Last Supper in Pompeii: From the Table to the Grave, Legion of Honor museum \ April 18–August 30, 2020
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. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco are proud 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 to bring to San Francisco a treasure trove of about 300 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 in every way, 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,” said Renée Dreyfus, Curator in Charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation 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 of 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. Starting in our first gallery, food samples reveal the fertile land of the area, including items such as almonds, figs, olives, snails, and more. In this room we also learn that Pompeii was recovering from an earthquake in AD 62 that left the city in shambles, as shown by a carved relief showing the destroyed buildings. Although the area was prone to natural disasters, Pompeiians chose to live under the shadow of Vesuvius that only 17 years later would suffer one of the most well-known eruptions in history.
“Dinner… without a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf.” – Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher (4 BC–AD 65)
Within the second gallery, the exhibition begins to walk visitors through a typical Pompeii home in which food and drink played a major role, commencing with the atrium, which Pompeiians used to present their most beautiful belongings. Gods and superstition were everywhere in Pompeiian life, seen in frescoes, shrines, and altars within this gallery. As the land of Pompeii was prime for wine making, Bacchus, the Roman god of the vine, was revered. One recovered fresco shows Bacchus, who has turned into a grapevine, standing at the foot of Vesuvius. This gallery showcases sculptures of other important Olympian gods including Venus, Apollo, Hercules, Mercury, and Zeus.
The exhibition also offers a glimpse of how food and wine were produced and distributed before being brought to dining tables, as seen in the galleries that highlight the triclinium (dining room) and the kitchen. An entire wall of frescoes from a summer dining room, open to fresh air at one end, will travel from Pompeii to the United States for the first time. Other 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 Roman god Bacchus, who was also the god of fertility. 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. These images were seen all around Pompeii—in homes, shops, and, of course, brothels.
In the final gallery we pay tribute to the death of the thousands who perished in the destruction as well as the Roman belief of 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 AD 79.
The story of Pompeii continues to mystify and amaze, thousands of years 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 is on view at the Legion of Honor museum from April 18 to August 30, 2020. The Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition was organized by Paul Roberts, the Sackler Keeper of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The Legion of Honor’s presentation is organized by Renée Dreyfus, Curator in Charge of Ancient Art and Interpretation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Visiting \ Legion of Honor: Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue, San Francisco. Open Tuesdays–Sundays, 9:30 am–5:15 pm. Closed most Mondays; open select holidays.
Ticketing: More information regarding tickets can be found at legionofhonor.org/visit-us.
Presenting sponsors: Clare C. McEvoy Charitable Remainder Unitrust and Jay D. McEvoy Trust, and Diane B. Wilsey. Significant support: Ruddock Foundation for the Arts.
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.
The Legion of Honor was inspired by the French pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and, like that structure, was modeled after the neoclassical Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, in Paris. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, opened in 1924 on a bluff in Lincoln Park overlooking the Golden Gate. It offers unique insight into the art historical, political, and social movements of the previous 4,000 years of human history, with holdings including ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; European painting, sculpture, and decorative arts; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.