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Erotic Art of Ancient Pompeii

Posted By Judith Harris On February 14, 2008 @ 10:35 am In Art,Art & Design,History,Italy,Sex | 10 Comments

Pompeii fresco, 1st century CE [Photo by Mary Harrsch]

Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery
by Judith Harris
I. B. Tauris, 320 pp.

Excerpts From Pompeii Awakened

From the earliest findings at Herculaneum, the first Vesuvian site to be rediscovered, and subsequently at Pompeii, the sexual representations, from grave marker in the shape of a phallus to vulgar graffiti and elegant marble carving, were inescapable. The finding of a brothel furthered the dead cities’ aura of dissolution, and, while this intrigued many observers in the libertine 18th century, it outraged many more in the more prudish 19th century. The popular Victorian English clergyman Charles Sturgeon, for one, preached that the cause of the volcano’s wrath was the notorious behavior of the ancient Pompeians, a moral cause-and-effect theme revived in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York. During the late Victorian period this reputation for dissolution discouraged American collectors from acquiring Pompeiian artifacts. The shock waves began at the beginning, as this first of two excerpts shows.

From Chapter 3 – Papyrus

The exciting new finds at Herculaneum in the 1740’s were being followed by the court of the king of Naples Charles III with the utmost excitement, in part because most of his courtiers had little else to occupy their time. The court happened to be to hand, attending a hunt in the woodlands of the grounds of the new royal hunting palace called the Reggia at Portici, when word came that the troupe of workmen excavating inside a villa buried 70 feet underground had made a magnificent new discovery of an ancient statue.

Servants rushed ahead to prepare a picnic and raise an improvised canopy tent alongside the entry to the tunnel being excavated by Swiss army engineer Karl Weber and his small crew of convict laborers. Then the entire court converged to see what was being hoisted to the surface. A court artist stood by, ready to capture the first impressions for the painting he would complete in his studio.

Amidst a flotilla of courtiers in silks and befurred velvet finery, Charles and his Prussian wife Queen Maria Amalia arrived in a rustling, stately procession and took their seats on folding chairs. From the bowels of the earth the carved white marble group of two embracing figures, which Weber had found in the Great Peristyle, appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, borne upon a litter. A shiver of excitement rippled through the court. Already the dainty turn of that horn revealed the prized Greek look. When the whole sculpture group hoved into view two heads could be seen and two bodies. One seemed to be a man of sorts, though at closer look he wore two small horns on his head. He gazed fondly into the female’s languid marble eyes. For locked in his embrace was a female goat, surely the prettiest in the flock, whom he was in the act of penetrating.

The statue had stood, a garden party background prank, along the flank of the elongated pool in the Great Peristyle of what we call today the Villa of the Papyri. The educated among the observers when it was first brought to light would have recognized in this garden sculpture from antiquity nothing more than an amusing allegory. The lover copulating with the she-goat was Pan, forest god and the Arcadian protector of flocks and shepherds. Denizen of woodlands, Pan notoriously startled people out walking in a wood (his surprising them gave us the word “panic”).

Later and more sophisticated Greeks such as Socrates saw in Pan something quite different: the search for beauty of soul. This statue found in the villa was therefore a composite—a playful representation of a myth relating how nature (Pan) gave poetry to mankind (the she-goat).

But in the sculpture group Charles saw no amusement, no redeeming metaphor. It mattered little to him that it was superbly well crafted. When his new opera house, the San Carlo Theatre, had been opened in Naples only a few years before this, the Catholic King Charles had been scandalized by the ballerinas’ bare legs and had ordered them to wear ankle-length black pantaloons ever after. This priggish side now made him order a halt to the entire excavation at Herculaneum. Offended, Charles led Maria Amalia and the entire court away in a pious huff of rustling, beribboned silks.

But the representations of sex at Pompeii were far more complex, as this second excerpt suggests.

Chapter 7 – Dirty and Other Pictures

To the Grand Tourists of the first half of the 18th century, the Campania cities just being excavated for the first time represented and spoke for the entire ancient Roman world, and, as such, were fonts of majesty and wisdom—the source of the reflections of the eloquent Cicero, who had a villa at Pompeii, of the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, of the austerity of Cato. Baiae, on the coast just north of Naples, inspired lofty thoughts of Virgil’s Tomb.

But from the outset of rediscovery Pompeii was seen as a producer of visual pornography. In discoveries that to this day condition attitudes toward Pompeii throughout the world, objects of an obvious sexual content were excavated. The conclusion seemed obvious: in Pompeii, erotic pictures were not a vulgar exception, they were the rule. All this fought against the uplifting image cultivated by the Bourbon-Farnesi rulers of Naples and the Two Sicilies, beginning with King Charles III.

Although the 18th-century erudites were familiar with risqué ancient poetry, and possibly had seen vases with obscene motifs and the wall paintings of Etruscan tombs, in which light-hearted banquets were underway and the sex implicit, nothing like this had ever been seen, and surely not in such quantity. From the ruins emerged both mildly erotic and blatantly pornographic scenes, painted on walls and on vases, designed in mosaic tiles on floors, and scribbled onto street-front walls. Gigantic free-standing phalluses were found, and bizarrely erotic objects—terracotta lamps, bronze charms that dangled chimes, sculptures, even furniture. Some suggestive Dionysian scenes were dignified by their mythological associations—but then from the ruins came a series of ithyphallic bronze ragamuffins bearing trays, presumably meant to serve as bread holders, surely disgusting at a dinner table save for the most dissolute. When lapillae were scraped away in a dining room, the floor mosaic in black-and-white tesserae showed a sea scene in which couples and groups of three copulated, in boats.

A favourite theme which recurred again and again in wall paintings was the satyr creeping up behind a nymph to catch her by surprise. In at least one case the nymph, her veil ripped away, turns out to be a hermaphrodite, to the satyr’s theatrical dismay, and the observer’s amusement. Some wall paintings showed homosexual sex and, because African motifs were popular, another depicted picnicking pygmies enjoying a group orgy under a tent. A peculiar objet resembling a wind-chime, found at Herculaneum in 1740, is an elegantly wrought tintinnabulum of bronze. In what is presumably a jest, it depicts a man whose hooked helmet and protective strap identify him as a murmillo, a type of gladiator, doing battle against his own gigantic phallus, transformed into a panther.

The news of these discoveries traveled quickly. The findings changed the image of Naples itself, now seen as so lively that, in one of his books, the Marquis de Sade (1749–1814) used the temple to Venus at Baiae as an appropriate setting for an imaginary orgy.

Nevertheless, in the earliest period of Pompeian excavations, the same desire to understand the natural world that had caused Sir William Hamilton to study Vesuvius and publish his observations of the volcano encouraged him to question the significance of the erotica discoveries.

“I have actually discovered the cult of Priapus in full vigour at Isernia”, he enthusiastically wrote to a friend in London in 1781. Indeed, on commission from Hamilton, the trained engraver Dominique-Vivant Denon, French chargé-d’affaires in Naples after 1782, stole time from organizing drawings of travel sights for the Abbé de Saint-Non, to make a series of drawings of the erotica based on the paintings and artefacts of Pompeii. Under the title Priapées et sujets divers, Denon’s drawings were published in France and circulated among cognoscenti.

Hamilton’s own collection of wax phalluses from Isernia were given to the British Museum in 1784.

The offensive statue of Pan and the she-goat, found in the long peristyle of the Villa of the Papyrus, which had so shocked King Charles when first excavated in 1752, had long since been locked away. Johann J. Winckelmann, today considered the father of both scientific archaeology and art history, came to Naples and asked to see it, but was resolutely denied access. (Denon had managed to see it, however, and one of his drawings depicts that very white marble sculpture group.)

Like Hamilton, Winckelmann was also curious about the phallic clay lamps and the myriad phalluses in bronze called tintinnabula, whose tiny dangling bells are meant to tinkle away as protection from jinxes and the evil eye. Winckelmann drew copies of several from Herculaneum and mailed them to a friend, G.L. Bianconi.

Winckelmann knew that to understand the Pompeian erotica required analysing what such gods as Pan and Priapus meant in antiquity. In ancient Arcadian legend, it was Pan who taught Daphnis how to play the flute; depicted together that couple therefore symbolized lyric poetry and, in general, artistic creation. The erect penis was meant to indicate intellectual excitement and a portrayal of nature (Pan) bringing culture to mankind.

And what King Charles presumably did not know was that, among the vast treasures of his mother’s inherited Farnese collection in Rome, there was an erotic variation depicting Pan about to make love to Daphnis, the Sicilian shepherd boy. Carved in Greece, the Farnese family marble Pan had been famous for sixteen centuries because Pliny the Elder had described it in his encyclopedia, and had graced the so-called “garden of Love” (giardino d’Amore) at the Cardinal Farnese’s hillside estate in Rome, the Villa Farnesina, until locked away in the Secret Cabinet of the Farnese palace at Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, where it remained until 1770.

The two statues of Pan, therefore—the one in the cardinal’s collection hidden in Rome and the one hidden away in Naples—were readable as signifying at the same time pure lust and pure intellect, pure art.

The wealth of shocking and desirable pornography could hardly go unnoticed among the dealers, and also among forgers hustling their wares to the Grand Tourist collectors converging on Naples. Manufacturing ancient erotica became a lucrative business; Winckelmann himself reported seeing on the market skilful forgeries of Priapic figures from Pompeii in paint and sculpture. One of these forgers of ancient Pompeian erotica, Giuseppe Guerra, a Venetian working in Rome, was particularly renowned. Among his clients was a Borgia family cardinal, whose lavish erotica collection included pieces subsequently purchased by General Joaquim Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, when Murat became king of Naples in 1808.


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