Early this year, I took my younger daughter to the Museum of Science in Boston to see a special exhibit on Pompeii. Though I’ve been fascinated by the story of the buried city since I was a child, I never knew how many misconceptions I had about this historic tragedy. To begin with, I believed the entire population of Pompeii was buried in the sudden explosion of Mount Vesuvius. At the exhibit I learned a great majority of the people escaped across the Bay of Naples.
I previously thought the figures of the citizens’ of Pompeii’s last moments on Earth were ossified remains. In fact, the bodies of the victims of the eruption decomposed long ago leaving hollowed out cocoons in the ash. An archeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique wherein figures of the victims at the moments of their deaths could be recreated using these hollows as a molds for plaster castings.
Some part of me was disappointed the figures of the Pompeiians were not “real.” Another part of me chastised myself for for being unforgivably morbid.
It was fortunate that the plaster figures were placed near the end of the exhibit. By the time we arrived, we had seen frescos, oil lamps, furniture and a petrified loaf of bread. We had learned that Pompeii was famous for its fermented fish paste, which had been a popular export at the time. They even had fast food take out! The construction of the exhibit allowed us to construct an image of a vibrant, complex civilization that was more than a pile of abandoned corpses.
Viewing the casts of those who died in the eruption was intensely emotional. We found ourselves in uncomfortable proximity with the agony of death. The postures and poses of the dead revealed deep sadness and yet resolve. I felt like a voyeur, trespassing on the intimacy of the passing of these fellow beings. Despite this, I was also assaulted by the emptiness of it all.
There was no spirit, no bone, no flesh. There was no physical remnant of the pain and panic reflected in the statues before us. The figures were at once heart-wrenching and insubstantial, just like all our suffering. It is present in the moment then gone, both individually tragic and interdependently arising.
No names travelled with the figures from their resting places to this exhibit. Their money, status and identities were gone. In this regard, each of these reflections of suffering also revealed its ultimate impermanence and imposed upon us the recognition of our own.
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