See another side of Pompeii as exhibition of erotic art opens to the public

A vistor walks next to a "Satyr and hermaphrodite" sculpture, in Pompeii's site of a new exhibition entitled "Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii" on art and sexuality in the ancient city, where sculptures and paintings of breasts and buttocks abounded, on April 28, 2022. - Raunchy scenes may redden faces at a new exhibition in Pompeii on art and sexuality in the ancient Roman city, where sculptures and paintings of breasts and buttocks abounded. Archaeologists excavating the city, which was destroyed by the eruption of nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD, were initially startled to discover erotic images everywhere, from garden statues to ceiling frescos. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
The new exhibition in Pompeii includes works like this Satyr and Hermaphrodite statue which has erotic undertones © Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

It’s possibly the hottest thing to hit Pompeii since the eruption of Mt Vesuvius covered the city in flaming ash and lapilli (burning fragments of pumice stone) back in AD 79. A new exhibition, entitled ‘Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii’, comprises of 70 provocative paintings, sculptures, and other decorative erotica found at the vast 66-hectare archaeological site, on show together for the first time.

Running until January 2023, the exhibition includes racy treasures such as paintings taken from Pompeii’s lupanar (brothel), which depict the sexual acts customers were able to pick from. There is also a restored bedroom ceiling fresco of a naked Leda, the Queen of Sparta, with a swan upon her lap, depicting the god Zeus.

Organizers have said that many of the erotic finds have either been discovered during recent excavation works or were stored away secretly in Naples, Italy at the behest of King Charles VII, the Neapolitan monarch who originally paid for the excavation of the Pompeii site. Only those of proven moral standing were allowed to ever lay eyes on them.

A "Statue-fountain of Priapus, symbol of prosperity" with a huge penis against a black background during a new exhibition in Pompeii's site entitled "Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii" on art and sexuality in the ancient city, where sculptures and paintings of breasts
Some of the art on display at the Pompeii exhibition is truly unmissable © Andreas Solaro / Getty Images

Now anyone with tickets for the exhibition can’t help but stare at the huge sculptured penis of the god Priape, found on a statue-fountain at the exhibition entrance. The artwork wasn’t made for tittering or titillation – that'll be your modern mind, according to the Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, Gabriel Zuchtriegel – instead, it was a Roman symbol of fertility and would have been commonly found in atriums (private courtyards).

“In these times of pandemic emergency and war, this exhibition seeks to be an ode to the resilience of beauty,” Zuchtriegel said at the launch of the show, “but from a historical perspective, which helps us to understand that even in the past, art and the imagination were interwoven with social, cultural and political relationships and hierarchies.”

So what other historical perspective is set to get visitors hot under the collar? Amongst the more interesting ephemera are two medallions found on a four-wheeled Roman chariot used by prominent religious women, which was found on site last year. Both are decorated by cavorting satyrs and nymphs and are joined by a wooden chest that is embellished erotically in bronze.

A blonde woman looks at old erotic frescoes displayed against a green wall which form part of a new exhibition in Pompeii called "Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii"
A number of erotic frescos have been rubbed and restored for the new show © Andreas Solaro / Getty Images

The show, which takes place in the western portico of the Large Palaestra, guides visitors through a perfect Pompeian home and allows them to see where sensual beauty would have been on display. There are intimate and erotic scenes taken from the cubicula (bedrooms) of the Villa of Carmiano, plus a cycle of faded images that depict a man and a woman having sex – believed to be used as cultural introduction to Greek erotic literature.

Visitors will also find an ephebe (male adolescent) lampadophore (‘He who bears the lamp’) candleholder which would have been on display in the triclinium (formal dining room). The sculptured lamp would have provided a sly wink to Greek homoeroticism.

As well as at the show, the My Pompeii app also has a new dedicated section that allows visitors to find frescoes and other erotic artworks around the rest of the vast site, which covers more than 1500 well-preserved buildings as well as roads, everyday objects, even people.

A child stands next to a "Medallions embellishing a ceremonial chariot", in Pompeii's site during a new exhibition entitled "Art and sensuality in the houses of Pompeii"
Organizers have created a guide for children to help them discover the topic in a more age-appropriate way © Andreas Solaro / Getty Images

But with so many phalluses and fanciful sexual imagery on display, won’t someone think of the children? Well, the team has.

"The theme may seem difficult, but it is omnipresent in Pompeii, so it must be explained to children in one way or another,” says Zuchtriegel. Indeed, a kids' guide entitled The Centaurs of Pompeii aims to explain the subject by following a centaur called Mares as he tries to find a partner. The book then traces a number of central figures found in ancient mythology, including Ariadne, Dionysus, and Narcissus.

Entry to ‘Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii’ is included in the admission fee. Prices start from €16 ($US17) per adult.

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