last Days of Pompeii

The Getty Villa brings together two of my great loves: art and antiquities. I graduated from Loyola Marymount University with two bachelor's degrees, one in Fine Arts and the other Classical Civilizations (ancient history of the western world), so you can see why this is one of my favorite places. When I heard about The Last Days of Pompeii exhibit, I couldn't wait to see it!

First century Pompeii was something of a vacation spot in the Roman world, with an amphitheater, bath houses, and all of the other offerings that would entice a wealthy Roman citizen for a nice getaway. Economy boomed and the town bustled. In 79 A.D., however, the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted massively. While the townspeople attempted to flee, the cloud of ash descended upon them, covering Pompeii in a layer 15-20 feet deep. While most of the population perished, there were survivors, among them Pliny the Younger who recorded his experience. The following is an excerpt:

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. (Radice, Betty (translator), The Letters of The Younger Pliny (1969))

The thick layer of ash lay there covering the town, undisturbed, until the 1700s, preserving beneath it a moment’s snapshot of 1st century Roman life.

Part of what brought Pompeii into the limelight upon its rediscovery is the shocking way in which the volcanic ash preserved the shape of the people in their last moment of life. The ash covered and hardened around them, and over time left cavities where their bodies lay. When carefully filled with plaster, casts can be made of these people, perfectly depicting the moment of their death. People curled in the fetal position, huddling together, a dog writhing in pain, a mother clutching her baby. It is a sobering and fascinating glimpse at a moment frozen in time.

When I read the catalog of works to be on display at Getty Villa and saw some of these casts, I was thrilled for the opportunity to see them for myself. Pompeii has long been on my “hit list” for travel, and now parts of it were coming to me.

The exhibit itself is put together in an interesting way—it is not just the usual antiquities, relics, and potsherds from the town. Breaking the norm, it also features works of art—paintings and sculptures—by numerous famous artists throughout the ages who received their inspiration from the disaster at Pompeii. Among these artists are many famed Modernists and Surrealists, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Salvador Dali. It is an incredible opportunity to see some of their works in person and in an intimate setting.

There are, of course, the body casts, as well, among them the famous crouching man (who was, in fact, not crouching but lying face-down), the writhing dog, and a young woman sprawled on the ground. They are at once macabre and beautiful.

The exhibit will be on display through January 7, 2013. Entry to the museum is free, although there is a $15 parking fee per vehicle. Reservations are required, so be sure to call ahead.

Enjoy! Emily

Made a new friend in the garden. We have a lot in common.

Fun Museum Tip: Go with an appetite! The Getty Villa has a delicious cafeteria; I recommend the lasagna. They grow most of their own herbs and spices in the gardens on the premises! The gardens themselves are a romantic draw, beautifully cultivated and kept.

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