‘A Day in Pompeii’ @ Melbourne Museum

7 09 2009

The other ‘Winter Masterpiece block-buster exhibition’ in Melbourne, next to Salvador Dali, is ‘A Day in Pompeii‘ at Melbourne Museum.

I had attempted two other times to visit it, but turned on my heels when I saw the huge lineup. So, I finally decided to go on my Friday off. Sadly though this meant I was also contending with school groups, but it was a risk I was willing to take (yet mitigate somewhat by going at around 2pm).

I wouldn’t have gone to this exhibition but for the promise of jewellery. In my twenties I travelled through some of Europe, and have always done a lot of reading of art and history, so knew enough of the history of Pompeii and had seen many artefacts at the National Archeological Museum in Naples – so there wasn’t really any strong reason for me to go, but for the lure of gold.

Understandably, photography is not permitted. As was my experience of the Dali exhibition, most other museum visitors were somewhat bemused by my sketching.


There are fifteen jewellery pieces on display; all but one are yellow gold:

  • two bracelets ‘in a popular style in the Vesuvian area‘; twelve pairs of domed elements; ‘worn not only on wrists but also upper arms and ankles‘; these were lovely and an image of a very similar (perhaps the same) bracelets is here (about two-thirds down the page)
  • two snake-head armbands; one inscribed with ‘DOMINUS ANCILLAE SUAE’ which translates to ‘from the master to his slave’; the accompanying text states ‘sex between master and slave was not considered a scandal, but a common domestic occurrence‘; fabulous for them; an image of this piece is here (about two-thirds down the page)
  • long necklace of pale blue glass paste beads, with a larger central bead
  • two pairs of earrings; these were by far my most favourite pieces, the shape is voluptuous and the construction is fascinating and I wish I could have got a closer look at them; one of them was covered in granulation, similar to the earrings here
  • four rings, mostly quite thin and with a small seal area; Roman laws stated the ‘only article of jewellery permitted to adult male citizens was a signet ring’
  • long rope necklace or ‘catena’
  • bracelet with alternating glass inlay and flat figure-eight shapes
  • two bracelets in a similar shape as a small signet ring; the construction of these were interesting, as the gold was folded in on the narrower parts

I was standing at the display for a little time and caught a few snatches of conversation:

  • two high-school girls were reverent that they were looking at jewellery worn by ‘someone who’s dead now’; I thought that was pretty funny, given all the objects there were once owned by people who are now dead, and in fact that’s the case of many objects in museums yes?
  • a young boy with his family asked why it was all gold; an interesting and observant question but one I didn’t hear answered
  • a woman asked her companion whether ‘gold was as expensive then as it is now; because it seemed all the old civilisations had gold’; thankfully the man said that it was probably even more valued and they wandered away – the comment sent my mind whirring with the properties of gold that make it valued and the reasons it may seem like all civilisations may have it but that’s a function of its durability and it makes a prettier display object in modern museums… so much that could have been said about that …

The body casts are well presented actually, and it was good to see the clear warning before entering the room. It wasn’t as emotive for me as I expected it would have been, perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood. But it was interesting that they all seemed quite a bit shorter and smaller than modern-day people.

Frankly though I was disappointed with the exhibition as a whole. It felt like it was more aimed at education groups and providing a ‘virtual experience’ of the streets of Pompeii – I recognise there are many who will enjoy this, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed. And there wasn’t a whole lot of space to walk between the dioramas, so I would have been most unhappy visiting on a busier day.

This exhibition has been reviewed by quite a few bloggers, but this one made me smile with recognition.

A Day in Pompeii‘ is at Melbourne Museum until 25th October 2009.



2 responses

7 09 2009
David Neale

I’ve been waiting for your review of this one…
well. I thought that the lighting on the jewellery was piddley. What are they worried about? Fading gold!?
I couldnt see the pieces closely enough and found this frustrating, because although there wasnt much of it- it was interesting. yes- those earrings.
The serpent and eagle water-spout thingy was wonderfully rigourous, as were many of the figures- esp a little bronze dog. ( …we know you dont dig realism, MJ, sigh)
the frescos or friezes always grab me- the chalky colour fields make for amazing subtle-but-rich abstraction; better even, than any Rothko (maybe he should have done it on plaster?)
I got the impression that they had a pretty well-sorted aesthetic.

8 09 2009

Your comments always have something to make me smile David! Fading gold, indeed…

I particularly like the frescos too, as you say for their ‘chalky colour fields’, and also they gave a glimpse of more jewellery.

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