Pompeii Bares All In New Exhibition Of Erotic Art

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A new exhibition in Pompeii is aiming to highlight the importance of sensual and erotic art in the ancient city. Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii opened to the public at the end of April with a display of some 70 racy artifacts from the archeological park’s vast storerooms.

Housed in the Large Palaestra, the show recreates the “ideal Pompeian house” and the steamy imagery that might have decorated the interior. Visitors wander through the various rooms of a typical villa, including the atrium, the cubiculum (bedroom), the triclinium (dining room) and the peristyle (internal colonnaded garden).

Each room displays examples of sensual and erotic art that might have been found within. In the cubiculum, which functioned both as a bedroom and as a place for romantic encounters, visitors can see three recently restored walls painted with erotic scenes from the cubiculum of the Villa of Gragnano in the Carmiano area.

Also on show is the intricately painted ceiling of the cubiculum from the House of Leda and the Swan. This was discovered in pieces on the floor and was carefully reassembled and restored by the park’s conservators. Surrounded by delicate designs, the fresco depicts Spartan Queen Leda being seduced by the Greek god Zeus who has taken the form of a swan.

The triclinium was used by wealthy Pompeians for luxurious banquets. As the exhibition demonstrates, musicians, dancers and prostitutes would be hired for the occasion while the surrounding imagery would get pulses racing with allusions to both hetero and homosexual encounters.

On display in this room is a statue of a lampadophore, or a lamp bearer. The sensually posed youth had the dual function of providing illumination while serving as a veiled reference to homoeroticism.

The exhibits in the show include some of the most recent finds and restoration projects at Pompeii. The Leda and the Swan fresco came to light in 2018, while two bronze medallions with erotic scenes also on display come from the recently uncovered Civita Giuliana ceremonial chariot.

The Art and Sensuality exhibition, which runs until January 15 2023, aims to demystify erotic art in our understanding of ancient Roman culture. As the archeological park states, “Amazement, curiosity and embarrassment are among the emotions experienced by archaeologists and visitors when confronted by paintings and sculptures of Pompeii and the other Vesuvian sites, ever since the first discoveries in the 18th century.”

However, although these images jarred with the classical vision of the ancient world, excavations showed they were abundant in the city. Sensual and erotic images appeared in practically all areas of the site, from private houses to bath complexes, and inns to seedy taverns and public spaces.

As site director Gabriel Zuchtriegel emphasizes, these images were not considered shocking or scandalous at the time. Instead, they were integral to cultural traditions which celebrated Greek myths and stories.


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