Last Supper in Pompeii: Ashmolean Museum Guided Tour

Ertegun scholars travelled back in time for an experience of 1st-century Roman wining and dining this term during a visit to the Ashmolean Museum’s “Last Supper in Pompeii” exhibit. On November 15 over a dozen scholars left the grey cold of Oxford at the doors of the Ashmolean, just down the street from the Ertegun house, and found themselves transported to the warm Mediterranean shores of the bay of Naples. Over 400 rare objects excavated from Pompeii and its environs were on display to recreate the culinary experience of the city’s inhabitants in 79 C.E. In that year Mount Vesuvius produced its volcanic firework show, covering the region in lethal ash. The Ertegun scholars took in ancient frescoes of wine-production, images of politically-motivated food distribution, and 2000-year-old trash that had been pushed down kitchen drains. One section of the display fused Roman mosaics with audio-visual technology to re-envision the luxurious dining experience of the city’s wealthy inhabitants. Further on, the focus turned to workaday cooking utensils from Pompeii’s cramped kitchens. The Neapolitan flavour of the visit was heightened – albeit unintentionally – by the crowds of visitors: the press of bodies and the challenge of remaining close to our Museum guide were conditions surprisingly reminiscent of the narrow alleys of San Gregorio Armeno and Scassacocchi in modern Naples.

Given that the exhibition focused on food and drink, elements of good living, I was struck by the stark signs of mortality that permeated the “Last Supper in Pompeii.” Roman refectories not only aimed to impress guests with elaborate mosaics of ocean-life, they also presented diners with images of gaunt skeletons bearing wine pitchers. “Live for today because tomorrow you’ll be dead,” our guide, herself an Italian native, said, as she explained what a feasting Roman would have understood upon encountering the skeletal floor mosaic. With death now on my mind, I could not help but feel a pang of sympathy for the stuffed dormouse whose nose and whiskers peered out of an ancient earthenware pot in the cooking display. Such pots in Pompeii’s wealthy kitchens were used to house, fatten and breed dormice that were continuously chopped up and served as a culinary delicacy.

The exhibition’s final display was a reminder that, in this world at least, dormice and humans meet a similar fate. The remains of a single female inhabitant of Pompeii lay outstretched in the same position in which the lethal volcanic ash had trapped her two millennia prior. In contrast with the earlier crowded and brightly lit rooms, here the walls were dark. The sole illumination shone on the woman’s agony-ridden body and on the jewels that she had carried with her as she sought to flee the literal rain of death.

The curator’s decision to orient the trajectory of the exhibition from light to dark, from crowded rooms to empty space, from images of life to human death, left me unsettled. On the one hand it resonated with the conventional formation I had received from my Franciscan Order, whose founder, Francis of Assisi, rejoiced in the beauty and life of the created world, but also meditated on death as a sister who would usher him into the presence of his divine Beloved. Could this integration of food and mortality in ancient Pompei be a healthy prompt for modern viewers, needing to reevaluate the priorities of their activity-filled lives? I pondered what it would mean for my own study-intensive, community-oriented, play- and prayer-obsessed existence to unexpectedly come to an end. On the other hand, I wondered, was there more to the layers of meaning in this experience? Was I missing something important? It would be a fine “grace” to be able to obtain some gem of wisdom from the visit, an inspired clue for how to play well the hand I had been dealt, before all the cards were down. After all, wasn’t that one of the goals of the humanities; to live well, to be fully human?

No moment of personal epiphany ensued. I came away from the Ashmolean visit with more questions than answers. But ultimately, I felt thankful for this opportunity that humanities scholarship had provided me, a chance to look beyond the flashy fireworks of my daily distractions and confront a fundamental human question.

Andrew Hochstedler