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Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave

In light of the rapidly evolving situation in Italy and recent travel restrictions, the shipment of key works of art for Last Supper in Pompeii has been put on hold, and thus the opening of the exhibition and its related programs will need to be postponed to a later date. We look forward to sharing updates with you as they are confirmed.

In AD 79, the Bay of Naples was rocked by the fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Pompeii and nearby villages and farms were completely buried under pumice and hot ash, which killed thousands in the midst of their daily activities. Plaster casts of these bodies are a dramatic reminder of this disaster but, like a fly caught in amber, what was preserved gives us a picture of what life was like in a thriving Roman city. The exhibition brings us back into this world by focusing on everyday life and especially on food and drink. Along with the pots, pans, and other paraphernalia in the distribution, preparing, and serving food, this exhibition includes glorious works of art, which reveal the splendor and luxury loved by the wealthy Romans who called Pompeii their home.

Image: Polychrome mosaic panel with a marine scene, Roman, from Pompeii, 100‒1 BC. Tesserae, height: 40 1/2 in. (103 cm). Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, MANN 120177. Photograph by Carole Raddato (2014) / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

In Depth

Bacchus with a panther, Roman, from Piacenza, AD 50‒150. Marble; H 180 cm. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, MANN 6316

The exhibition, originally organized by Paul Roberts of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, brings to San Francisco magnificent Roman sculpture, mosaics, and frescoes, as well as cups, utensils, and silver dining services for banquets to reveal how the ancients (like today’s San Franciscans) loved to eat and drink. It also offers a glimpse of how the food and wine were produced and distributed before being brought to the kitchens and ultimately to the dining tables. The exhibition also looks at the different areas of the house in which food and drink played a major role. Entering from the street, the presentation takes the visitor through the atrium with its shrine into the garden at the center of the house with its fruit trees and medicinal plants. An entire wall of frescoes from a summer dining room, open to the fresh air at one end, has been brought from Pompeii for this exhibition.

Excavations in 1984 of Villa B at Oplontis, near Pompeii, uncovered a vaulted storage room containing more than 60 people who were killed in the eruption. Archaeologists made casts of some of the victims by pouring plaster of Paris into the voids in the ash, left by the bodies. One of these was cast in wax and then in resin. This unique, transparent cast shows the bones, skull, and teeth of a woman, as well as the possessions she carried—from gold jewelry to a string of cheap beads. The “Lady of Oplontis,” as she is called, is stronger than the other casts and therefore able to be brought to San Francisco as a witness to the terrible events of AD 79. She is one of thousands of people who had lived in and around Pompeii and met an unexpected and sudden end.

Last Supper in Pompeii also sheds light on the drink imbibed and food consumed, based on close examination of tiny remnants on dishes and vessels. Although some eatables were imported from abroad, most provisions were produced locally. Pompeii was fortunate that it basked in a mild climate and was surrounded by the vineyard-covered slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Grains, vegetables, and fruits, including olives as well as grapes (especially for wine), were produced and processed locally, and flocks and herds were fattened nearby; fish was harvested at the coast. One of the most interesting items in the exhibition that may surprise visitors is a container that was used to hold and fatten dormice, one of the delicacies of the Roman table.

The gods and superstition were everywhere in Pompeian life, and the exhibition includes images of many of these deities. Bacchus, the god of the vine, is well represented. His followers, including satyrs and maenads with their lustful ritual and revelry, form a special part of the exhibition. Coming primarily from the “Secret Cabinet” of the Naples National Museum of Archaeology, some of these lively and lascivious scenes tell of the importance of fertility in the worship of this god. Most of the works in this fascinating exhibition have never before left Italy.

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