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Art review: ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ at the Ashmolean

27 September 2019

Nicholas Cranfield samples ‘The Last Supper’ at the Ashmolean Museum

Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Fresco wall panel showing the distribution of bread, AD 40-79, Pompeii, House of the Baker. See gallery for more images

Fresco wall panel showing the distribution of bread, AD 40-79, Pompeii, House of the Baker. See gallery for more images

IN 2013, Paul Roberts curated the tremendously successful show “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” for the British Museum. Whereas that was all about sex in the city, which, I suspect, escaped the scrupulous attention of the strait-laced American sponsors, this feast is about food and wine.

It spreads well beyond Pompeii, where the eruption of the volcano in October AD 79 extinguished all life, with finds from around the slopes of Vesuvius and might as well be subtitled “Fine dining in Herculaneum, Oplontis, Fondo Iozzino, Paestum and London”.

The final room brings us to Britannia, bringing to the table surprising survivals from the great fire of Londinium (AD 61), when Boudicca destroyed the emerging colony at Colchester and the city on the Thames, to show what foods and beverages were being consumed two decades before the eruption of Vesuvius.

The Italic peoples we know as Romans inherited many social and communal patterns from the lifestyles of the Greeks and the Etruscans, and the exhibition opens with three dramatic sarcophagi from Chiusi on the lids of which the deceased are represented reclining at their funeral banquets. Friends and family would have gathered at their tombs at anniversaries and shared in a meal, giving thanks for the life of the departed. These feasts also would have served meat.

Terracotta models of fruits and of small cakes on a plate are among the votive finds from Agropoli (Paestum, 350 BC). Such funeral baked meats included focaccia, figs, pomegranates, cheeses, honeycomb, and almonds. The little sculptures look much like the marzipan fruits still sold widely in the confectioners and pasticcerie of Sicily. My Sicilian housemate tells me that these martorana were originally made only for 2 November, the Day of the Dead.

Private collectionMarble oscillum (circular relief) showing a satyr pouring wine into a calyx krater (vessel for mixing wine and water), 50 BC-AD 50, Findspot unknown  

The volcanic soil of Campania is remarkably rich in the nutrients for vines and in one fresco the body of the god Bacchus is simply painted as a bunch of grapes. Behind him, the slopes of Vesuvius are terraced with vineyards; Dr Roberts reckons that in good years 100 million litres of wine were produced.

The sumptuous drinking vessels show what high-end living might have been like, with gilded silver cups decorated with repoussé olive, vine, and myrtle sprays (50-100 BC, Ashmolean). A dining table forms the centrepiece of the main gallery and includes a 20-piece silver dining-service found in 1999 at Moregine (Pompeii) alongside the Arcisate treasure from Lombardy (British Museum).

It is a rich banquet with extravagant and generous loans, including such iconic works as the mosaic panel of marine life from Pompeii and the painted murals of a rabbit nibbling figs and a cockerel eating a pomegranate. A black and white mosaic of a skeleton holding two empty wine jugs (askoi) recalls the hedonist injunction to “eat, drink and be merry”.

The English finds offer a counter-balance to the rest, since London and Colchester were both torched a generation before the final destruction of Vesuvius. Charred or buried remains show that celery, dill, olives, apples, and plums were all imported into Britain.

The surviving wooden tablets, recently excavated opposite Cannon Street station around the mithraeum, attest to a thriving city district; although the black wax laid in the wooden bill-folds has long perished, it has been possible to read the marks scratched by the stylus. One such letter, from 8 January AD 57, is the earliest financial document ever found in the City and talks of merchandise being traded; in the same year, St Paul was writing to the Corinthians.

Others, from five years later, demonstrate that London rapidly recovered trading links in the immediate aftermath of the Boudiccan revolt, even though Tacitus tells us that 70,000 had died in St Albans and London. A brewer is named, and who knew that cooper was, in fact, a Latin word rather than old German? Junius the cuparius who lived opposite Catullus in the city shipped beer; a maltster or brewer (bracearius) is found to have had a franchise in Carlisle.

That this would all have been meat and drink to early Christians in the Italian peninsula gave me much food for thought.

“Last Supper in Pompeii” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 12 January 2020. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org

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