An exhibition of erotic art found among the ruins of Pompeii will aim to show inquiring minds that racy scenes were present in homes across all sections of society and public spaces and that the images were not looked on in a scandalous or embarrassing way.
About 70 relics, including two medallions decorated with images of satyrs and nymphs that came from a ceremonial chariot found at the site last year, will be on display at Pompeii’s archeological park from 21 April.
In addition, visitors will be able to tour the site, guided by an app, to check out homes along the Via del Vesuvio containing sexual frescoes, including one depicting the god of fertility, Priapus, weighing his manhood on a scale, which was found in 2018, and another the scene of the figure of Leda being impregnated by the Roman god Jupiter, disguised as a swan, that was discovered in 2019.
“Obviously, rich people’s homes had more paintings but [erotic images] were really very common in Pompeii,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of Pompeii archaeological park. “Much had to do with how the Romans used Greek culture as a cultural code, as a lot of the art reflects Greek myth and stories taken from Greek traditions.”
Art showing couples in explicit sex scenes has been found in excavated homes, similar to those revealed in the brothels of the ancient Roman city, which was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. “Scholars have tended to interpret any rooms decorated with these scenes as some kind of brothel,” said Zuchtriegel. “But there was also space for prostitution inside homes.”
Experts have often interpreted sexual wall paintings in the brothels as a menu of the services on offer. “It looks a bit like this as you have scenes above each single door, but it is always very risky to make this kind of simplification,” added Zuchtriegel. “The ancient daily life was just as complex as our own, and it’s risky to reconstruct what happened in these places just by judging from the images.”
The exhibition will also feature art depicting homoerotic scenes, and includes a statue found in Casa del Bracciale d’oro, or House of the Gold Bracelet, one of Pompeii’s richest homes, representing a young man who would have served his master during banquets, as well as sexually.
“People look at the erotic images of Pompeii and see liberation but they also had written and unwritten rules, and it wasn’t actually this world of great liberty,” said Zuchtriegel. “Take homosexuality … it was certainly tolerated but that does not mean it offered the kind of participation and acceptance that we today are maybe wishing for.”
The exhibition runs until 15 January 2023.