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Rapiti alla morte

Joanna By Joanna Published on May 17, 2016

I visited the Pompeii exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal this weekend. 

Often my eye is drawn to the shinier stuff in museums, but that wasn't the case with this exhibition. I had, of course, read about how everything stopped one day in 79 AD but the mundanity of it all was curious to behold. I was struck by the variety of objects that had been conserved ranging from statues of various gods, magnificent decorative interior pieces, delicate musical instruments and jewelry to everyday household objects like a carbonised loaf of bread, nails, and glass bottles.

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Typically, when I think about the people of ancient civilizations, I feel very disconnected from their remote past. I imagine two-dimensional people running around on flat surfaces like red and black figures on amphorae. 

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This exhibition humanizes the tragedy of Pompeii largely through the fourteen casts of victims of the eruption. During excavations around 1863, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli discovered voids in the solidified ash and pumice that buried Pompeii. These voids turned out to be the spaces left by the decomposed bodies of the victims as they were covered in ash. By pouring plaster into these voids, Fiorelli created a tangible vision of the victims of Pompeii's eruption by preserving their forms at the moment of their deaths. He described these figures as 'rapiti alla morte' – stolen from death. 

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The literature often describes an intense level of detail in these casts, but this was not my impression. Looking at these casts, I felt rather a weird uncanny valley sort of thing. I know that these human-like shapes were once living people, but the lack of precision aroused a strong sense of uneasiness and revulsion in me. 

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I am similarly repulsed by Michelangelo's prisoners – unfinished figure statues which seem to be struggling to free themselves from unfinished marble. 

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Joanna has twice won certificates of honour (and a free beer) for demonstrating “extraordinary courage against the unsurmountable Phaal”, a ludicrously spicy curry.