What was eaten and what was cultivated in ancient Pompeii? An exhibition at the MANN in Naples

From Nov. 21, 2018 to Feb. 18, 2019, the MANN in Naples is hosting the exhibition Res Rustica. Archaeology, Botany and Food in 79 AD.

At the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, as part of the project Discovering the treasures of the MANN curated by scientific director Luigia Melillo, and following the first “stage” represented by the exhibition The Metal of the Gladiators. See, Touch, Understand, the exhibition Res Rustica. Archaeology, Botany and Food in 79 A.D., scheduled from Nov. 21, 2018, to Feb. 18, 2019: the exhibition, produced in collaboration with the Department of Agriculture of the Federico II University of Naples, is a rigorous account of archaeobotany, and an opportunity to once again assemble the Edible Collection, in anticipation of an overall restyling, along with textiles, in the Museum’s permanent exhibition proposal.

"We are closing theYear of Italian Food wanted by MIBAC and MIPAAFT," explains MANN director Paolo Giulierini, “with an exhibition dedicated to the roots of our agri-food wealth: 2,000 years of the history of culture, land and table are witnessed by material remains preserved at the MANN, remains that constitute a unique treasure in the world. The exhibition represents an extraordinary opportunity not only to present for the first time the Edible Collection but also, in the spirit of the MANN Treasures project successfully inaugurated by the Gladiator weapons, to tell the general public what it means to do scientific research on these rare materials.”

The itinerary of the exhibition, the presentation reads, opens (room 94, adjacent to the Pompeii Plastic) with a large map, on which are traced the routes followed, in antiquity, by individual species, often landed on Italian coasts from the East: peaches, olives, garlic, pomegranates, carobs, figs, dates, are just some of the products that, once, animated the table and the daily life of the Romans.

These fruits of the earth are presented to us, today, in an original guise: fragile and strong at the same time, capable of surviving the passage of time and arriving at the present day, returning charred and uncarbonated finds.

The scientific investigations, coordinated by Gaetano Di Pasquale and Alessia D’Auria (Department of Agriculture, University of Naples Federico II), have also revealed a “mystery” in the Edible Collection. Dates, carried out at the CIRCE Laboratory (Department of Mathematics and Physics,University of Campania “Luigi Vanvitelli”), have shown that about five kilograms of grapes, presumably pomace (grape processing residues formed by stems, skins, grape seeds), among the items stored in the deposits, are not of ancient origin, but date back to the 18th century and, therefore, to the period of the first finds in Vesuvian cities: these finds come from eighteenth-century cultivations, mixed, intentionally or unintentionally, with the archaeobotanical material. To encourage the dissemination of content thanks to new communication technologies, also on display are a number of videos (in Italian and English), which illustrate the ancient botanical finds in a constant relationship with the knowledge acquired in the present (the multimedia project was developed by Aldo Claudio Zappalà, Art Content of Discovering the Treasures of the MANN).

Yet archaeobotany constitutes only the beginning of Res Rustica’s exhibition path: the second section of the exhibition (room 95), in fact, is dedicated to the use of edibles in everyday life. The public, therefore, is presented with the tools of the kitchen, the reserves of the larder, and the convivial outcomes of a set table: a few amphorae, a scythe, and a stadera are the tangible signs of skilful manual activity, juxtaposed, in a magical play of assonances and dissonances, with the food represented in some frescoes belonging to the museum collections.

Still, among the exhibition’s elements of curiosity is the re-proposition of the bottle with olive oil from two thousand years ago (presented by Alberto Angela in the recent press conference of Stanotte a Pompei and studied, in the past, by other experts): next to the find, a bread, a fresella and a tarallo, belonging to the ancient world, to imagine, perhaps, a Mediterranean diet ante litteram.

Res Rustica is an exhibition itinerary that was born not only from the scientific synergy between distinguished and prestigious institutions, but also enjoyed the sensitivity of an important business reality of the Campania region: in fact, the exhibition was also made possible thanks to the contribution of ROSSOPOMODORO, which supported the intervention to enhance the MANN’s Edible Collection. The Collection of Edibles and Organic Leftovers is to be considered one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of organic finds from the Roman period. Beginning with the earliest excavation campaigns, Charles of Bourbon collected all materials from Herculaneum and Pompeii in theHerculenense Museum at the Summer Palace of Portici, including such fragile materials as textiles, fruits and leftover edibles. The Edible Collection, considered to be of rare value, constituted an important nucleus of the “Gabinetto de’ preziosi,” located in the tenth room of the Museum, conceived as an eighteenth-century Wunderkammer, i.e., a chamber containing mirabilia, where the King had assembled what he considered to be the Museum’s true treasure because of the value and rarity of the objects: goldsmithing (bullae, medallions, necklaces, bracelets); silverware (including the calathus with Homer’s apotheosis and the mirror with Cleopatra’s death); gems and cameos; edibles from Herculaneum and Pompeii, including several forms of bread; fabrics and some color blocks used by the pictores.With the Museum’s transfer from Portici (1805-1828) to the present Archaeological Museum of Naples, the “Cabinet of Precious Objects” was placed to the right of the main staircase, between the glass and obscene objects sections (1817), then moved again by director Pietro Bianchi in 1841 and later greatly revised by Giuseppe Fiorelli (1863-1875), who hived off its core of organic finds. In the early twentieth century, the Commestibles completed the layout of the Great Plastic Room of Pompeii and were placed in low display cases against the walls of the room, alongside frescoes and small bronzes chosen from the instrumentum domesticum as tangible examples of Pompeian daily life. In 1989, the model was dismantled for restoration purposes, the hall closed and the Commestibles returned to storage. In 2009, part of the organic and textile artifacts were moved to the climate-controlled room of the Laboratory of Applied Sciences in Pompeii for conservation reasons. Finally, in March 2018, the Edibles and textiles were returned to the MANN where climate-controlled chambers were created inside the Medagliere.
List of archaeobotanical species on display:
Grapevine (grape seeds), olive (olives and pits), fig (whole and split fruits), stone pine (pine cones, pine nuts), pomegranate (small fruits and “husks”), hazel (shelled nuts), peach (pits), almond (fruits), carob tree (fruits), cereals (barley, millet, spelt (caryopsis), legumes (lentil seeds, field beans), chestnut (a chestnut), garlic (several cloves), onion, shallot (bulbs), date palm (dates).

For all information about the exhibition you can visit the official MANN website.

What was eaten and what was cultivated in ancient Pompeii? An exhibition at the MANN in Naples
What was eaten and what was cultivated in ancient Pompeii? An exhibition at the MANN in Naples

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