Erotica del Pompeii

Art & Sculpture

Cox News Service, Via The Dallas Morning News, 1 February 2004
By Jim Auchmutey

[COMMENT: When I visited Pompeii in 1968, all of these erotic items were still locked away in private collections, visible by permission only. What few that were available for public viewing were under lock and key and shown only to men. My sister was with me at the time, and she felt discriminated against. Four years ago, the Italian Government decided to go public with this entire collection. Nowadays parents are responsible as to whether their children can view these items. By today's loose standards, however, many of these ancient erotic items seem almost comical, certainly not sexually stimulating. RS]

POMPEII, Italy -- When Mount Vesuvius erupted early one August afternoon in A.D. 79, this port city wasn't just buried beneath volcanic ash and rock. It was caught with its pants down.

We discovered the pornography of Pompeii by accident. My wife, Pam, and I were in Naples touring the National Archaeological Museum, which displays the treasures unearthed from towns devastated by Vesuvius. At the end of a wing devoted to mosaics, two employees guarded a set of heavy iron gates. What were these Neapolitans hiding? We approached the doorway expecting to be stopped, but they motioned us through.

We had entered the Gabinetto Segreto -- the Secret Chamber -- a small gallery housing 250 objects and artwork depicting ancient eros in all its variety. Oh my. There were urns showing couples coupling, frescoes of nude women lounging languorously, oversize stone phalluses jutting from the walls like so many spouts on fountains. There were a lot of phalluses; apparently, the Romans regarded them as tokens of good luck, like we do horseshoes.

They didn't tell us about this stuff in eighth-grade Latin.

One particularly graphic sculpture depicted the mythological figure Pan sharing an intimate moment with a goat. The young woman next to us was so impressed she whipped out a camera phone and dispatched the image to someone she had better know very well. When she noticed me watching, we both blushed.

An outbreak of adolescent giggles is not what I had expected from a close examination of one of history's greatest disasters. But Pompeii has been surprising people for centuries. The city was destroyed so suddenly that everything, from the bread in the oven to the naughty picture on the wall, was suspended in time. In total, thousands died. It all lay entombed and mostly forgotten until a well-digger struck the stone remnants of a building in the 1700s. Excavations began and continue to this day.

From the beginning, Pompeii yielded explicit artifacts that embarrassed and delighted the authorities. The material was usually kept under lock and key, unavailable to the public. Four years ago, despite grumbling from the Vatican, the museum opened the Secret Cabinet to any adult who asked for a ticket when buying a general admission. (We didn't know to request tickets, so I can only assume the guards let us pass because it was a slow day and we looked like harmless Americans.)

Pompeii' erotica has led some to suggest that it was another Sodom whose wickedness brought down the wrath of God. But as the wall text in the museum explains, civilizations have always celebrated fertility and sex. Poor Pompeii just never had a chance to hide the PLAYBOYS.

More information: National Archaeological Museum -- 011-39-081-440166.

Italian Tourism Office (USA): 310-820-1898.

Tile Mosaic, Satyr & Nymph, House of the Faun

Wall Painting, House of the Epigrams, Reign of Nero

Tile Mosaic, Pan & Hamadryad

Wall Mural of Mercury from Reign of Nero

Marble Sculpture, House of the Vetti

Wall Painting, House of the Vetti

Marble Bas-Relief


"Stupidus"- Bronze Sculpture

"Priapus Pouring"- Bronze Sculpture

Pavonazzeto Marble Sculpture