Our sexual histories series features art authors who explore the changing nature of sexual behavior from antiquity to modern times.
L.P. Hartley’s dictum The past is a foreign land holds more firmly than when it comes to sexuality in classical arts. In ancient Rome and Greece, erotic images and depictions genitalia, such as the phallus, were very popular.
Simply put, sex can found everywhere in Roman and Greek art. Exaggerate sexual representations common in Athenian red-figure and black-figure vase vases from the sixth and fifth centuries BC. These are often confronting and eye-opening in nature.
Romans were also surround by sex. Bronze phallus use as wind chimes tinnabula and often found in the gardens at Pompeii. They sculpt on relief walls panels such as the one that found at a Roman bakery, telling us here dwells happiness.
These images of erotic acts, genitalia and other sexual activities are not only indicative of a sex-obsessed culture. Classical art depicting sexuality and other sexual activities seems to have had many uses. Our interpretations of these images, which are often censorious in contemporary times, reveal much about how we view sex.
Modern Art Solutions
The openness of ancient eroticism was a problem for Enlightenment viewers when the first collection of antiquities began in earnest in 17 and 18 centuries. After excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, this bewilderment grew.
The Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli’s Gabinetto Segreto, also known as the Secret Cabinet, best represents the modern response to classical homosexuality in art: repression and suppression.
In 1819, Francis I, King Of Naples, visited the secret cabinet with his wife and young daughter. He was shock by the explicit imagery and ordered that all items of a sexual nature were remove from public view and kept in the cabinet. Scholars of mature age and with respectable morals would have access to the cabinet. This was for male scholars only.
Metal shutters were put in place in Pompeii, which was where explicit material like wall paintings from the brothel was kept. These shutters were install to restrict access to male tourists who paid additional fees. They were in place until the 1960s.
The cabinet’s secrecy only increased its popularity, even though it was sometimes difficult to access. John Murray’s Handbook of South Italy and Naples (1853), sanctimoniously says that it was extremely difficult to get permission.
Catholic Art Church
Consequently, very few people have ever seen the collection. Those who have not said to want to return to it again are also unlikely to do so.
Despite protestations by the Catholic Church, the cabinet was not made available to the public until 2000. The collection was kept in a separate room since 2005. However, they have not been reunite as well with modern non-sexual artifacts since antiquity.
Literature was also subject to the censors’ ire, with plays like Aristophanes mistranslated to hide their offensive sexual and scatalogical references. We should not try to claim moral or liberal superiority in 21st-century society. The infamous marble sculpture depiction Pan clinging to a goat still shocks modern audiences.
Perhaps the best example of ancient sexual censorship is the long-standing tradition of removing genitals in classical sculpture.
Particularly, the Vatican Museum was known for changing classical art to suit contemporary morals and sensibilities. Although it was not unusual, the covering of the genitalia with carved or cast fig leaves was quite common.
It indicate a willingness to link nudity and sexuality in modern times, which would have been a puzzle for an ancient audience, whose physical form was consider perfect. Are we misinterpreting ancient sexuality? Yes.
Ancient Art Porn?
It is not clear to what extent ancient audiences used explicit imagery to arouse. The erotic scenes on vessels would have created a titillating environment for the Athenian parties as they consumed wine.
These scenes are very popular on the wine-cup kylix (or wine-cup), especially in the central panel. The scenes could have been use to stimulate the mind.
In the Roman and Greek eras, painted erotica was replace with moulded depictions. However, the use of the images must have been the same and the association between sex and drinking is strong in this series.
Romans applied sexual scenes to oil lamps. This is the most likely scenario in which the object was use for love-making. Mold-made lamps are often fill with erotica.
The Phallus And Fertility
Female nudity was not unusual, especially when it was associate with the goddess Aphrodite. However, phallic symbolism was the heart of classical art.
The phallus was often depicte on Hermes or Pan, Priapus, or other similar deities in various art forms. It was not seen as erotic. Instead, its symbolism was associate with protection, fertility, and even healing. The protective qualities of the phallus have been clearly demonstrate in Pompeii’s numerous commercial and domestic settings.