The evening before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius devastated the prosperous city of Pompeii lying just to the south of its fertile foothills, the local inhabitants came together to eat; as families; with guests; at home or at one of the city's many shops and bars; for a simple meal or a sumptuous banquet. When Vesuvius' cloud of hot ash enveloped the city and its people, it captured within hardening layers of volcanic rock details of their daily lives, how they traded, farmed, and ate. Food, and the related worlds of agriculture and commerce, is a fantastic subject for an exhibition of this kind. The most relatable aspect, of course, the fact that food formed as important a part of the lives of Pompeii's citizens as it does in ours today, binds us to this ill-fated community nearly two millennia past, while the framing concepts of the influences which informed the development of the Roman Empire, and of that empire's influence on the wider world, provide further material for reflection and analysis.
The organisation of the objects on display is pleasingly coherent, grouped as they are not according to chronology but to the place they occupy in dining culture. Beginning with the genesis of good living, a statue of Bacchus, and establishing a context of Etruscan and Greek influences and agricultural production, the heart of the exhibition moves from a typical Pompeian street through the various rooms of a Roman house, each section revealing a collection of beautiful and intriguing items of fantastic variety, from exquisite mosaics to a carbonized loaf of bread, from ornamental silver cups to a glass bottle of solidified olive oil. There is astonishing detail here, foreign and familiar; a delicious pairing of the sacred with the mundane and the corporeal - a valuable statue repurposed as a tray holder; funeral urns spanning four centuries and thousands of miles depicting their subjects reclining to dine - and, as the earthly pleasures of the table are enjoyed in full, we are reminded by a mosaic of a skeleton bearing wineskins that death is always present.
Curator Paul Roberts overflows with enthusiasm and fascinating asides, and it's a delight to be shown the exhibition by him and to hear him talk through his vision and its realisation. It's possible that his in-depth appreciation of the subject may give a life to the household rooms presented in the display which can't completely translate to the untutored observer. 'Wait until you see the toilet!' he says, animatedly describing the thinking behind the placing of Roman toilets in the kitchens. I briefly get the impression that we're going to see a gritty re-creation in painted fibreglass, but when we get there, of course, the details which must seem so immediate to Roberts are described in plaques and suggested by exhibits. It's not a disappointment though; the objects on display have a collective accessible power that is absolutely absorbing.
No re-creation could compete in terrifying intimacy with the exhibition's closing exhibit, the remains of a woman found sheltering in a villa in Oplontis, cast in resin, placed as reverently as possible in a darkened room with a display of her valued possessions. Roberts does address the question of whether it's appropriate to put 'a real person' on show in such a way, but certainly her presence, frozen at such a terrible moment, drives home the message that what happened at Pompeii was an extraordinary human tragedy which must touch us all. And this perhaps restates the exhibition's theme: why food and drink, and what they can tell us about a society, are so important. It is, in short, humanity, reaching across cultures and across time. The title of the exhibition links this world to Christian mythology and to contemporary notions of an afterlife, and leaving the hushed environment of this last room where the unknown woman lies in her resin reliquary, we're drawn back to the conviviality and authenticity of the dining room and its universal function, where what we understand of the concept of empire, of power and of human endeavour, paused at the moment of the eruption, is preserved in a two-thousand year old bottle of olive oil which has miraculously survived, stoppered and still fragrant, from that day to this.