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Pompeii's ancient sex spa opens

19dec01

POMPEII: Italy's most-visited historic site, Pompeii, will offer a new tourist attraction from Christmas with the opening to the public of a subterranean spa, featuring a unique series of erotic frescoes.

Eight small frescoes, showing lovemaking scenes with two or more participants, decorated the changing rooms of these public baths dating from the first century before Christ in the ancient city on the Bay of Naples.

One shows a lesbian love scene -- the only one that has survived from the Roman era, according to archeologists.

The frescoes and the bath were buried along with the entire city of Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD

The scenes, painted over numbered drawers may have helped bathers remember where they had left their clothes, archelogists believe.


The illustrations might also have been a kind of catalogue of the services that spa-goers could expect on the first floor of the baths, believed to have been a brothel.

"There are always a number of hypotheses to choose from, but no one can say which is the true one," said dig director Antonio d'Ambrosio. "We know that the baths are among the oldest mixed ones in antiquity, but we do not know whether men and women were allowed to use them together, or if days of the week or particular times were reserved to each of the sexes.

As for the sexual licence purported to have reigned in Pompeii, superintendent Givanno Guzzo is less certain. "Prostitution in Pompeii was practised by the slaves. It was their masters who ordered them what to do. They had to do what they were told," he said.

After the changing room, the sites of three baths - one cold, one warm and one very hot -- kept at constant temperatures by a sophisticated heating system -- may be seen.

The room with the cold bath was decorated with deep-blue marine frescoes and a mosaic depicting the god of war Mars surrounded by cherubs. A small adjoining room served as a sauna.

Visits to the ancient baths will be limited to groups of 15-20, because of the size of the rooms, d'Ambrosio said.

The Subterranean Spa was first uncovered in the 1950s, but excavation did not really begin until 1985-87, followed by restoration work.

In addition to the baths, the House of Menander will also be opened to visitors. The building is thus named because a portrait of Menander, a Greek playwright who lived from 342 to 292 BC, adorns one of the alcoves of the peristyle.

The large patrician house was closed for restoration for more than 20 years after the 1980 earthquake in Campania. One of the rooms opening on to an internal courtyard is decorated with three scenes of the Trojan War.

Another house, the House of Guilio Polybio, dating from the second century BC, will also be open to the public. It takes its name from a magistrate of the city and its peristyle contains furniture preserved by volcanic ash deposits.

The digging site covers between 15-20 hectares, and according to Guzzo, a similar area remains to be excavated.

"The city existed from 1600 BC. No other ancient city has been preserved in this way. The richness of ancient life that can be seen is unique," he said.


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