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

10 thoughts on “When is it Art and when is it Porn? The Pompeii Poser

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think you’re probably right, April. It was certainly symbolism to the Romans. Still didn’t stop me laughing in the Secret Cabinet, though, when I saw all those giant phalluses grouped together…

    1. Joanna Post author

      Thanks, Ros. You can imagine what the Victorians thought when such things were revealed in the excavations. Some of them were covered with lockable boxes on site so that only eminent men got to see them.

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Accurate prognostication, Joanna! I laughed like a drain at the poser weighing his whatsit against a bag of coins. Boy, that says something about the male psyche! Fascinating. Yes, one can quite imagine Victorian outrage. It is an endlessly interesting question, what one person thinks art and another thinks of as porn. I have Rowlandson’s erotic drawings and it all just makes one think plus ca change plus c’est la meme chose!

  2. Sophie

    What a splendid collection – and blog. I must say I laughed aloud, too.

    I don’t really know what pornography is and have often wondered if the Victorians invented the word to cover bits of the body they’re really rather not think about. So I went looking and an etymology gives it as a coinage of 1842 from the Greek “pornographos ” meaning (one) depicting prostitutes.

    This puts me in mind of a sort of gabinetto segretto I visited myself many years ago. Hmm. Might need to write a companion piece, now I come to think of it.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’ve whetted appetites with that hint about another Gabinetto segretto, Sophie.

      I will admit to a bit of Schadenfreude re the Victorians. They were so sure that the Romans were upright and righteous, the kind of people for their children to take as role models. They taught that in all their schools. Mens sana in corpore sano and all that. And THEN they dug down into Pompeii and discovered that the Roman mens wasn’t quite as sana as they’d been assuming. Makes me giggle a bit.

  3. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Or, one might argue that the Romans were more ‘sana’ than we are. One might argue that Victorian prudery plus embarrassment is hardly a good role model for healthy relationships.

    1. Joanna Post author

      You’re right, Elizabeth. But from a Victorian (prudish) point of view, it probably didn’t seem very sana at all. I was surprised to find how recently the Gabinetto Segretto was opened to everyone, including mere females. There was a group of teenagers, escorted by nuns, going round the museum when I was there. I suspect the kids would have had to sneak off to get into the secret collection. Can’t imagine the nuns in there…

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