SALT LAKE CITY — When Mark Twain visited the ancient Italian city of Pompeii in 1867, he walked into one dwelling and saw 18 skeletons, “all in sitting postures, and blackened places on the walls still mark their shapes and show their attitudes, like shadows,” he wrote.
Pompeii became frozen in time once Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, burying the city and its inhabitants beneath ash, pumice and rock almost instantly. The blast sent volcanic gases more than 20 miles high and released 100,000 times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima-Nagasaki nuclear bombings.
“And it really captivated me, just walking through the streets and seeing the houses and also seeing the body casts,” said Alexandra Hesse, executive director of Salt Lake City’s Leonardo Museum. “As a child, that really stimulated my imagination.”
As Hesse spoke about her Pompeii visit, an 1,100-pound Aphrodite statue peered over her shoulder. This Aphrodite is among the more than 150 Pompeiian artifacts currently at the museum for its newest attraction, “Pompeii: The Exhibition,” which opens Nov. 23. Curators from Italy were on hand Monday to open Aphrodite’s enormous shipping crate. The statue was first excavated from Pompeii during the early 20th century.
“It’s definitely a very emotional moment,” Hesse added. “We’re so used to seeing fake things a lot of the time. And this is really a statue that’s come from Pompeii. It’s original, it’s ancient. And just seeing that crate open up is incredible.”
Once the exhibit opens, its 150-plus artifacts will be arranged like they were first found (minus the ash). Patrons will walk through simulated Pompeiian villas, gardens and dining rooms. Ancient artwork, cutlery, cooking tools, and even casts of the human bodies — it’s all there at this Leonardo exhibit.
Jackie Hoff, the collection’s registrar, said her favorite item is, of all things, a colander.
“It was done by hand, you guys,” Hoff told assembled media members that morning. “Someone sat with a little thing and made a bazillion holes for this colander. It’s stunning.”
Historians and archaeologists have spent centuries trying to determine what happened to Pompeii — how exactly the disaster played out for the thousands of inhabitants who didn’t make it out alive. Pliny the Younger, one of those who escaped the blast, wrote, “it was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night.”
Out of the tragedy, however, has come considerable learning. To have an ancient city and its citizens preserved for generations to witness — and for pieces of that ancient city to travel the world, including Salt Lake City — is an educational gift that keeps on giving.
“And all these objects help tell that story,” Hesse said, “but they stand alone as artifacts of incredible value and beauty as well. So it’s a very authentic way to tell that story.”
If you go …
What: “Pompeii: The Exhibition”
When: Nov. 23-May 3
Where: The Leonardo Museum of Creativity and Innovation, 209 E. 500 South
How much: $24.99 for adults, $19.99 for children (ages 3 to 15), $21.99 for seniors (ages 65 and up) and military with ID, $9.99 for Leonardo Museum members, $18.99 per person for groups of 15 or more, $8.99 per person for student groups