Computers and Artifacts Reveal Glory of Pompeii

Show tracks the life and death of an ancient city. UNCOVERING THE PAST

COMPUTERS almost steal the show in the IBM Gallery's current exhibition, ``Rediscovering Pompeii.'' They enable visitors to take an electronic ``walk'' through Pompeii as it was and as it is today; to see its Forum, theaters, amphitheaters, villas, and baths as they were originally conceived; and to view rotating images of some of the more interesting artifacts found in that city's ruins. Viewers can also watch a time-lapse sequence depicting Mount Vesuvius's eruption in AD 79, read electronic reproductions of 18th-century excavation records, and study old etchings and watercolors recording different phases of the excavation of Pompeii.

The actual objects do win out over the electronic devices, however. What second-hand information, after all, can compete with over 200 ancient and original frescoes, sculptures, jewelry, vessels, games, and such everyday objects as writing, cooking, and eating utensils - especially since most of these objects were only recently excavated and have never before been shown to the public?

Together, the artifacts and computer programs add up to a fascinating and comprehensive picture of the life, death, and rediscovery of Pompeii, and the continuing efforts to interpret and restore the ruins of this once-prosperous ancient town. The 20 or so computers are located throughout the exhibition. A touch or two on the controls of one, and the viewer is ``inside'' Pompeii's Stabian Baths, ``seeing'' its original interior, first with all its missing parts in place, and then as it appeared after previous reconstructions.

A touch on another computer calls up reconstructions, entirely from fragments, of the way various objects and buildings originally appeared. Another computer details the manner in which sections of Pompeii were laid out. And still another illustrates the kinds of birds that appear in the frescoes.

Computers also helped in the reconstruction of Pompeii itself. Writing in the exhibition catalog, Baldassare Contiecello, superintendent of archeology in Pompeii, states, ``Computer simulation has helped us with restoration of the roofs, installations of new paving, experimentation with sacrifice surfaces, restoration of paintings.... The step from simulation to execution takes place only when the solutions predicted on the computer are held valid, with saving of money and without experimenting on the monument itself.''

Simulation has been especially valuable, Dr. Contiecello continues, ``in the restoration of paintings, when the support and the pigments are so delicate as not to tolerate excessive material experimentation of many restoration techniques, possible detachment and replacement, and restoration of the plasters.''

Most intriguing of all, a stunning Pompeian garden fountain is accompanied by a computer program with which visitors can view a three-dimensional image of the fountain, reconstructed electronically, in its original setting.

Some of the best things, however, can be seen intact (or nearly so), and in the original. Among the finest are several very small, exquisitely worked bronze pieces, including one of an upright hand to which even smaller figures and objects have been attached. It represents the hand of Sabazius, the god of vegetation whose cult penetrated the Roman world in the second century BC.

Other outstanding bronzes depict Bacchus as a young boy attended by a small panther; Dionysus-Sabazius as a powerful, bearded god with miniature hands; and a tiny but somewhat chunky goddess who combines the attributes of both Isis, an Egyptian divinity, and Fortuna, a Roman goddess who was purported to exert a capricious influence on human affairs.

There also are several larger, full-length marble figures of various Roman gods and goddesses, a few remarkable portrait heads, and numerous decorative and architectural carvings ranging from grotesque masks to delicate floral columns.

As is often the case with IBM Gallery exhibitions, the final result is as much a theatrical event as a display of works of art. Not only are there filmed depictions of volcanoes erupting, and colorful computer images that often resemble abstract paintings, there is also a specially constructed walk-through tunnel simulating various strata of debris that covered the city, as well as a cast of the body of a young woman killed while attempting to flee the destruction.

In my opinion, the show's theatrical element is a positive factor. The destruction of Pompeii was an awesome and dramatic event and deserves to be treated as such. The exhibition's theatricality takes nothing away from the works of art, and adds a very real and touching note of poignancy to the many everyday objects on display.

Objects such as the large olive mill that appears ready for immediate use, and the pruning hooks, hatchet heads, food warmers, lamps, pastry molds, mirrors, jugs, and plates that survived the disaster. Studying these humble and occasionally beautiful objects, one realizes with a start that their owners were also human, that real men and women handled these tools and ate food from these plates.

At the IBM Gallery of Science and Art through Sept. 15.

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