LOS ANGELES — The name Pompeii suggests the frailty of life in the face of convulsive natural forces. It epitomizes a comfortable, carefree world destroyed in a flash. It's perhaps fitting, then, that Los Angeles, whose sunny outdoor lifestyle seems under perpetual threat of earthquakes and mud slides, is the only United States stop of the largest exhibit of artifacts from Pompeii ever to travel abroad.
As most schoolchildren vaguely know, the prosperous Italian coastal town of Pompeii and its neighbors earned their place in history the day a long-dormant volcano, the towering Mt. Vesuvius, buried their populations alive in AD 79.
Melancholy is perhaps the best word to describe the mood on a trip to view more than 400 items, ranging from frescoes, mosaics, and jewelry to re-creations of ancient tools such as a Roman odometer, recovered from Pompeii.
Every step reinforces the sense of lives rudely interrupted, from the plaster casts of people frozen in death to the intimate and oddly evocative personal effects, such as delicately crafted seed-pearl earrings and a jawbone with a coin fused between its teeth. The latter is considered a rare confirmation of the Roman custom of placing money in the mouth of the deceased to pay for a trip into the underworld.
The show unfolds around three themes: nature, science, and technology. In the first, intricately detailed frescoes and mosaics record the closeness between town and nature: One marine- themed mosaic is an elegant rendering of sea life using a difficult medium. From the decorative themes of gardens and animals, the show flows easily into the two others with a display of everyday tools such as bowls, spindles, and shears. Re-creations of large-scale machinery suggest the bustling, up-to-date feel the town must have possessed.
This delicate melding of everyday human activity with the natural world in the mosaics and frescoes prevents the show from being just about art, so much so that some fine art critics have suggested that it more rightly belongs in a museum of natural history. But the interaction between all the various aspects of life, and their expression in both useful and decorative objects, gives a fresh meaning to the notion of artistic representation in daily life.
The intimacy of the show delivers the same emotional punch as a good piece of theater. What is missing speaks as loudly as what remains. The objects give the impression of expecting their owners to return momentarily to pick up where they so abruptly left off nearly 2,000 years ago.
Pompeii's most familiar images take on a new life in this show. We learn that the oft-reproduced fresco portrait of a man and his wife does not represent affluent society figures. as had been previously thought. Rather, they are a humble baker and his helpmate putting on airs - a longing to move up in the world that is certainly a part of Los Angeles as well.
Although relatively few of the frescoes and mosaics are outstanding works on their own, they paint an impressive overall picture. "Pompeii holds a remarkable fascination for contemporary audiences," says Dr. Andrea Rich, president and director of the show's host, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Pompeii offers one of the few opportunities to study an ancient civilization fully preserved, she adds: "The life in Rome of that time is slowly revealed and reminds us how much that culture is still part of our lives."
She says with a laugh that even the medical instruments are "frighteningly similar to those of today."
Writer and historian Pliny the Younger (AD 62-c.113), who wrote an account of the eruption that buried Pompeii, has been a deep well of information about all aspects of 1st-century Roman life. The exhibit proves that his works stand the test of time.
"[Pliny] still offers many surprises in light of modern innovations in science and technology," observes curator Annamaria Ciarallo, who works for the Italian government-funded Archaeological Administration at Pompeii.
Some of these innovations are still used today. History has noted the great Roman engineering feats, such as its complex system of aqueducts, which, Ms. Ciarallo notes, are echoed in the vast freeways of Los Angeles.
As the exhibit's only US destination, Los Angeles has "a rare opportunity to host a show with as much to say about another time as our own," points out LACMA curator Nancy Thomas.
That's no small thing to a southern California city - perhaps an entire country - with a reputation for knowing little and caring less about the past.
* 'Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town' will be exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until Jan. 9. Tickets may be purchased by calling 1-877-POMPEII. Or you can visit the Web site at www.lacma.org
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society