Pompeii villa opens in Paris, but Roman ruins remain at risk in Italy

More than 200 artefacts loaned to Musée Maillol in Franco-Italian joint effort to highlight plight of Unesco heritage site

An appliance that heats or cools drinks, using either coal or snow, a boiler that warms bathwater and an underfloor heating system: these may sound like inventions for the modern dwelling – but the Romans got there first.

While some 2,000 years separate us from Roman civilisation, a recreated 1st-century Roman villa from Pompeii has these technological innovations, and more, as well as sophisticated art.

More than 200 treasures and artefacts are on loan to the Musée Maillol in Paris in a Franco-Italian collaboration that highlights the risk to the future of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A few months ago, a major building in Pompeii collapsed following heavy rain, and the site in Italy is so desperate for funds that Unesco may remove its world heritage status.

The work on loan includes frescoes and marble sculptures that might have been found in a triclinium (dining room), culina (kitchen) and balneum (bathroom), among other rooms in the home of a wealthy landowner, magistrate or merchant.

But it is the everyday objects that bring it to life: after-bath scrapers and vials of perfumed oils for the hair, clothes and feet – sometimes during banquets – are displayed near a bronze bath tub, intended to suggest that someone was getting ready for their guests; delicate silver cups, bronze skewers and spoons to remove crustaceans from their shells – along with kitchen utensils such as a sieve – hint at a sumptuous meal to come. It offers an "evocation" of a domus pompeiana (Pompeiian house), to give a sense that the owner has just popped out.

The reconstruction is significant as few private houses have survived from the Roman Empire, compared to the many public buildings. And the objects are designs of real "luxury", according to Stefano De Caro, the honorary director-general of Italy's archaeological heritage and one of the exhibition organisers.

Exhibits include frescoes depicting Dionysius and other gods covering entire walls of a room recreating a tablinus (study). The most spectacular artifacts include a vase shaped into a woman's head, and jewellery whose designs belie their age.

The exhibition also reflects the Romans' liberal approach to sex. Such houses might have had an area where slaves were prostituted as a source of income for the household.

For Romans, the concept of obscenity did not exist, as shown by the fountain statue of Priapus, the god who protects gardens, with a vast phallus to protect the householder against the evil eye.

The exhibition also reminds visitors of the tragedy faced by residents of such a domus pompeiana – the calcified remains of a dog, writhing in agony as it tried to escape the volcanic ash.

Pompeii – A Way of Life opens on Wednesday at the Musée Maillol through its collaboration with the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and the Archeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii. It runs until 12 February next year.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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