This summer, for my first museum visit since the pandemic began, I attended the exhibition Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. Known for its incredible collection of European as well as ancient art, this is one of my favorite museums to visit for its rich engagement with history.
This exhibition was particularly compelling to me because in my Introduction to Archaeology class last spring, I undertook a research project on Pompeii, focusing on the culture of bodies and the influence of popular obsession with plaster casts on the study of the site. This exhibition sought to grant audiences a view of Pompeii during the time of the infamous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD through art and artifacts alike, with a focus on quotidian life through food and drink. Mythological frescoes from ancient villas stood side by side with tableware, painting a picture of the activities of the Pompeiians by showing audiences the objects they encountered every day. Paraphernalia ranged from commonplace storage jars that the Romans might have laughed at to find museum-worthy, to luxury objects such as glass tableware that survived the explosion, to even carbonized food preserved by ash.
I think this exhibition was so compelling for its power to center the intersection of beauty and the quotidian, haunted by tragedy. Throughout my archaeological research this semester, I learned that popular media surrounding Pompeii favors the immediacy of emotion and shock value of the bodies preserved by catastrophe, like this plaster cast. It was wonderful to see the museum consciously reject sensationalizing these images of victims in their final moments in favor of depicting their enjoyment of life. This body was surrounded by reminders that though the ancient Pompeiians may be seen by history as victims of catastrophe, they also lived rich lives that we can only imagine by seeing the material evidence of their banquets.
Much like today’s San Franciscans, the ancients loved to eat and drink. The wealthy of Pompeii filled their villas with art, from frescoes to statues, that they could contemplate as they dined. Through a glimpse at the lives of those who lived millennia ago, this exhibition highlights a shared human experience: the universal pursuit of pleasure through ordinary activities such as food and art.
This mosaic panel left an unforgettable impression as I left the exhibition, encapsulating the exhibition’s thematic connection between death and life, tragedy and celebration. The work pictures a skeleton holding jugs of wine and once decorated a dining room floor, with a description that read:
“To modern eyes, this choice of decoration may seem odd, but to the Romans, this image was entirely appropriate and would have been a subject of lively discussion at the feast. The two worlds of death and the banquet—the grave and the table—were never far apart. The skeleton is death himself, and the message is very clear: Carpe diem—seize the day. Enjoy the delights of the banquet while you can.”