"Dinner... without a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf." – Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher (4 BC–AD 65)
As the ash from Mount Vesuvius began to rain down on Pompeii in AD 79, the people of the city were engaged in two of their most important daily activities: eating and drinking. From May to August 29, 2021, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (at the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park) is set to host Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave, the first exhibition to focus on the love of food and drink in Pompeii. The original exhibition, organized by the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, has been adapted and expanded for a California audience and will bring to San Francisco a treasure trove of about 150 objects, including magnificent Roman sculpture, mosaics, and frescoes; household furnishings and tableware; objects of precious materials; and more, with many of these wondrous pieces traveling to the United States for the very first time.
“The incredibly preserved art, furnishings and eatables of Pompeii give us the rare opportunity to explore the Romans’ infatuation with food and wine–which is analogous to our own enjoyment of the activity today,” states Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “I am thrilled to bring Last Supper in Pompeii from the Bay of Naples to the San Francisco Bay Area, which will be the first in a series of upcoming exhibitions examining life in the ancient Mediterranean.”
Located in the sunny paradise of southern Italy, the city of Pompeii was nestled between the bountiful Bay of Naples and the vineyard-covered slopes of the formidable Mount Vesuvius. Due to the powerful eruption, Pompeii and nearby villages were completely buried under pumice and hot ash, killing thousands in the midst of their daily activities and freezing the city in this moment of time for centuries. From frescoes and mosaics, to casts of Vesuvius’s victims, to actual food carbonized by the heat of the eruption, the exhibition gives us a picture of what life was like in this thriving Roman city.
“Last Supper in Pompeii brings us into the world of ancient Rome by focusing on the particulars of everyday life, influenced by the extensive, rich, and complex relationships between food, drink, and society,” says Renée Dreyfus, Distinguished Curator and Curator in Charge of Ancient Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “The objects on view not only capture our imagination but also whet our appetite, informing us of the glory that once was Rome.”
Last Supper in Pompeii brings to San Francisco evidence from recent excavations that sheds light on the drink and food consumed in Pompeii, based on close examination of tiny remnants left on dishes, vessels, and even kitchen drains, as well as carbonized foods that were found in excavated homes and businesses.
The exhibition begins in Rosekrans Court with a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and fertility, who was one of the most celebrated deities in Pompeii. Along with other gods, he was central to every aspect of food and drink in Roman life. Beyond Bacchus is a delightful fresco of a garden scene from a reception and dining room of a Pompeian house, open to fresh air at one end. This gallery also displays the type of couch the Roman elites reclined on during their formal dinner parties, in addition to beautiful silver objects that wealthy Pompeian's used and displayed.
With the next gallery, the exhibition begins to walk visitors through the rooms of a typical Pompeii home in which food and drink played a major role, commencing with the atrium, where Pompeians presented their most beautiful belongings. Gods and superstition were everywhere in Pompeian life, seen in the frescoes, shrine, and altar within this gallery. As the fertile land of Pompeii was prime for wine making, Bacchus was revered. One recovered fresco shows the god, who has turned into a grapevine, standing at the foot of Vesuvius. This gallery also showcases sculptures of household deities surrounding the shrine as well as some of the treasures commonley displayed in the atrium.
Last Supper in Pompeii offers a glimpse of how food and wine were produced, distributed, and prepared, before being brought to dining tables, as seen in the galleries that highlight the triclinium (dining room) and the kitchen. As you walk through the exhibition you will see the food samples reflecting the fertility of the surrounding land, including items such as almonds, figs, olives, snails, and more. Glorious frescoes showcase lavish gardens, elaborate marine life, and delicately painted animals such as rabbits and roosters. One of the most interesting items in the exhibition is a container used to hold and fatten dormice (a type of rodent found in Europe and one of the delicacies of the Roman table), as well as a carbonized loaf of bread excavated from a baker’s oven, abandoned when the volcano began to erupt.
In a special section of the exhibition, we explore in depth the god Bacchus in relation to his role as a deity of sensual pleasures. The Roman world was more comfortable with some aspects of sexuality, such as nakedness, than modern viewers might be. Therefore, it is not surprising that Pompeii was rich in erotica, with statues, frescoes, mosaics, and household items decorated with explicit imagery. Coming primarily from the so-called Secret Cabinet of the Naples National Museum of Archaeology, key objects showcase the importance of fertility in the worship of this god through lively and lascivious scenes. Some of these objects were not solely sexual—they were also thought to provide prosperity, good luck, and protection from evil spirits. These images were seen all around Pompeii, in homes, shops, and, of course, brothels.
In the final gallery we pay tribute to those who perished in the destruction, as well as the Roman belief in an afterlife where banqueting would continue. Uncovered during recent excavations at Oplontis (a town near Pompeii) was a vaulted storage room that contained more than 60 bodies. One of these was cast in wax and resin, now known as the Lady of Oplontis. 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. Sturdier than other casts, the Lady of Oplontis is able to travel to San Francisco as a witness to the devastation of Pompeii, and represents the thousands of people in and around Pompeii who met an unexpected and horrible end in AD 79.
The story of Pompeii continues to mystify and amaze, more than two millennia after its chapter in world history appeared to have closed. Yet it remains, by far, one of the most important portals to the ancient Roman world.
Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave will be on view at the Legion of Honor museum. The Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition was organized by Paul Roberts, the Sackler Keeper of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford. The Legion of Honor’s presentation is organized by Renée Dreyfus, Distinguished Curator and Curator in Charge of Ancient Art at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.