Herculaneum's Antiquarium, a Brutalist-style museum designed by a team of Neopolitan architects in the 1970s, is finally open.

Luxury goods on show in Herculaneum

Visitors have had to be patient when waiting for Herculaneum's museum, which was completed in 1974, and was then closed to the public. Now, 45 years later, it can be visited again. The Antiquarium – an angular cement block built in the Brutalist style of the 1970s – opened at the end of last year after a period of renovation.

This awkward architectural period-piece juts out at the edge of Herculaneum Archaeological Park over extensive ruins that rival those of Pompeii, although many of them are unexcavated still because the modern town, Ercolano, was built over them.

In the Antiquarium's first show, SplendOri: Luxury in the ornaments of Herculaneum 100 objects, illustrating the work of the craftsmen working in the ancient city and in the surrounding towns, are on display. Today skilled artists still carve exquisite cameos at neighbouring Torre del Greco. The objects on show are all deluxe items worn or hoarded, accumulated wealth and status symbols, precious household wares and tokens of affection.

For their owners, though, they also represented a possible means of survival during an unprecedented cataclysm, either natural or manmade. In fact, some were found near, or on, the bodies of citizens that ran from their houses towards the seashore where they sheltered inside boathouses. Tragically, this is where they would die of asphyxiation, caused by the hot all-pervading toxic gasses that descended upon them following the eruption
of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Francesco Sirano, Director of Herculaneum Archaeological Park, says the new exhibition is part of a pilot programme, Herculaneum 1738–2018: Past and Present Talent. This year, furniture and woodwork found in Herculaneum will be on show in the nearby Royal Palace at Portici.

This palace was built in 1738 (the year Herculaneum was first excavated) for the Bourbon king, Charles III (r 1735–50 as King of Naples and Sicily). In 1834 GB Rampoldi (1761–1836) described the palace in his Corografia dell'Italia: 'Towards 1750… the palace… was used to store the collection of precious things that had been discovered in Herculaneum and Pompeii. The building is on three floors, and is rectangular, 400 feet from East to West, and 360 feet wide... the large courtyard is octagonal...

Inside ... are the royal apartments, the sumptuous galleries that contained the fine museum, unique in the world, for the quantity of statues, bronzes, bas-reliefs, pots, candelabras and tools of every type found in the excavations of the above-mentioned two towns... What is… not found in other royal palaces, is that it has floors composed of ancient… Roman mosaics…'.

Given this palace's beauty and monumental size, might it not revert to its original purpose as a much more fitting museum for Herculaneum?

• SplendOri: Luxury in the ornaments of Herculaneum is on show at the Antiquarium
in Herculaneum Archaeological Park (www.ercolano.beniculturali.it) until 30 September 2019.
Dalu Jones