When is it Art and when is it Porn? The Pompeii Poser

Warning: this blog contains images of full-frontal female and male nudity; if you are likely to be offended by those images, please do not read on.

On a recent TV programme on BBC4, Andrew Graham-Dixon mentioned (just in passing) that, in the nineteenth century, it was illegal for a woman to pose in the nude for a male artist. Really? Didn’t anyone tell Ingres?

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Ingres: Odalisque with a Slave (1839)

Graham-Dixon was showing TV viewers nude paintings of ordinary Danish women. He said they would have created a scandal if they had been shown in public. So it was OK to put nude figures into classical poses, but not into modern-day, realistic ones?
Ingres’ Odalisque or Botticelli’s Birth of Venus was art but a Danish working woman was not?

Botticelli: Birth of Venus

Botticelli: Birth of Venus

That raises quite a poser — what is the distinction between art and not-art? If a seduction scene or a nude is not art, does that make it porn? And does the passing of centuries change things?

Pompeii wall painting: Cupid riding on a crabPompeii street with stepping stonesWhat makes art art? Does Pompeii help?

I’ve just come back from a study trip to italy, to Pompeii, Herculaneum and other ancient sites. Pompeii is full of art, and even at a distance of nearly 2000 years, some of it is amazing. There are certainly lots of wall paintings, like this delightful Cupid riding a crab.
Definitely art.

The picture below shows the symposium, on one side of the famous Tomb of the Diver, found at Paestum, near Naples, and dating from 470BC. It’s generally accepted that the depiction of the symposium is art.
But if you look closely you’ll see that the two men on the right are doing exactly what you think they’re doing.Paestum tomb of diver: symposiumThe two on the left with the wine cups, by contrast, are playing a game called kottabos where the one who’s finished his wine throws the last drops and the other one is supposed to catch them in his cup. Boys will be boys? Especially at a symposium…

When Pompeii’s art was created, it was of its day (ie modern) and often realistic, though it’s possible that, even in the 1st century AD, some viewers might have called it graphic and arousing. They wouldn’t have called it porn though; that’s a relatively modern concept. To the Romans, explicit sexuality seems to have been part of day-to-day life. Pompeii: Venus in the Shell wall painting

This is the glorious wall painting of Venus in the garden of the House of Venus in the Shell. A stunning background for a cool glass of wine in the garden of an evening, don’t you think? And unlike Botticelli’s Venus, this one is totally nude. Does that make it porn rather than art?

Statue of Aphrodite, Naples Museumstatue of Athena, Naples MuseumThis beautiful statue (left) of Aphrodite (Venus) in the Naples Museum is a 2nd century replica of a Greek statue dating from the 4th century BC. She’s not totally nude of course.

And she’s definitely art, isn’t she, rather than porn?

But female statues, back then, were generally clothed, like this one (right) of Athena (Minerva), a 1st century replica of a 5th century BC Greek original, also in the Naples Museum.

Venus/Aphrodite seems to have drawn the short straw, as far as clothing was concerned. In so many depictions, she’s either nude or semi-nude. Can’t imagine why, can you?

Secret Collection of Erotica in Naples Museum

Gate to Secret Cabinet, Naples Museum

This is the gate to the famous Gabinetto Segretto in Naples Museum which contains the collection of erotica and objects from Pompeii and elsewhere. The picture has been cropped to exclude the two giant carved phalluses that are sitting on a table just inside the door. Difficult to term them art, perhaps, though some might disagree.

flying phallus tintinnabulum, Naples Museum

phallus tintinnabulum

Until recently, it wasn’t possible to get into the secret collection without an appointment.
Go back a little further and women weren’t allowed in at all!
Apparently — shades of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial — that was to protect us poor females from sights that might send our weak brains distracted.

Judging by the reactions of the females I saw in there during my visit, the distraction takes the form of hysterical laughter. I have never seen so many impossible sexual positions in one collection. When coupled — sorry 😉 — with so many depictions of giant phalluses, what else was a female supposed to do but laugh?

To be fair, the phallus was a good luck symbol for the Romans, which is why it figured in things like door chimes (pictured) and wall reliefs.

The seduction (below) was one of the more restrained depictions in the Gabinetto Segretto. Ditto the Three Graces.

wall painting from secret cabinet, Naples museumThree Graces wall painting, Naples Museum

Venus in the sea shell is part of the erotica collection, too. Not clear why she was included. She doesn’t seem more erotic than the wall painting from the garden. But, as usual, she’s lost out on the clothing stakes…

Venus in the sea shell, Naples Museum

The Pompeii Poser…

For us, viewing the depictions nearly two thousand years on, it’s all just art, isn’t it?

Well, have a look at the ultimate Pompeii Poser, possibly the most famous wall painting in Pompeii, and decide for yourself whether it’s art or whether it’s porn…

Pompeii, Priapus wall painting, House of Vettii

Priapus, the god of fertility,
weighs his penis against a bag of coins over a basket overflowing with fruit.
Wall painting at the entrance to the House of the Vettii.
Considered by Romans to be a symbol of good luck and fertility

But if you’d prefer something less explicit, try the cave canem floor mosaic below, which is probably the second most famous image from Pompeii…

Pompeii, cave canem floor mosaic

Royal Wedding to Come and Others I Have Known…

Royal Wedding April 2011I remember watching the last Royal Wedding on television (well, bits of it) in April 2011. To be honest, I was surprised at how moved I was.

There is something heroic about that promise, “Until Death us do Part.” Especially so, when the two people making it have actually chosen each other.

Royal Wedding 1922After all, in the past, many royal weddings took place between people who were not much more than pieces on someone else’s chess board.

In 1922 my grandmother went to see the procession for the wedding of the Queen’s aunt to Viscount Lascelles. She came home, shocked, and told her sister that the young princess’s eyes were red with crying. Princess Mary was 24, her bridegroom 39. He looks grim in the wedding photograph. Continue reading

Empathy with characters: good AND evil? glad OR gory?

Empathy with characters:
what is it and who has it?

Empathy? Roughly, it’s feeling what another person is feeling, from their point of view. Even if that other person is fictional.
So readers may identify with the heroine in a romance, or with the spy in a thriller, or with the detective in a crime story.

Writing Regency romances, my aim was always that my [mostly female] readers would identify with my heroine and fall in love with my hero.

But readers don’t all react in the same way to our characters and our plots. And I’m beginning to wonder if age is one important factor in that. Continue reading

Subtext and Space Between the Words

Roman Holiday subtextI’m intrigued by subtext and, in particular, the space between the words in a novel. 

Yet perhaps the most perfect example of this is not in a novel at all, but in a movie. It’s the little miracle that is Roman Holiday, starring a luminous Audrey Hepburn as a stifled princess. Gorgeous Gregory Peck plays against type as a distinctly dodgy expat newspaperman. They don’t have a Happy Ever After ending, either. Yet its perfect, mostly because of that extra layer of meaning.

Why Subtext in Roman Holiday is Interesting for Novelists

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RIP writer Sara Craven, our friend Annie Ashurst


autumnal path at Westonbirt, RIP Annie AshurstIt is with great sadness that we mark the passing of our very dear friend, Annie Ashurst,
who, as Sara Craven, was a worldwide bestseller and beloved by thousands of fans.
Annie will be much missed by her many friends in the RNA and elsewhere, for her wit,
her brilliant mind (she won Mastermind) and for the kindness and support she offered to so many. She was also, of course, a terrific writer from whom we all learned.
RIP dear Annie

Halloween imports we could do without? A Damely rant

fireworks for halloween and bonfire night

Bonfire night and Halloween will be over by the time you read this. [And yes, I do know that the proper spelling is Hallowe’en, but the internet doesn’t cope well with apostrophes, so I’ve had to use the non-apostrophe spelling variant.]

Bonfire night, for all its somewhat gory associations, is at least a British tradition.

But Halloween? That Trick Or Treat abomination that seems to be everywhere? Rant time. 
halloween, trick or treater

By Don Scarborough (family photo) CC BY-SA 2.5, Link

A classic American Trick-or-Treater. Note that huge bag for the haul of goodies. Continue reading

Writing for a Reader – a personal journey of discovery

Writing for a ReaderWriting for a reader is how I finished my very first book. That probably sounds strange, after my heartfelt blog about writing for one’s own inner reader. But the truth is that, although I’d been writing all my life, the very first book I finished was written for a particular reader.

And the key word here is FINISHED.

My First Time Writing for a Reader

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A Highland Regiment has History, with Added Badger

highland dancing as practised by regimentsIf asked to name a Highland Regiment, many people would think of The Black Watch, though it’s by no means the oldest; that title belongs to The Royal Scots.  But Sophie’s recent post about the reel of the 51st (Highland) Division reminded me of two other famous regiments that we have come to know by the amalgamated title of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

There were originally two separate regiments: the 91st (Argyllshire) Regiment, raised in 1794 by the Duke of Argyll; and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment raised by the Countess of Sutherland in 1799.

Raised? What did that entail? How much choice did recruits have? Continue reading

Busy Week at Casa Liberta, Workshop and Wilde

busy weekWe’ve had an exceptionally busy week at Casa Libertà.

Joanna had serious train travel and a full diary, while still reluctantly convalescent. Sophie had much writing – blogging, a magazine article and catching up with belated Amazon reviews of recently-read books – together with a trip to see Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. 

Above all, we were running up to part two of our Sparkle editing workshop, otherwise known as Bling it Up. So we spent Friday on a full day’s dress rehearsal before Saturday when the curtain went up. Continue reading

The Inner Reader and the Alchemy of Editing

My Inner Reader and Editing have rather taken over my life in the last few months. This is for a range of reasons. The reasons were all pleasant – or , at least, interesting. But her arrival was a surprise. And, as it turns out, a game changer.

Enter the Inner Reader

inner reader, mystery womanI should explain about my Inner Reader. She’s bit of mystery woman. Continue reading