Review: ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ at the Ashmolean

The exhibition runs at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 12 January 2020 (£6 for student concessions).

The exhibition is well laid out, starting with a wider examination of the culture and reaching a highpoint as it showcases the objects of a Roman dining room, which is swiftly followed by a suitably confined space to show kitchen utensils and examples of food. This sense of flow continues throughout the majority of the exhibition, meaning that even when busy, it is not too difficult to see everything, and aspects of food and death are blended to give an idea of their links in Roman culture. The skilful curation and brilliant artefacts make this an exhibition that you’d be foolish to miss if you are in the region – or even worth a little train journey.

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Although there are some amazingly colourful – considering the time since they were painted – Etruscan murals, the real focus of the exhibitions start is a striking sculpture of Bacchus standing slightly louchely, wine cup in hand, panther at his feet, dominating the first room. The Bacchic focus is continued by a fresco showing the god standing before Mount Vesuvius. In hindsight, this image seems deliciously ironic. Vesuvius is both the provider of rich soil for grapes, yet will also cut the party short when it destroys Pompeii. This is also the only extant image (that I know of after a cursory JSTOR search) that shows Bacchus as a bunch of grapes, not merely with grapes adorning him. But these details, which might be very important in considering the Roman mindset or religion, did not captivate me as much as the small detail of Bacchus pouring wine to his panther. Perhaps this is some comment by the artist about libations, but I think it is more of a humorous detail; it makes a nice change from the normal depiction of Bacchus in a chariot drawn by a menagerie of big cats, from cheetahs to tigers.

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Perhaps the most famous part of the exhibition is a mosaic of various sea creatures. It is well framed, yet I have to agree with the friend I was with, who noted the oddity of displaying mosaics in frames on the wall. This makes it almost impossible to experience them as they were intended and presents them as individual pieces of art which are not integrated aspects of the winder decorative landscape.  Also, one should not forget that most convivas tarted with the guests rolling dice to appoint an arbiter bibendi (judge of drinking) to decide how much to dilute the wine and so how drunk the night would become. Seeing the glass and silverware which would have been used gives a better understanding of how this drinking would have happened and its importance. Some of the glassware is spectacularly undamaged and could almost pass as expensive modern tableware trying to masquerade as rustic.

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Any exhibition about that links food and death, as this one does, has to show some memento moriesque mural or mosaic, and Last Supper in Pompeii does not disappoint. The skeletal butler, standing dead centre on a rectangular black background, with a wine jug in each hand, beautifully encapsulates the intimate connexion between enjoying food, wine, company, and death. It also brings a bit of dark humour as the skeletal figure almost seems to have a knowing smile, as if a costumed waiter liberally topping up glasses at a macabre party.

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This sense of humour is further taken up by the exhibition in the kitchen section, where there is a particularly cute/disturbing toy dormouse perched inside a glirarium, which would have been used to confine edible dormice with only acorns, walnuts and chestnuts to fatten them up. However, it is interesting to note the difference in how food is viewed in culture. For instance, why is it that garum (the Roman fermented fish sauce) is seen as disgusting, yet something similar like Worcestershire sauce (which contains fermented anchovies) is fully accepted? Another detail that impressed me was the charred remains of malted barley found near Oxford. These black specks might have been thought too dull for many exhibitions, but here they were skilfully presented to give a snapshot of the daily lives of Romans in the UK.

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Having finished the exhibition, and resisted buying any themed tableware or food, it would take great will power not to fancy a rather good lunch or similar. I already had plans for lunch in a nearby restaurant but if you don’t, the rooftop restaurant is well worth a try. On clear winter days – with appropriate coats – it can be a surprisingly warm place to sit in the sun as you consider how vital dining is in so many cultures.

Ed Bedford

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