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Art and eroticism in Pompeii

by AdminAg

Copulo ergo sum…or is there more? 

Written by Monica Camozzi

Also Julius Caesar would end up on Dagospia these days.  Cicero, in fact, accused him of having had a passive homosexual relationship in his youth with Nicomedes IV, the last ruler of Bithynia.

Caesar subdued Gaul, but Nicomedes Caesar: behold Caesar, today triumphs he who subdued Gaul, not Nicomedes who subdued Caesar.

Apparently, during his triumphs, his soldiers (who were allowed to mock their commander) called him ‘bald whoremonger’ and ‘queen of Bithynia’, in reference to a supposed episode of passive homosexual intercourse. In short… even for an exceptional strategist, capable of using reverse psychology to quell uprisings and bend hordes of barbarians, at the apex of the social pyramid, the erotic côte of existence created the classic banana peel.

Rome was not blocked by pedantries of ‘gender’, male homosexual relations were normal, as long as they took place between subjects of equal rank. But Rome was and remained a phallocentric and macho society, where virility and social status were the salient levers.

The watchword was virtus, a concept, a quality, that encompassed the entire existence of men and regulated it even on a sexual level. But dominating remained the founding imprint. Not only in the act of conquering peoples, but also in the alcove. Playing the role of woman and devoting oneself to the pleasure of others was synonymous with effeminatus, one of the most infamous names of the time. In politics, such a term was a powerful weapon, and it was used to attack the honour of others.

Hence, the misfortune Caesar had incurred….

Sex manuals with erotic drawings accompanied by explicit suggestions and images circulated among the Latin elites. No copies of the latter have reached us, but we know that they greatly influenced Roman art and ornamental designs. No wonder, then, at the explicit iconographies, apparently heedless of ‘morals’, that characterise the Pompeian environment. Francesco I of Sicily, accompanied by his wife Maria Isabella of Bourbon and their nine-year-old daughter Luisa Carlotta, become so shocked at the sight of Pompeii’s erotic art exhibits that he decreed that they be locked away in the famous ‘Secret Cabinet of Obscene Objects’. The room in which the salient scenes, embarrassing to the chaste eyes of 19th-century visitors, concealed ‘the infamous monuments of gentlemanly licence’.

The fury of censorship led to not only Pompeian works being hidden from the public, but also pieces of art such as the naked Venuses – the famous Callipigia from the Farnese collection, for example. It would be 20 years before the Secret Cabinet, as well as the famous Lupanare in Pompeii, could be freely visited, excluding minors.

But in Pompeii sexuality remained synonymous with freedom. The phallus, so often depicted in frescoes and mosaics of the time, was believed to be the origin of life. For the ancient Romans, the phallus was a symbol used against the evil eye or to augur fertility, well-being, good trade and wealth. Therefore, we can enjoy the exhibition ‘Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii’, which opened on 21 April 2022 in the Palestra Grande of the excavations until 15 January 2023, in peace and quiet. Its aim is to illustrate and recount the omnipresence and significance of sensual and erotic subjects in the domus and in the everyday life of Pompeii’s inhabitants.

Among the 70 works on display, all coming from the storerooms of the Pompeii Archaeological Park, are also exhibits from recent discoveries, such as the two bronze medallions with erotic scenes from the ceremonial chariot from Civita Giuliana and the refined ceiling of the cubiculum (bedroom) found in collapse on the floor, later reassembled and restored, of the House of Leda and the Swan; and recently restored, the three walls of the reconstructed cubicle of the Villa di Gragnano in Carmiano. The tour is completed with an itinerary to discover buildings within the site characterized by frescos and references to the theme, with the support of an app, while a children’s guide will help children visit the exhibition and learn about a series of central figures of ancient myth.

Another thing that jumps out at you: ubiquitous phallic symbols: on the pavement, as auspicious elements at the entrance to houses, as soup tureen handles. But the reason is a thread deeper than the usual sexual trivialisations. The function of these images is apotropaic, that is, they serve to ward off the evil eye. And then there is the hand of Priapus, a deity from Greek culture, son of Venus and Dionysus (or Venus and Zeus, we will never know!).

Priapus’ phallus was oversized at the behest of Hera, jealous of Venus. And here we have a real cult. In the Greek and Roman world, ‘phallophoriae’ were celebrated, veritable processions in honour of Priapus and Dionysus, to propitiate fertility. The presence of Priapus in the Roman world is very pervasive, we find him as guardian of gardens, protector of sailors, a figure propitiating the passage from life to death.  But this symbol, an amulet and icon of fertility, becomes a creative power that enters the verses of Catullus, Juvenal, Martial. The playful tone and obscenity of the verses are meant to amuse an elite.

But what, exactly, is considered obscene?
In ancient Rome, rape and anal penetration were normal practices, as long as the actor had a dominant role. In war, the association between the conquest of land and the conquest of the female body was customary. That is why, when looking at images from another time, one must immerse oneself in the retina of those who created them. And understand the beliefs, but above all the power mechanisms of which sex is often an outlet. 

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