The year was 79 AD. Mount Vesuvius erupts and at one point a mighty blast sends a colossal cloud of hot gas and ash barreling down upon the Roman city of Pompeii, through its streets, temples, taverns and homes.
At that moment, a child sits upright, astride a reclining parent’s waist. Elsewhere, a couple lies together, the woman in a near fetal position with head resting upon the side of her partner’s upper body. Others die alone, one lying down, face up to impending fate, hands clasped across the chest.
Since late May, and continuing through November 2, the remains of twenty of these people are gathered together to be part of a somber and compelling installation within a temporary pyramid situated in the ancient city’s amphitheater.
The pyramid is the work of Italian architect Francesco Venezia.
Within the pyramid the figures lie suspended over a black surface within mini arena, and inside the circular walkway, enabling visitors to pay their respects to the dead, viewing them both as a group, and from multiple angles.
One might ask, “Why a pyramid in a Roman town?” Well, yes, pyramids were Egyptian, but for some reason at least some of the people of Pompeii were embracing Egyptian culture at the time. One of the first structures excavated was a temple to the Egyptian goddess, Isis.
The figures are alternately referred to as “bodies” and “casts” They are both. They are mostly plaster, molded from the voids their decomposing bodies left in the layers of ash that archeologists excavated in the 1800s. Encased in the plaster are the victims’ bones. One sometimes sees an exposed piece of skull or heel bone.
Before this exhibit, the bodies had been scattered around among the ruins in Pompeii, some of them contained in glass cases, usually in need of a Windex wipedown. Displayed in that manner, these individuals came across as artifacts or curiosities. With this current exhibit there is a greater sense of their humanity. As a group they evoke more of the gravity of the horrible disaster that befell them.