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Sex in the shadow of Vesuvius

A new exhibition celebrates Pompeii’s erotic art and artefacts, many hidden from public view since their excavation in the 19th century

Leda and the Swan, uncovered in 2018. All photos: National Archaeological Museum of Naples

As a child born in Naples and raised in Australia, the never-ending flight home to visit family would turn into high excitement only when the crescent sweep of the Gulf of Naples came into view and with it the cavernous gloom of Mount Vesuvius’s crater. The volcano, framed in the windows of my grandparents’ house, was both omnipresent and ever-changing: a bruised violet shrouded in cloud in early morning, golden at sunset and, once, memorably capped with a spangle of pristine snow.

The fact that an entire city, its buildings, its people and even their pets had been entombed in the mountain’s regurgitation of ash both fascinated and repelled me as a child, ensuring that visits to Pompeii became much-anticipated moments on the holiday agenda. One year we were deeply disappointed to be turned back, the gates closed to visitors, as rousing, anthemic music billowed from the ruins. I would find out much later that we were locked out because Pink Floyd had been recording a documentary in the amphitheatre. On another occasion, an inattentive guide reduced my cousin and I to red-faced giggles when the locked cabinet that at the time hid a fresco of a priapic youth weighing his penis on a scale was opened for the adults while we happened to still be in the environs.

Fresco from the Villa of Carmiano

Again, it would be years before I learned that between 1849 and 2000, the extraordinary array of erotic art and artefacts excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 19th century were kept hidden from the public in the gabinetto segreto, a special, secret room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples – the province only of in-the-know specialists or tourists happy to pay to sneak a look.

It was with a frisson of childish excitement, then, that I boarded a train from Mergellina station on an unseasonably hot May day to visit Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii, an exhibition that draws together 70 carefully selected erotic objects and images, some unearthed only in the last few years.

The show is elegantly displayed and takes up most of the majestic colonnade in the Palestra Grande, reserved for youth in the time of Augustus and the largest of all Pompeiian public spaces. Outside, the grassed arena provided an arresting emerald counterpoint to the darkness of Vesuvius and the blue sky beyond. What is immediately striking about the exhibition in its entirety is the vast array and variety of images the Romans found sensual and arousing. Sculptures and paintings spanned both sex and species, veering beautifully from powerful (and erect) satyrs and voluptuous Maenads to languorous and mysterious hermaphrodites.

A sculpture of a satyr and a hermaphrodite

One painting, remarkable in its tenderness, shows a nude Leda, Queen of Sparta, legs slightly apart being nuzzled by a large swan. Discovered only in 2018, it is believed to depict the moment that the god Zeus, disguised as the large bird, either seduces (or rapes) Leda who, legend has it, later laid two eggs that grew into Pollux and Helen – ignition spark of the Trojan war. I could have stood for hours looking at this inexplicably erotic image simply to try to decipher what the painter wanted to convey through Leda’s faraway eyes and thoughtful, if slightly puzzled expression.

Another unforgettable object is a ceremonial chariot, found in Civita Giuliana just outside Pompeii last year, which has wheels decorated with an array of bas-reliefs of what can best be described as rather athletic intercourse.

Wheel of a ceremonial chariot found last year in Civita Giuliana, near Pompeii

The ubiquity of the sensual and erotic images found in Pompeii, say the curators, has astonished both archaeologists and visitors since 1748 when the first inkling of the devastated city was discovered.

The role of eroticism would later be found to be central to Pompeiians, found in every domestic space, from bedrooms and salons in private houses to public baths, sanctuaries and shops. The choice of the Palestra to house the exhibition is in fact designed to illustrate physically how erotic art was most often displayed in Pompeiian private villas – in the peristylium or porch created by rows of columns around a courtyard. Here, the walls of the wealthy resembled virtual spaces that were painted to allude to an entirely different world to that experienced in everyday life. Bucolic landscapes of an idealised Greece, islands of tranquillity between nature and man, places where the traditional boundaries between human and animal become blurred or even disappeared.

It is in these semi-outdoor spaces, too, that sculptural or painted themes of hybrid nature from Greek mythology, from centaurs to hermaphrodites, were also often depicted. Eroticism was everywhere, thanks also to the influence of Greek art and a focus on the nude figure.

The exhibition curators also point out that this was a time when polytheism, not Christianity, was the norm and sexual pleasure was celebrated, particularly as this was a pastime enthusiastically embraced by the Roman gods. Nudity was exemplary of high culture, physical prowess and achievement, certainly not shame. And, of course, it was a powerful emblem for fertility.

As visitors walk through the show, they pass through an atrium, a courtyard and a reception area where Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection, is found. Here too we find another Priapus, heavily muscled and erect. We amble through the bedrooms, cubiculae, that surround the atrium and see erotic frescoes of glowing, fair-skinned women having rather more everyday sex with youthful, deeply tanned men. There is a ceiling restored from the house of Leda and her swan covered in such frescoes while in the trinclinium, where the wealthy hosted luxurious banquets, and the walls are peppered with images of young and beautiful teenagers of both sexes engaged in hetero and homosexual pastimes.

Unlike the Greeks, who reserved these banquets for male citizens and the musicians, dancers and prostitutes hired especially for the occasion, Pompeiians used their walls to create an erotic backdrop for mealtime discussion between both sexes. During winter banquets in this part of the Roman house, the writer and architect Vitruvius suggested that wall panels be painted black to hide candle and torch smoke, creating a palette of spectacular reds, black and gold that are remarkably vivid still today.

Fresco of a nymph and a satyr

The exhibition made it easy to close one’s eyes and envisage guests lying back on feathered cushions, Roman delicacies and wines at their fingertips, fountains and bird sounds the accompaniment to whatever sexual delights might be presented. So much was designed simply to encourage conversation and pique the sexual imagination. I was particularly struck by a meticulously executed marble statue, seemingly of a woman reclining among folded robes, her youthful breasts and graceful arms exposed, and which on closer inspection revealed she was also endowed with a (very small) penis. The joyful, unabashed nature of the images and objects chosen and their curation in this exhibition provide a much more interesting and complex view of ancient Roman sexuality and eroticism, one vastly different from that depicted even two decades ago when so much of what had been found was ascribed to the brothel and the services offered within.

Here, in 2022, an app designed for visitors of all ages, provides explanations and context. “In these times of global emergencies, pandemic and war, this exhibition is an ode to the resilience of beauty and highlights just how closely linked art and imagination were with social, cultural and political hierarchies” says Pompeii’s director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

For this jaded Neapolitan and regular visitor to Pompeii over a good half-century, the show also felt like a breath of relief and fresh air. I have despaired for years, secretly wishing that the English National Trust would come in and take control when this global treasure seemed to be falling apart from neglect. This time, it was enormously exciting to see teams of archaeologists at work cleaning and restoring the city’s public drinking fountains (there are hundreds to bring back to life) and to visit a museum only recently built for the plethora of ordinary objects (and plaster casts of body shapes) that used to be held in a large storage shed. This was a space that looked more like a dumping ground for unsorted artefacts and which always struck me as sad and even disrespectful.

Now, the bodies of the men, women and children – and horse and pet dog – that embody with such eloquence the last moments of an entire city – are housed, lit and protected in the way they deserve. It is a privilege to be able to examine the remnants of domestic life, the melted wine glasses and pots and pans left simmering when the ash cloud descended, and the visceral sadness of the woman who died holding her child on her knees.

On the bright sunny spring day when I visited, the gardens and remnant vineyards of the ancient city had been allowed to rewild and had morphed into a photogenic carpet of scarlet poppies and yellow marguerites. It seemed impossible to imagine that on a similar, summer’s day in 79AD, Pliny the Younger would write that while it was “daylight elsewhere in the world, here there was darkness thicker than any night”.

The exhibition runs in the Pompeii Archaeological Park until January, 2023.

Paola Totaro is a journalist based in London and specialising in European affairs, politics and the arts

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