Category Archives: history

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

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

Stirling Castle & Mary Queen of Scots’ Dad!

Stirling Castle, sitting on extinct volcano

Apologies for the tongue-in-cheek title to this post. I’m guessing that if I had headed it “Stirling Castle and James V”, quite a few of our readers would have said, “Who he?”

Stirling's statue of James V as Old Testament prophetHe is James V, King of Scots. Yes, he was the father of the rather better-known Mary, Queen of Scots.
James V and Stirling Castle had quite a relationship. (And did you know that the mound on which the castle sits is actually an extinct volcano?)

Portrait of James V of ScotlandBoth these images represent James V. In the statue, he has a long flowing beard, like an Old Testament prophet, ready to usher in a golden age for Scotland. In the portrait, he has his normal neat beard and gorgeous clothes.
He didn’t make it to prophet status. James died when he was just 30, leaving one legitimate child (Mary), who was only 6 days old. James also left at least 9 illegitimate children, so he was definitely neither saint nor prophet 😉 Continue reading

Forth Bridge #3 — the Queensferry Crossing

Forth bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

Forth Bridge #3 the Queensferry Crossing

A few days ago, on 4th September 2017 to be exact, the Queen opened the #3 crossing of the River Forth, at Queensferry. The date was chosen, I assume, because it was 53 years to the day since she had opened the #2 crossing, the original Forth Road Bridge, back in 1964 (shown below with the Queensferry Crossing beyond).

Forth Bridge #2 the Forth Road bridge

The Queen did not, of course, open the original Forth Bridge; that was done by her great-grandfather, the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) in 1890. Continue reading

A Sideways Look at Regency Life — All At Sea!

figure contemplating slightly stormy sea

When we read fiction set in the Regency period, we often come across references to sea journeys but, usually, they’re over pretty quickly. On one page, we’re at Dover or Harwich or Falmouth. A paragraph or two later, we’ve arrived at our destination and the story continues. (Not in all fiction, of course. Who could forget Mary Challoner’s horrendous cross-Channel trip in Heyer’s Devil’s Cub? Still, at least Vidal proffered a basin at the vital moment.)

Nowadays, our ships have GPS and radar and even engines! 😉 So this modern figure, staring out over a slightly stormy sea, has little to fear from going on board. But what was it really like, making a sea voyage on one of the Regency’s relatively tiny and fragile sailing craft?

Let’s take an imaginary sea journey…

Continue reading

Regency gowns: clean, alter, mend the damage

Imagine a Regency lady with a beautiful evening gown, like this one in grey silk with pink trimmings and grey gauze oversleeves. But — oh, dear — she’s ripped it, or perhaps something has been spilled on it. Who will repair the damage or clean off the stain? The lady herself? Continue reading

Napoleon bares his breast — a cautionary editing tale


Napoleon Bares his Breast
~ or ~
The Editor Is [almost] Always Right

Two hundred and two years ago — on 7th March 1815, to be precise — Napoleon bared his breast to (what looked like) certain death and lived to fight one more great battle. (And if you’re wondering why we didn’t do this blog two years ago, on the bicentenary, we would plead that this website was a mere twinkle in the hively eye back then.)

A cautionary tale of author and editor

Once upon a time there was an author — let’s call her Joanna — who was writing a trilogy of love stories set in 1814-15, the end of the Napoleonic Wars. (He lost, by the way.) Continue reading

Regency evening gowns: delicious detail at bosom and ankle

White evening gown, 1800, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Regency evening gown, replica, Bath costume museum

Bath Costume Museum

Detail does matter. The Regency lady going to dinner, or going to a ball, wanted every detail of her appearance to be perfect. Especially if her aim was to attract a potential husband. (She might, of course, have been a married lady looking for a little diversion with a new lover.)

Did the gentlemen in question notice these details? Possibly they did, because most of the details on these gorgeous gowns were around two areas of the female body that drew the masculine eye — the low-cut neckline exposing much of the lady’s bosom, and the naughty ankle, glimpsed as the lady walked or danced. Continue reading

Regency Gowns: Who Would be a Seamstress?

white gowns worn by Bennet sisters in BBC 1995 Pride & Prejudice

BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice

Regency gowns are familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Jane Austen adaptation on TV or film. We expect to see ladies floating around in high-waisted dresses, probably made of fine white muslin. We expect to see large quantities of bosom on display. But from our modern perspective of mass-produced clothing and home sewing machines, we rarely think about how these supposedly simple Regency garments were made.

By female hand and eye. Every last cut and stitch.

Continue reading

dedicated to the one I love

Dedicating to the One You Love – or Are You?


Trumpets dedicating

Dedicating a book to someone is powerful. It’s an announcement with trumpets.

We’ve all read the thanks that go on for several pages. They embrace everyone from the author’s family, agent and editor, to anyone who gave them help with research or did the typing.

Justified? Probably. Sincere? Mostly. But a dedication? No. Continue reading