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When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square

March 4th, 2011

These images also confirm the account of the eruption by Pliny the Younger, who was a safe-enough distance away to observe, but close enough to want to flee: “You could hear women shrieking, children screaming, men shouting,” he wrote. (The words are cited on the exhibition walls.) “Some called for their children, others for their parents or husbands.” Some, he continued, “raised their hands to the gods, but most of them thought there were no gods at all.”

One room here is devoted to casts of 32 skeletal remains found four miles away from Pompeii, in Herculaneum, which was also destroyed. Nine of the skeletons were of children younger than 12. Another was accompanied by a complete set of surgical instruments, suggesting, perhaps, preparation and precaution, but no recognition of the forces unleashed.

These scenes are all the more stark because the exhibition — deftly designed and planned by Ralph Appelbaum Associates — makes sure that we encounter them only after we have come to know something about Pompeii as a thriving town. The volcanic debris that destroyed it also preserved it, along with elaborately painted frescoes, exquisite mosaics, tools of business and trade, gladiators’ armor, and artifacts and murals that this exhibition associates with bordellos. The show provides a brief glimpse of that world. It decorously places erotically explicit items in a nearly private space, prefaced by a warning and tucked away inside the main galleries.

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