NEW YORK – A new exhibition from Italy that opened Friday at New York's Discovery Times Square captures the last gasp of the ancient city of Pompeii before it was buried under volcanic ash, mud and rock when Mount Vesuvius erupted 2,000 years ago.
Copies of body casts that researchers made from the skeletal remains of residents buried alive are an eerie part of the exhibit -- a crouching man covers his mouth, a chained dog appears contorted, a family of four huddle together.
A short film recreates what Pompeians might have felt as they tried to escape. The museum's floor vibrates as the volcano's furor grows; a movie screen rises and a double door opens to reveal a funereal scene of 20 "bodies" hardened in poses from their final moments.
Pompeii existed for 700 years before it was snuffed out in just 24 hours.
"Pompeii The Exhibit: Life and Death in the Shadow of Vesuvius" also chronicles life in the vibrant mercantile city before and after Vesuvius erupted. Colorful room and garden frescoes, mosaic floors, pottery and gold jewelry are among the artifacts featured.
Located on Italy's western coast, Pompeii's rich volcanic soil produced wine grapes, wheat and other crops. Both a river and sea port, the city exported goods throughout the Roman Empire and imported such items as lamps, pottery and olive oil from northern Italy, France and Spain.
Its 25,000 inhabitants were well-to-do farmers, bankers, ship captains and traders whose thriving city boasted 200 wine bars, inns and restaurants, 33 bakeries, and Thermoplia, the fast food shops that ladled hot foods from big terra cotta pots.
"The exhibition provides a complete picture of life in an ancient city. No archaeological excavation gives the totality of life like Pompeii," said Judith Harris, an exhibition consultant and author of "Pompeii Awakened, A Story of Rediscovery."
On the morning of Aug. 24, 79 A.D., Vesuvius began spewing ash, mud and noxious gases without warning. A 12-mile black cloud from the volcano blocked out the sun.
Harris said Pompeii was forgotten for 16 centuries -- "no identifiable trace" -- until the mid-18th century when a farmer digging a well struck the ruin.
The volcano's intense heat proved to be a great preservative. Archaeologists found the remains of 1,100 people. Eighty-one carbonized loaves of bread were found in the ruins of a single baker's oven. A plaster copy of a carbonized original is on display in the show.
But the most dramatic and unsettling part of the exhibition are the copies of body casts. The casts were first made by pioneer archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli in the late 1800s. Volcanic ash and pumice encapsulated the bodies at Pompeii. After the bodies decomposed, skeletal cavities remained. Liquid plaster could be poured into the cavity and capture the person's dimensions, posture and expression once the plaster solidified -- almost as if creating a statue.
The body casts include a family found in a downstairs room of the House of the Gold Bracelet. The dust that settled on the youngest child, a toddler, "was so fine that you can actually see the eye lashes ... and the way that the robe rode up during the destruction," Harris said.
Especially disturbing is a cast of 32 skeletons, found together and including several young children. They were among numerous complete skeletons discovered in 1982 on the seashore of the city of Herculaneum, four miles north of Pompeii and destroyed the same day. By 2002, about 350 skeletons had been found, disproving a theory that most of Herculaneum's inhabitants had escaped.
Watch Pompei Exibithion slideshow:
The irony of the city's annihilation is that the volcanic rich soil provided its residents a rich livelihood, said Kristin Romey, the exhibition's local archaeological curatorial consultant.
Pompeians' two-story townhouses were lavishly decorated. Some had running water and hot tubs. The exhibition features an exquisite mosaic fountain set within a garden wall painted and decorated in colorful glass and seashells. A fresco evokes a lush garden of lotus flowers and doves sipping from a birdbath executed in green, blue and yellow.
The ancient Romans also loved to display erotic artifacts, with everything from lamps to garden statuary.
Pompeii housed 41 places of prostitution and a public brothel in the middle of town, a two-story structure with five cubicles -- sparse tiny, narrow rooms -- on each floor containing erotic frescos. One, recreated at the exhibition, has graffiti on the wall that translates to: "Here I came, I had sex, then I went home." It's discretely tucked away behind other exhibits.
Pompeians' love for graffiti had no bounds. They left scrawls on city walls, everything from comments about upcoming elections to proclamations of love.
Today, 3.5 million people live in the shadow of Vesuvius, which remains the only active volcano in mainland Europe. The last eruption was in 1944.
The exhibit is curated by the Soprintendenza di Archaeologica Napoli e Pompei, a government authority responsible for the excavation site, and organized by Running Subway Productions. A portion of the exhibition proceeds will go for the preservation of the site. The exhibit runs through Sept. 5.
Organizers said the exhibit would next travel to a museum in Boston.