The exhibition Pompei e Santorini: L’eternità in un giorno at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome (running 11/10/19-6/1/20) covers a lot of ground. The two ancient sites are linked by their tragic histories as places both devastated and preserved by volcanic eruptions. Pompeii met its fate just under two thousand years ago in AD 79, while the site of Akrotiri was destroyed somewhere around the middle of the second millennium BC (the exhibition dates the eruption to 1613 BC). Through a combination of ancient objects and more recent works of art, the display offers its visitors a look at the sites’ ancient lives and at the efforts of later audiences to uncover and respond to their remains.
Linking Greek and Roman cities by the natural disasters which befell them has an ancient precedent. When philosophically musing about how all things have to come to an end, the second century AD Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius listed Pompeii together with Herculaneum and the Greek city of Helike which was destroyed by a tsunami in 373 BC (Meditations 4.48). Even cities do not last forever. Despite its title, the exhibition rarely actively compares the two ancient sites. Aside from the first main room, both Pompeii and Akrotiri have their own spaces on separate floors.
As with many other exhibitions on Pompeii, the rooms dedicated to the city are largely organised around different spaces in a Roman house. With sections on the domus, the garden, and the triclinium, frescoes line the walls and a mosaic sits on the floor. A beautiful display of a lararium is accompanied with bronze statuettes of the lares, while jewellery and ceramic, metal, and glass vessels of all kinds line the cases. Some highlights from the Roman rooms include a hunting scene graffitied onto a fresco from the House of the Cryptoporticus and the remains of a large and elaborately decorated metal chest with a complicated opening mechanism. A panel entitled ‘L’ultima cena’ speaks to the modern consciousness of Christianity’s beginnings, a masterpiece of Renaissance art, and another current exhibition on Pompeii. Andy Warhol’s Vesuvius (1985) and a video work by James P. Graham ends the section.
The site of Akrotiri gets a slightly different treatment. Beginning with a video which details the history of excavations, the display focuses on the major themes of archaeological interest such as social status, daily life, and cult and ritual. While a variety of ceramic vessels dominate this section, the famous Fisher Boy frescoes from the West House and the plaster casts of furniture are welcome additions. The section ends with a video by Francesco Jodice entitled A great disturbance in the palace (2019).
The final two rooms contain art from the last few hundred years, punctuated by a few more finds from Pompeii. The first room includes striking works by artists such as Jan van Oost and Damien Hirst, hauntingly curated among the copies of Fiorelli’s casts of Vesuvius’ victims. The final two rooms contain works by William Turner, Giovanni Maria Benzoni, and many others. Since much of this section deals with the very human cost of the disasters that have allowed this exhibition to happen, it is a great shame that not a single work is by a woman, even though, as is common in art spaces, many of the bodies on display are.
Ultimately this exhibition is a story of reception and response. Response to ancient tragedy and the accident of preservation. All made meaningful through the efforts of archaeologists, the words of Plato and Pliny, the travels of Grand Tourists, the reconstructions of conservators, and the work of contemporary artists. While a timeline panel appears twice, the layout of the entire display speaks against an easy chronology for all these responses. The show starts in 2019 and jumps back and forth between the present and the different pasts that the objects have come to represent. It shows that a past preserved is much trickier and more multifaceted than the story of a volcanic eruption which freezes a city in a day implies.
This multiplicity of stories also provides the opportunity for visual variety. While the ancient Greco-Roman world has long been curated through mostly stone and clay, with occasions of metal, glass, and plaster, this exhibition has much more. Ancient powdered pigments, carbonised trees, a fishing net, shells, and soil. All put alongside more recent paper pages, resin, hair, a canvas of flies, and velvet. What might be a disorder of forms and materials is disciplined and drawn together by a beautiful display which makes their colours bright and their shadows crisp. Such a visual mixture speaks closer to how a world actually is – composed of many more shapes and textures than those physically robust enough to last thousands of years without a layer of ash to preserve them. Some of the gallery texts refer to these materials: one points out that the Roman nymphaeum on display was lined with solidified lava to create a grotto-like effect. Ancient Pompeii, therefore, was not only already made from the fruits of the volcano that destroyed it, but its ancient inhabitants engaged with their visuality long before any of the modern receptions on display here. Another panel speaks of ‘mausoleums full of ashes’, metaphorically tapping into the material ambiguity between the burnt remains found inside the funerary ash urns that feature in so many archaeological museum displays and the volcanic ash that covered these two cities.
Pompei e Santorini: L’eternità in un giorno is worth seeing while it is still in Rome. Although both sites have interesting stories and have yielded fantastic finds, the display does make it clear just how hard it is to compete with the Vesuvian cities for attention. Pompeii gets much more space, both on the exhibition floor and in its narrative. It is a great fortune to see the finds from Akrotiri but they are ultimately more distant, having travelled further and occupying less of our collective imagination. Pompeii, on the other hand, we are very used to seeing on display.
Upon entering the exhibition we are promised ‘eternity in a day’. As we leave and go down the staircase with its large glass windows which reveal a vista of Rome, the stories of Pompeii and Akrotiri cannot help but take up an odd space. Having pondered the meaning of an eternity made through the destruction of an instant and the memories of centuries, we are left to return into the city which has long worried about its own decline. Eternity has long been at stake here. It is, after all, the città eterna.
Alina Kozlovski (Hugh Last Rome Awardee, Sept-Dec 2019)