Exhibition review “Pompeii and Herculaneum – Living and dying under the volcano”, smac Chemnitz

The exhibition “Pompeii and Herculaneum – Living and dying under the volcano” at the smac State Museum of Archaeology Chemnitz, running from 11 November 2022to 12 March 2023, shows the everyday life of rich local inhabitants in the antique Roman cities Pompeii and Herculaneum. The exhibition shows what their lives were like before the tragic catastrophe, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. At Pompeii and Herculaneum, urban life was preserved under the ashes. As a result, we can still see how the inhabitants lived and which urban structures shaped their daily life.

   Two-meter-high marble statue of Bacchus in front of a wall painting, 1st century, Pompeii. Image: LfA/smac, Annelie Blasko

The ‘Roman city’, starting from the city of Rome and more a phenomenon than a fact, has evolved in a multifaceted way in the more than two thousand year old of history of the Roman Empire. It was subject to influences from conquered territories and ultimately to the state of research and interpretation by the investigating scholars. Many original Roman cities still exist today, structurally heavily modified in the course of history. Today, often only traces of the once Roman settlement can be found in these places, suggesting there was more. The situation is different in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which have been completely preserved. They were obliterated in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius erupted, and ash and lava buried both settlements – the end of an urban dream? In March 1787, during his grand voyage through Italy, Goethe commented on Pompeii how “Much disaster has happened, but little that would have given so much joy to posterity,”.

Exhibition poster on the outside of the smac. Image: Aileen Becker

In the early 18th century, the cities were rediscovered. Today, Pompei is one of the best preserved ancient city ruins and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting 4 million visitors annually. Since 2012, enormous funding has been used to try to halt the decay of the excavation site. Meanwhile, 1,500 square meters of urban area was uncovered during new excavations. Most recently, it was announced that for the first time in years, the so-called “House of the Vettians” (Italian: Casa dei Vettii) was once again open to visitors. It has important wall paintings and shows how a merchant family lived in first century Pompeii. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum “illustrate life (and also death) 2,000 years ago in a way that does not happen again elsewhere,” is how the Chemnitz State Museum of Archaeology advertises its new exhibition on Roman life in the Gulf and under the active volcano that ultimately caused the violent deaths of its inhabitants.

It has been known for some time that the last day of Pompeii happened differently than long assumed. Not even the date of the catastrophe that has been handed down is correct – it is suspected that an error by medieval copyists has caused it. The exhibition in Chemnitz, developed by Expona GmbH in Bolzano and Contemporanea Progetti in Florence, skilfully picks up on this and, with an introductory animated film, offers a brilliant insight into Pompeii on the day of its destruction. Right at the beginning, the visitor becomes a spectator, looking out of a window at the city in the direction of Vesuvius and following in short time segments how, over the course of the day, the sky over the city blackens, the ash rain begins, how the houses are shaken by repeated eruptions and hit by falling rocks. In the end, only an ash landscape remains.

The peculiarities of the volcanic region are revisited at the conclusion of the exhibition, but before that, you are released into the living city to see what once existed before the destruction just shown. The excavations, conservation and restoration work are included and shown, for example, on a projection in which one sees diving restorers recovering statues in Baiae, or watches them working on a mosaic underwater.[1]  This is quite impressive and gives an idea of the massive efforts needed to preserve this world heritage site. It is pointed out why the exhibits are in the state they are shown, for example carbonized wood or even a marble infant that looks a bit strange without eyes. Here, in a few words and easily understandable, it is pointed out that the objects, as victims of the catastrophe, have also undergone a transformation and are preserved for us differently than they were originally made. One sees everything after the catastrophe. This is important for the understanding of the condition and is always thought of in an explanatory way.

The three focal points of the exhibitions are, on the one hand, the everyday life of the rather well-off population and, on the other hand, the economic resources required for this, or the Roman trade network and the location of the cities on Vesuvius. Both are placed under the tense moment of the volcanic eruption, which frames the opening and closing of the visit to the two cities.

With a model of a merchant ship, you start the journey into antiquity. It gives an impression of how this type was built, but the density of information is rather low. Here, one gets the impression that something is missing and that the ship is only there to capture the attention of those visitors afraid of too much text and possibly prefering children’s exhibitions. Those who need or prefer written explanations, on the other hand, are left somewhat alone here with the ship romantically moored at the picturesque harbor. There is a lot of space around it, so that a museum educational group might have the greatest benefit here.[2] In this area, the harbor and its importance are also mentioned, as well as the pottery finds are shown in their diversity. A statue of the god Serapis is attached to the trade. He is described as a god for people from all over the empire. The connection between religion and everyday life is still referred to in various places but never as a separate focus. Gods are omnipresent and above all are supposed to look good, in the harbor, in public places, in the home, in the garden and in urban institutions.

Reconstruction of a dining room in a rich household in Pompeii. Image: LfA/smac, Annelie Blasko

Separated by walls painted deep red, one enters the next room, which is occupied by two larger installations with media technology and a reconstructed takeaway. But now, at the latest, it is noticeable that there are also various stations that are aimed decidedly at people who are limited in terms of hearing and speech. Anyone who knows the smac knows that inclusion is a high priority there and that attempts are also made to implement this consistently in the special exhibitions. Already at the entrance there is a model for the blind. In addition, explanations in sign language are offered via small screens. Listening stations with passages read aloud from ancient sources are entertaining and break up the rather silent tour. There are no other interactive elements. Pliny the Younger represents the most significant ancient source on the eruption, reporting on the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Younger’s journey, initially a kind of research trip and transforming into a rescue mission, is presented in an exciting and museum-like contemporary way. A model overlooks the Gulf of Naples, including the towns of Baiae, Misenum and Stabiae, which Pliny also visited and where he died.

The end of the exhibition shows archaeology continuously unearthing new finds, including skeletons of individual inhabitants. It is explained why these finds are so extraordinary, since in Pompeii mostly no remains of the inhabitants were found, but only cavities in the volcanic material. These were filled with plaster and have preserved the human suffering of the eruption until today.

The conclusion of the exhibition visit is positively mixed. The aesthetics are appealing, as are the texts despite being placed above a picture, which certainly hinders some from reading. Text and illustration could have been placed separately. The space would be there. The presentation as a whole is easily accessible and stimulating, making the visit an entertaining, never exhausting experience. This is at the same time a point of criticism, as it also leaves it superficial and does not offer deeper access to further interested visitors, which cannot be compensated for by the lack of a catalogue. The brochure cannot complement the exhibition and only offers a condensate of what was shown, with which one can review the visit and look at the amazing exhibits once again. The condensate of urban life offered is also interesting. Urbanity was thus a refined way of life that included style and chic, artistry enjoyed a high status and is shown through the lively art trade. Eroticism, which plays a role in the concrete furniture and furnishings, often designed with wit, but also in the further decoration of the houses in frescoes, represents an important aspect of urban identity. The Roman homo urbanus was quite different from the homo rusticus. The latter does not feature here. Reveries of life in the countryside, however, reveal a romanticized version of rural life in the form of bucolic as part of urban perception.

Aileen Becker joined the UrbRel group in November 2022 as Doctoral Fellow.

[1] This refers to the Baiae Underwater Archaeological Park (Parco Archeologico Sommerso di Baia)

[2] Public tours, themed tours, tours in easy language, booked tours as well as lectures, a podcast and the craft and play workshop are offers of the smac around the exhibition, which are advertised in a flyer and on the website.

— Aileen Becker (ORCID 0000-0002-9400-0516)


In the UrbRel context, Annette Haug (University of Kiel) has worked extensively on Pompei, and especially its graffitti, in her project “Talking with, about, and in the presence of the Gods: Graffiti in Pompei“. Her latest publications on Pompei include:

  • A. Haug, Decor-Räume in pompejanischen Stadthäusern. Ausstattungsstrategien und Rezeptionsformen (Berlin 2020), DOI:https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110702705
  • A. Haug, Öffentliche Räume in Pompeji. Zum Design urbaner Atmosphären, DECOR 5 (Berlin 2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110988383
  • A. Haug – P. Kobusch, Visual Communication in the Streets of Pompeii, in: D. Filippi (Hrsg.), Rethinking the Roman City. The Spatial Turn and the Archaeology of Roman Italy, Studies in Roman Space and Urbanism (Abingdon 2022) 114–141
  • A. Haug, Amor a Pompei, in: M. L. Catoni – G. Zuchtriegel (Hrsg.), Arte e sensualità nelle case di Pompei. Ausstellungskatalog Pompeji (Rom 2022) 61–74


Cite this blog post
Aileen Becker (2023, February 28). Exhibition review “Pompeii and Herculaneum – Living and dying under the volcano”, smac Chemnitz. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3fx

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