A newly discovered mosaic depicting Ariadne and Dionysus © Stephane Compoint

For a while the lockdown left our cities as strange, almost alien urban landscapes, abandoned, eerily empty. Anyone who has walked into one of the exquisitely frescoed rooms in Pompeii has already had a little hint of that experience. Vivid paintings, near intact mosaics of incredible beauty, that landscape of an azure sea and cypresses but only the sounds of crickets and the occasional snapping camera. This was a city stopped in its tracks by an eruption, buried alive and concealed from the sun and human eyes for almost 17 centuries. 

When it was rediscovered and slowly uncovered, it changed western civilisation. It prompted a revival in Roman architecture, it impacted the look of the western world’s interiors, it inspired sculpture and it brought archaeology and the emerging museums into the heart of culture.

Occasionally, a snippet of news brings it back into the present: for instance, the discovery of an entire new neighbourhood in 2018, and the finding of the skeleton of a man who seemed to have survived the initial eruption only to have been crushed by a huge rock (though it transpired he probably expired from breathing in toxic gas). And it has become news again as a major new exhibition about the buried city opens at the Grand Palais in Paris, the first post-pandemic blockbuster.

There’s an intriguing serendipity about an exhibition of a city that was submerged for centuries opening in a city that has suffered the longest period of deathly quiet in its history. And yet another in the idea that we might be able to experience a city vicariously, not through being there but by experiencing a simulacrum.

A fresco dating to AD1 of Venus on her chariot drawn by elephants © Amedeo Benestante

Scheduled to open in March but stymied by the lockdown, the exhibition has already partly opened online with videos of Pompeiian interiors and streetscapes allowing browsers to navigate the Roman city and explore its art and artefacts. Now it is opening for real, a high-tech show in which, for once, the tech is not the star.

Roei Amit, the head of the Grand Palais’ digital department, says, “We have today a banalisation of technology: this show is not about the technology but about the place. We have virtual reality and augmented reality of course but they are not central to the exhibition. Instead we are making a hybrid experience, about how we can tell the story in the best way.

“We all spend our days in front of screens now,” he continues. “We have shorter attention spans so in a way we need to design the attention of the public.”

The primary experience is based on the spatial qualities of Pompeii itself. To walk down a Roman street with its shopfronts, wine counters and houses, its paving and thresholds worn smooth by Roman sandals and the traces of graffiti and everyday life is surely the most affecting aspect of a physical visit. The exhibition builds on this by creating a central street or alley, a little over 60m long. Layers of present and past are overlaid as ruins return to pristine dwellings inhabited by slightly cheesy-looking, toga-wearing inhabitants while fountains trickle in courtyards.

Earrings from AD1 © Archivio dell'arte – Pedicini fotografi

One of the houses (they are referred to using the Latin “domus”) is dedicated to archaeology, to the artefacts recently dug up which meant that the date of the eruption of Vesuvius was revised from August of AD79 to October. There are displays of video and laser mapping techniques, infrared thermography and digital analysis of the remains which has renewed understanding of the layering and construction of the city over time.

Another concentrates on the eruption and the effects of the pyroclastic flow which both destroyed and miraculously preserved the city. Yet another shows reproductions of frescoes in unprecedented detail (in their existing and touched-up states) to allow visitors to imagine themselves in a Roman interior.

There is a display of artefacts recently unearthed from the site, on show to the public for the first time, including an array of amulets and domestic objects spanning a carved marble rabbit to a newly discovered mosaic depicting Ariadne and Dionysus.

A recently unearthed marble rabbit from Pompeii © Stephane Compoint

Other items include the incredible fresco of Venus in a chariot drawn by elephants. Venus was Pompeii’s underwhelming protecting deity, perhaps painted outside the sign of Verecundus the draper’s shop to bring the good business and longevity that presumably eluded him. They are complemented by casts of the frazzled bodies of victims of Vesuvius which, along with the mummies, are surely one of the most vivid and unforgettable artefacts in any museum.

And at the centre of it all the spectre of Vesuvius itself, which looms up at the end of the street, erupting every half-hour so visitors can be in no doubt about the ending.

A reconstruction of a street in Pompeii and Vesuvius erupting

Of course, that never really was the ending. Pompeii in its pomp had a population of around 10,000-12,000. Now 4m visitors a year traipse through its network of narrow streets, alleys, former brothels and courtyards. The neglect and mismanagement of the site had been legendary, and the collapse of the House of the Gladiators (where combatants would train before appearing in contests) in 2010 brought to the world’s attention the precariousness of ruins which have survived almost 2,000 years yet now struggle with badly built modern interventions.

Since then a €105m project has been put in place to consolidate the city, to make it more accessible, illuminate it, install a sound system and WiFi. The Grand Palais’ exhibition has been carried out with the co-operation of Pompeii’s director, Massimo Osanna, and this hybrid experiment in tech and artefacts could be a tentative step towards imagining a future in which these vulnerable sites are unable to cope with the sheer numbers of visitors. The International Cave Art Centre at Lascaux with its high-tech renderings of the famous but now too-vulnerable-to-be-viewed works posits a possible future for other such delicate heritage. 

The pandemic has got us used to new, strange conditions. Online engagement with events, arts and each other has become the reluctant default and we might begin to acknowledge that, whether for health or environmental reasons, the cultural travel many of us had taken for granted might have become unsustainable. This new version of Pompeii, projected in hyper-fidelity, might be the hybrid heritage experience of the future. The mountain might have to come to us. Though, with luck, not exactly that mountain.

July 1-September 27, grandpalais.fr

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