Last Supper in Pompeii

The last day, of the Last Supper in Pompeii, in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  A mosaic-related foray, but much, much, more.

This small but exquisitely formed show closed on the 12th January, so little to add beyond a few haphazard thoughts.   Paul Roberts, the curator of the show and head of the antiquities department, was doing the rounds on the last day with an American visitor.    He deserves an award.    (Here he is on Youtube talking about it, and here’s the Guardian on the show.)

Roberts told the Guardian the exhibition has been a dream since 1976.    The hinge for the curation is Roman food and drink,  what Pompeians might have had in their stomachs when the ash came raining down.   But  it’s deliciously subtle, a delicate thread that is never over-egged but used to gently usher us by the elbow through breathtaking art and artefacts.

A companion, who had a morning-after-the night-before  and had to exit early,  asked me on the way home to name a favourite object.    To do so would diminish the project, though one could say the captions; they were honed, lively, insightful.  One felt the care of curation.  But most astonishing:  this glass jar (they say jar,  I want to say jug, though there is no lip).  Not only were the Romans using glass that would have taken pride of place on our dining table, but the almost perfect roundness of this piece spoke of rapid and repeat production.

Pompeii Ashmolean

Glass jar, Pompeii, AD50-79

The fine aesthetic sense of the ancients came across at every turn.  The quality of the pre-Roman, Etruscan workmanship was extraordinary enough.   How did they not discover electricity?

Also a small miracle of survival in the eruption, and for two millennia after.


Etruscan candelabrum (left) surmounted by figures of a woman and boy. Umbria, 500-475 BC. Other Etruscan and Greek-import objects.

Next, the spontaneous quality of this fresco.  Of if not spontaneous, the speed of execution, brushwork that was confident and quick; one could sense the workman-artist moving swiftly across the plaster.  The mountain side, in particular the leaves, built up of swift, unhesitating dabs and strokes.  In all the frescoes present (some framed as pictures, and therefore out of context, but with a full wall of one room doing them justice) the question: what were they using for paint, and how did they survive?

Fresco showing the wine God Bacchus, and Mount Vesuvius. Bacchus pours (paws?) wine for his pet panther, as one does. Colour and lighting poor in my photo.

The exhibition reflected our contrasting sources of information on Roman life.   The frescoes; extraordinarily fine sculpture of faces; written notes made of wax, to be read and erased, a kind of Roman e-mail, but where the stylus left decipherable traces on the wood below, for archeologists to read.    A mosaic informing us that the Romans used fermented fish sauce, a staple now of Eastern rather than Western cuisine.

Crude but informative: the HP of the day.  Mosaic showing a bottle for fish sauce. “Garum, or liquamen, a sauce made from fermented fish, was key to Roman cooking.” Show’s the maker’s name, Scauri.

The mosaics are slow where the frescoes are fast; painstaking, planned.  Entirely taken out of context, as our teachers have stressed: they filled the floor, under furniture or foot, are now hung vertically, misleadingly,  in pieces, as works of art.   But the exhibition did a nuanced job of presenting them, the captions explaining how an “emblema” or centrepiece mosaic would have acted as a conversation piece.

There were three mosaics.   This was the show-piece:  it’s in the textbooks.

Pompeii mosaic Ashmolean

Mosaic, Greek in style, dated to about 100 BC. 23 varieties of fish, accurately represented

The tesserae, stones, are about 5mm in size, if that.   There’s anxtraordinarily quality of shading in these thoroughly three-dimensional, vivid, living images.  The slowness of the work must have heightened the skill of the detail; there are thousands of stones in a single fish.   The mosaic was very clearly repaired, and by the look of it polished flat.  Here’s a couple of close-ups.

Pompeii Ashmolean mosaic

A doe-eyed,  lesser-spotted dogfish turns towards us.



Another conversation-piece emblema, it’s supposed, this one for the dining-room floor.    A grinning skeleton with a wine-jug.  Drink and be merry.

Noting the emphasis created by the andamento, that seemed to gruesomely amplify the  grinning teeth, to heighten the lines of the ribs.

The dormouse in the show was a lovely, cheeky touch.  It’s in the Guardian story so you can see it there…Roberts was talking about a fine Roman museum in Chester that’s almost overlooked, so maybe that’s the next stop.   Or better Pompeii itself.