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December 27, 2001

Pompeii's Erotic Frescoes Awake

By MELINDA HENNEBERGER

OMPEII, Italy  Fifteen years ago Luciana Jacobelli, a young Italian
archaeologist tunneling just outside the old city walls here,
discovered an astonishing series of erotic frescoes in an ancient
thermal bath.

More stunning than the explicit pictures themselves, she said, was the
condition of the more than 2,000-year-old structure, still adorned with
elaborate mosaics, a remarkably intact stucco ceiling and even an
indoor waterfall. Once the place had been an early Esalen where men and
women floated in hot and cold tubs looking up at the sky and out on the
sea.

Yet the frescoes were the biggest surprise. Only recently restored,
they will be shown to the public for the first time starting on Jan.
19.

"I had no idea what they were doing here," Dr. Jacobelli said. She
happened to be revisiting her find one afternoon and was more than
happy to be recruited as a tour guide.

The eight surviving frescoes, painted in vivid gold, green and a red
the color of dried blood, show graphic scenes of various sex acts and
include the only known artistic representation of cunnilingus from the
Roman era, she said.

Even now, after years of research, Dr. Jacobelli and Prof. Pietro
Giovanni Guzzo, who oversees the archaeological ruins of Pompeii, are
at odds over the answer to her original question about what the
frescoes were for.

He says they were clearly advertisements for sexual services available
on the upper floor of the baths.

She vehemently disagrees, maintaining that they were meant to be
amusing rather than arousing.

Dr. Jacobelli became more and more animated, flushed even in bitterly
cold weather, as she approached the ruins. Though the first excavations
here began in the 1950's, "when we started in 1985, all you could see
was the top floor," the floor above the baths, she said, adding,
"Everything else was totally covered with dirt." She pointed out the
spot where she first crawled into the baths through the roof, "like a
mouse," after digging through layers of volcanic rock and ash.

Visitors, though, will enter the spa through what was once its changing
room, and that is where the frescoes are.

Because each fresco is numbered, and each number corresponds to a
picture of a box drawn underneath it, it is Dr. Jacobelli's theory that
the depictions may have served as a kind of memory aid for customers
who might have been more apt to forget that their clothes were in
Locker 6, for example, than that they were in the box right under the
group sex scene.

"I thought about this a lot," she said. Eventually her sleuthing led
her to Eva Cantarella, a professor at the University of Milan, who has
written extensively about ancient sexuality.

What they were able to piece together, Dr. Jacobelli said, convinced
her that the pictures were meant to be funny. Because Romans tended to
regard sex primarily as an act of aggression, she said, some of the
acts depicted would at the time have been considered more comical than
erotic.

The last of the frescoes, showing a man with monstrously enlarged
testicles, is the clincher for Dr. Jacobelli. "This man had a disease,
and the Romans, who were not known for their compassion, used to laugh
at people with physical defects of all kinds," she said. "It all points
to this being something to laugh at."

On the upper floor, in any case, she said, there were several large
apartments but no evidence that the place had ever been used as a
brothel.

"There's a usual mentality that sees every erotic image as the sign of
a brothel, but that's too reductive," she said, pointedly dismissing
the director's interpretation. "We advertise cars with naked women,
too," she continued, but that does not mean the woman comes with the
car.

Finally, she said, these pictures were just too exaggerated to have
been effective as pornography. "They're not that exciting," she said
with a laugh. "I have more respect for the Romans than that."

In his office up the hill from the ruins, however, Professor Guzzo just
as summarily rejected her theory in an interview at the end of a long
afternoon of meetings.

"Everybody makes mistakes  me, too," he said, while using a letter
opener to clean his pipe. "But if you say it wasn't a brothel, then you
must define the principal characteristics of a brothel. Prostitution
can happen anywhere, even in this room. You don't need a sign that says
brothel, and the building plan doesn't mean anything."

Because prostituting one's slaves, who worked in the baths, was
forbidden, the owner would certainly have tried to hide his sideline,
Professor Guzzo said.

For him, it is significant that there were also erotic frescoes in the
only known ancient brothel, which also happens to be in Pompeii.

"If the iconographic scheme is the same," in the frescoes in the baths
and those in the brothel, "then the function must be the same," he
concluded.

Brothel or no, though, the frescoes and the rest of the ancient baths
have remained off limits to the public for all these years because
there was no money for restoration.

The excavations of sprawling Pompeii, which was destroyed when Mount
Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, predate the American Revolution and are
continuing.

"The money we have is never enough to guarantee decent conservation, so
we have to set priorities according to what we're most in danger of
losing" at any one moment, Professor Guzzo said.

In the end the restoration of the frescoes was privately financed. But
in the years since Dr. Jacobelli first saw the bathhouse, much has
already been lost, like frescoes of gladiators that have completely
faded away.

And one thing that Dr. Jacobelli and Professor Guzzo do agree on is
that the appeal of the ancient spa only begins with the erotic art.

Beyond the changing room was the frigidarium, or cold-water pool, where
at one end, bathers could swim under a waterfall covered with a deep
blue mosaic of Mars, the god of war. The walls there are covered with
frescoes of whimsical scenes set on the Nile, full of strange sea
creatures and crocodiles, and these images were reflected in the pool
in a way meant to give bathers the illusion of swimming among the
fantastic fish.

Beyond that are the hot rooms, each a little warmer than the last: the
tepidarium, the laconium and the caldarium, where three huge windows
would at that time have offered a view of the Bay of Naples a mile away
before layers of volcanic rock got in the way.

In the back is a surprisingly modern-looking outdoor swimming pool
surrounded by cypress trees. It had been heated by fires from a
furnace, then newfangled, under the pool, tended by slaves who were
known as fornacatores. (The word derives from "fornax," Latin for
"furnace" and also the root for "fornix," which is Latin for
"brothel.") 

"This place is famous for the frescoes," Dr. Jacobelli said, looking up
from the spot where she first tunneled in, "but it's a beautiful
excavation, a beautiful monument."

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