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When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square

March 4th, 2011

They are plaster casts from Pompeii — more, we are told, than have ever been gathered together for an exhibition. Pompeii, of course, was the Roman village near Naples that was entirely wiped out in the year 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted, engorging the town with its ash and lava, preserving it as if it were a bug caught in sap that would turn to amber.

Waves of volcanic ash, heat and poisonous gases trapped the fleeing remnants of the town’s population, often in midstride, some carrying keys and valuables. Others cowered in basements or clung to family. The plaster is rough, but we can see touching detail, including the delicate folds of a dead child’s tunic. And there are suggestions of bronze studs in a collar on a chained dog’s neck: did it strangle itself as it strained to escape, its body rolled into a contorted ball?

Volcanic detritus swept over these beings, liquid eventually solidifying into tombs of stone. Flesh and muscle decayed, leaving for later archaeological study hollowed-out molds of rock. A 19th-century archaeologist had the brilliant idea of pouring plaster into those hollows, then shattering the rock. What remained were life-size reproductions of animals and humans caught in the final moments of life.

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