They didn’t see catastrophe coming – and neither did we

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The British Museum has resurrected its blockbuster show about the deadly volcanic eruption. In the age of coronavirus, it’s more chilling and vital than ever

Death in the air … Roman mosaic from Pompeii, of a boy slave in a kitchen with fruit and fish. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

In AD 79, a society that thought it was modern, sophisticated and fully in control of its destiny was taught otherwise by nature. Sounds familiar? The eruption of Vesuvius that overwhelmed Pompeii, Herculaneum and many villas dotted around the Bay of Naples caught the Roman empire by surprise. The parallels with the coronavirus crisis are uncanny. So the British Museum’s release this week of Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, an online tour of its harrowing 2013 blockbuster show, offers a troubling gaze into history’s mirror.

Like the Pompeiians before us, we have been caught unprepared. The people there were proud of their fertile and even divine mountain – until it erupted. Their bodies have been cast from cavities in the hardened ash, huddled against the volcano’s torrent of choking heat. Why did they not see this coming? Well, why didn’t we?

The exhibition, which you can revisit in this special screening of a filmed private view, brought together astonishing evidence of the wealth and comforts of Pompeii the moment before disaster. Frescoes and sculptures from bedrooms, dining rooms and even gardens revealed the style and splendour of wealthy homes in Pompeii. Cookware, heaters, couches and lamps from pubs, shops and baths enhance the image of a world engagingly similar to our own.

A view of the ruins of Pompeii today. The vast archaeological area is closed to visitors due to the pandemic. Photograph: Cesare Abbate/EPA

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