Must See Museums: Pompeii in NYC (Discovery Times Square)

a plaster cast of one of Vesuvius' victims
When I was five years old, my mother took me out of school (a big deal), got a babysitter for my little sister  (a very big deal), and took me to a museum.  Missing school to go to a museum made an impact on me, but it was the exhibit itself that changed me forever.

An exhibit about Pompeii traveled the country, making a stop in Dallas, and my mom wanted me to see it.  I have incredibly clear memories of that exhibit... the film dramatizing the volcanic eruption... the casts of bodies caught in their last moments of life... the dazzling frescoes and glittering gold jewelry and the idea that a Roman town had been frozen in time forever.  I was hooked.  My mom had no idea what she had started.

Now, those of you on the East Coast (or who are traveling that way) have the opportunity to do the same.  Discovery Times Square just opened a new exhibit about Pompeii which looks fabulous.  And like that exhibit I saw thirty-something years ago, this features a film that explores Mt. Vesuvius' eruption, plaster casts of the residents of Pompeii, and artifacts from their lives.
a fresco from Pompeii

Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD destroying Pompeii and neighboring Herculaneum with an explosive eruption and fast-moving mud and lava flow that trapped people and their animals in their homes.
Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames . . . Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of night.    -- Pliny the Younger 
Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist and historian, died trying to rescue people from the eruption.  His nephew, Pliny the Younger, recorded his uncle's death and the horrors of the day writing:
Hastening then to the place from whence others fled with the utmost terror, he steered his course direct to the point of danger, and with so much calmness and presence of mind as to be able to make and dictate his observations upon the motion and all the phenomena of that dreadful scene. He was now so close to the mountain that the cinders, which grew thicker and hotter the nearer he approached, fell into the ships, together with pumice-stones and black pieces of burning rock: they were in danger too not only of being aground by the sudden retreat of the sea, but also from the vast fragments which rolled down from the mountain and obstructed all the shore. Here he stopped to consider whether he should turn back again; to which the pilot advising him, "Fortune," said he, "favors the brave; steer to where Pomponianus is." 
But it was no use.  The toxic fumes got the worse of Pliny the Elder, and he died.  His nephew recalls hearing the cries of the terrified and the dying, writing:
You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.
The story of the destruction of Pompeii is like the story of the Titanic -- we all know what is going to happen, but we can't turn away. And Discovery's exhibit, organized by the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Pompei, which oversees Pompeii, promises to bring that drama to life for a new generation of visitors.

Pompeii: The Exhibit
  • Opened March 4, 2011
  • Discovery Times Square in New York City
  • Tickets: $25 (adults); $22.50 (seniors); $19.50 (children 4-12); Children under 4 are free
  • For exhibit hours and to purchase tickets online visit the website:

Read the New York Times review of the exhibit:
When the Dead Arise and Head to Times Square
Published: March 3, 2011
All photos used with permission and courtesy of Discovery Times Square.

Must See Museums: "Secrets of the Silk Road" at the Penn Museum

Now through March 28 (some objects only on view until March 15 -- see below)

Wow! I have to say that Edward Rothstein's write up about "Secrets of the Silk Road" at the Penn Museum left me breathless and ready to book a ticket to the City of Brotherly Love. The exhibit, a collection of objects from China illustrating the importance of the Silk Road and cross-Asian trade over multiple-millennia, sounds both exciting and inspiring.

As Rothstein writes, "Most of these astonishing artifacts should have ceased to exist long ago. Exposed to breath and light, you can imagine them disintegrating into powdery mist: silk pillows and robes, thin brocades of cloth with floral patterns and rich colors, woven baskets, felt hats, a braided fried dough twist, feathers from caps and arrows. Ephemera, surely: these are not lasting things of stone, bone and gold, and the newest are at least 1,000 years old."

So, those of you who are lucky enough to be near Philadelphia in the next few weeks should make your way to the Penn Museum post haste! Unfortunately, due to a "miscommunication" with the Chinese government, the exhibit will only run in its entirety through March 15. Then two mummies will be removed, and the remainder of the exhibit will run through March 28.

Make thy way to the Penn Museum for this incredible exhibit -- and be sure to let us know what you think of it, too!

Penn Museum
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
(215) 898-4000
Website (for hours and show dates):

Link Love: 

Another Stop on a Long, Improbable JourneyBy EDWARD ROTHSTEINPublished: February 20, 2011
What astonishes in the exhibition “Secrets of the Silk Road” at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia is that its ephemeral artifacts — brocaded cloth, felt hats, even fried dough — still exist.

Must See Museums: Casa Guidi in Florence

When I read about Casa Guidi, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's home in Florence, I immediately placed it on my to do list for this trip to Florence. And you can stay there, too! Sadly, it isn't open during the winter months.  So, for now, enjoying Susan's description of the place will have to do... 

The following is an excerpt from Susan Van Allen's book 100 Places in Italy Every Woman Should Go. And guess what! We are having a giveaway! Every comment made this week will be entered to win a copy of Susan's book plus some goodies I picked up last week in Italy. Tempting? Read on... and make a comment! 

When we think of “How do I love thee, Let me count the ways,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous line, it seems only natural that this romantic poet would wind up in Italy. It was amore that brought her to Florence, where she lived for fourteen years with her husband Robert Browning. Stop by their former Oltrarno apartment to get a hit of what life was like for these bohemians back in the nineteenth century.

When Barrett met Browning in London, she was thirty-eight and at an all-time low. Her poetry books were a smash, but she was a semi-invalid with lung problems that began with a spinal injury she got as a teenager and left her dependent on opium for the rest of her life. And she was in mourning for her beloved brother. He’d gone with her to a lovely lakeside spot to help restore her health, and ended up drowning in that lake.

In swooped poet-on-the-rise Robert Browning, who wrote her a fan letter that began, “I love your verses with all my heart…” It was a little too over the top for Elizabeth, but the two started writing to each other and after a few months Robert showed up at her father’s house, where she was living as a recluse. Robert was six years younger than Elizabeth, a strapping, healthy guy, and it was hard for her to even imagine he could love her. Elizabeth’s wealthy, tyrannical father was dead set against any of his twelve children coupling, but after their first meeting, a secret romance between Elizabeth and Robert began.

A year later, in 1846, they eloped, and Robert whisked Elizabeth off to Italy for their honeymoon, along with her nurse and cocker spaniel. Elizabeth described it as “living a dream.” After toodling around, they found this gem of a six-room apartment in Florence. They bargained with the landlord, giving him back the grand furniture the place came with, and getting the rent down to twenty-five guineas a year, which included free entrance to the nearby Boboli Gardens.

The apartment is on the piano nobile (what we think of as the second floor) of this fifteenth-century palazzo, once owned by Count Guidi. You pass through a big dining room to get to the main attraction: the drawing room where Elizabeth wrote and hung out with artists and writers like the Hawthornes and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Thanks to an oil painting Robert had done, the room looks almost exactly as it was when the Barrett-Brownings lived here. It has a cozy Victorian style, with intense olive green walls, soft lighting, velvet upholstered furniture, and a little table with a mother of pearl tea set. In the middle of it all is a tiny writing desk where you can imagine Elizabeth composing Aurora Leigh—a love story of a woman writer making her way in the world. The gilt-framed mirror over the fireplace is the one piece that’s original to Casa Guidi. Elizabeth wrote to her sister about how thrilled she was Robert bought it, even though to her the five-pound price was an extravagance.

Elizabeth got her strength back in Florence. At forty-three she gave birth to a son, whom she nicknamed Pen. She got passionately involved with the Italian fight for independence, and wrote the poem “Casa Guidi Windows” in support of the Florentines she saw from her terrace, who protested fiercely against Austrian occupation.

Though most biographies claim “they lived happily after,” Elizabeth and Robert were real people, so it wasn’t a fifteen-year honeymoon. At some points it got a little Madonna-Guy Ritchie-esque. Elizabeth was the poet star of the duo, paying all the bills for the house and many wonderful vacations, with her writing profits and money she’d inherited from an uncle. She got her way when it came to dressing Pen, outfitting him in effeminate velvet get-ups and having his hair grow in long curls like his mommy’s. Robert didn’t stand behind Elizabeth’s passions— feminism, the fight for Italian unification, and most of all her explorations into spirituality, which involved consulting mediums. Add to that her four miscarriages and opium addiction to give some shadings to the “happily ever after” story.

A photograph of Elizabeth just months before her death shows her dressed in billowing black silk, with that signature cascade of curls surrounding a face that looks pained and cadaverous. The story goes she died in Robert’s arms in 1861 in Casa Guidi, at the age of fifty-five. Some suspect Robert may have upped the dose of morphine to put an end to her suffering.

Robert left Florence after Elizabeth died and never returned. In England, he finally reached his success as a poet. In Elizabeth’s memory (no mention of Robert), the Florentines placed a plaque over the doorway of the Casa Guidi apartment building, honoring her for poetry they said “made a golden ring between Italy and England.”

Casa Guidi: Piazza San Felice 8 (Oltrarno),
Monday-Wednesday-Friday, 3-6, April to November.

NOTE: The attached rooms of the Barrett-Browning place that aren’t being used for a museum have been turned into a vacation apartment, so you can sleep where the Brownings slept. It’s three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and kitchen (

English Cemetery: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s grave, Piazzale Donatello.

Golden Day: Visit Casa Guidi, enjoy the Oltrarno. Have dinner at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco (Borgo San Jacopo 43r, 055 215706, closed Wednesday), set in a thirteenth-century tower, serving robust versions of traditional Florentine dishes.

Leave a comment below and enter yourself in the drawing for a copy of Susan's book and some goodies from Italy!  Come back every day this week for more chances to win!