While the museum has many exhibits, the main draw is and was the thing that Douglass mentioned: "A birds eye view of pictures, statuary and many objects of interest, taken from the ruins of Pompei and Herculanium."
The birds-eye view was actually a model, made in the 1850s, of the archeological digs as they stood at that time. The meticulous care with which the model-makers reproduced the mosaics and, more importantly, the frescoes on the walls, have served as some of the only records of those images because years -- centuries, now -- of exposure have caused them to deteriorate. Burial preserved the site, excavation restarted the processes of age.
Because of those processes, most of the artifacts and art were removed from the sites of the two cities and into this museum. (There's a longer history to that, but you can refer to Mary Beard's engaging work for more on the subject.) "The perfection of some of these in form and color and utility was remarkable considering their antiquity," Douglass commented in his diary. "In some respects they transcended modern art."
He was not wrong. I'm not sure what pieces he may have seen, but here are some samples.
|The expression on the donkey's face!|
Evidence of writing.
Also, note the head scarf, continuing Douglass's observations from the train.
|A miniature skeleton.|
|A miniature Isis Fortuna|
|A sample of a glass bottle still containing the remnants of oil.|
|A sample of a glass bottle melted by Vesuvius's heat.|
|Another celebrity siting. This is in every World Civilizations textbook I've seen. It is a mosaic that covered a floor in a Pompeiian villa and supposedly depicts Alexander the Great defeating the Persian king Darius.|
|Darius in mosaic.The detail and expression are amazing, rendered in tiny flecks of stone.|
|Alexander the Great in mosaic. Even the horse has an expression.|
|More reminders of mortality.|
|From the base of a mosaic column. Those are actual shells.|
|Detail on a column.|
|The room is now called the Secret Room, "Gabinetto Segretto."|
|The equivalent of lawn ornaments.|
|This was carved into the side of a building.|
Douglass was there with ladies and he himself was no libertine, especially given his reaction to meeting Victoria Woodhull a couple of months later when they returned to Rome. He and they probably averted their eyes from this Racolta.
As for the rest of the collections, he concluded, "The musium is something to be seen not once but many times in order to comprehend its many attractions[.]" Certainly going to it before and after seeing the two sites would make the visit deeper and richer than a Sunday afternoon.
- Karl Baedeker Firm. Italy. Handbook for Travelers, Third Part: Southern Italy and Sicily (7th, ed.; London: Dulac and Co, 1880).
- Frederick Douglass, Travel Diary, Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress.