You can keep your David Bowie exhibition. This week sees the opening of Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum and I am practically squeaking with excitement. It’s the first major exhibition of artefacts from these towns to be staged in London in my lifetime, which is astonishing when you think how obsessed we are with these small Italian towns, frozen in time for almost two millennia.
The cultural impact of Pompeii is enormous: everyone from Frankie Howerd to Robert Harris has had a go on it. The eruption of Vesuvius was compelling even as it was happening. As toxic smoke filled the sky around the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Elder sailed towards Herculaneum to try and rescue some friends. He didn’t survive the journey. His nephew, Pliny the Younger (who stayed at home reading Livy, which just goes to prove that bookworms die of old age), described his uninjured body to a friend as looking ‘more like a man asleep than dead’.
Our fascination with both towns remains unsated. It’s surely because the findings show us history on such a human scale. Pompeii isn’t filled with official statuary and huge statement buildings. It is the homes and workplaces of ordinary people whose lives remind us inexorably of our own. The shabbiness only adds to the pathos.
Pompeii was a town that had fallen on hard times. Buildings damaged in the earthquakes which preceded the eruption had often gone unrepaired. It was a town whose glory days were behind it decades before it made history. And the Pompeians themselves had become a rowdy bunch. In 59 AD, twenty years before Vesuvius obliterated them, the Pompeians rioted after a day at the games. So many people from a rival town were killed that Pompeii was banned from holding gladiatorial games for a decade.
It’s precisely because they are ordinary people that their fate still moves us. The fact that they would have been long dead by now anyway is immaterial. The portrait of a baker, Terentius Nero, and his wife is one of the star pieces of the new exhibition. They’re holding writing materials, so you — the viewer — understand that they are literate people, trying to impress you with their highbrow hobbies. It’s like catching a glimpse of a graduation photo; it’s a much more personal memento than, say, an official statue of an emperor.
The casts of a family hiding from the wrath of Vesuvius beneath a staircase can’t help but make us think of our own loved ones: it’s a disaster movie as much as it is a moment in history, and we respond to it accordingly. Rome may be the Eternal City, but it’s Pompeii that we can’t let go.
Helen Mirren is now, officially, a legend, having been so named at the Empire film awards on Sunday night. She claimed her prize ‘for the girls’ in reference to an earlier acceptance speech by Sam Mendes, winner of the Inspiration award (which, sadly for him, sounds a lot more like a cheap perfume than a film award category).
Mirren was swiftly accused of calling Mendes sexist, because she mentioned the fact that he cited an all-male list of inspirations from Truffaut to Bergman (Ingmar, not Ingrid). Actually, she seemed to be issuing a plea that in five or ten years time, there would be a more balanced gender mix in the film-making world, which is hardly the same as burning your bra and hurling yourself beneath the hooves of a passing horse.
Only four women have ever been Oscar-nominated for Best Director. Last year’s Cannes Film Festival had no films directed by women in competition for the Palme D’Or. Mirren is simply stating a fact: female film directors are in short supply. So is it too much to hope that she might soon get behind the camera herself?