What the Pompeiians really, really liked…

Richard O'Brien visits the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

In Théophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella, three young French tourists visit Pompeii. All three, in typical Romantic fashion, are both charmed and alarmed by the coming together of old and new; by the ancient ruins and the railway line, the way that its smashed-open houses look as if the residents have just popped up to stock up on garum. But one, Octavien, finds himself dumbstruck by ‘a heap of black coagulated ashes’ which preserve ‘the outline of a beautiful bosom’; the form of a torso preserved throughout the ages, when ‘many vanished empires have left no trace behind them.’  Later that night, he experiences a fantastic vision in the ruined city that puts him in direct contact with the past, and with the female figure who testifies both to its vivid physical existence and its transience. But by the morning, his time-transcending love affair has shattered into dust and ashes.

Gautier’s story tells us little about the real Pompeii, but a great deal about our attitude to the Roman world. Other than adding a dash of eros into archaeology a full century before Indiana Jones, Arria Marcella sets up a relationship with the past familiar from any historical documentary or drama; that the best way to get intimately acquainted with a vanished empire is to imagine how its residents got intimate with each other. When we visit a show like the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which offers us the prospect of looking into the eyes – and under the sheets – of a long-dead civilisation, frozen for eternity by Mount Vesuvius, in a sense we are all Octavien.

Some of the artefacts in the show – a fat Hercules drunkenly pissing, a gorgeous mosaic of a nameless woman, her lips still impossibly rouged – have the paradoxical thrill of the familiar, the feeling that what we are seeing could belong to right now, but enchants precisely because it doesn’t. Gautier’s time-tourist rejoices when a real Roman understands his schoolboy Latin – but if our forebears are just us with more interesting accents, is what we like about this kind of show the image it provides of our own selves?

Fresco showing a satyr and maenad in an intimate embrace. House of Lucius Caecilius lucundus, Pompeii. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

When it comes to the ‘erotic’ art on display, however, it’s soon clear that the past is another country, and its systems of governance almost entirely phallocratic. For our purposes, there’s disappointingly little from the fabled Secret Cabinet in the former Bourbon Museum in Naples, a room so scandalous it once required three separate keys and an Oxbridge degree to get into. There is, however, an abundance of cocks – cocks upon cocks upon cocks, in the case of one especially illuminating garden ornament. There are cocks on children’s jewellery; cock-lamps you could fill with oil and light. There are cocks on statues of public notables; not drawn on, but moulded from brass and affixed at cock-height in a style of sculptural representation known as a ‘herm’, which was so common they actually had a name for it. The prevailing Pompeiian philosophy appears to have been ‘If you liked it, then you should have put a cock on it’, and based on these artefacts alone, there were clearly a number of things that the Pompeiians liked.

But setting this flight of phallic fancy aside, these items speak of one of the exhibition’s central themes – the Pompeiians seen at home, as ordinary citizens, with their everyday objects and their safeguarded treasures, not just their gold and silver, but their figs and flour. And in describing this particular fashion in home decoration (‘Coming next year: The Cath Kidston ‘Balls’ Range!’) as ‘erotic’, we do a disservice to the cultural uniqueness we are supposed, as visitors, to be appreciating, absorbing it into our own live-and-let-live permissiveness.

Pottery oil lamp in the shape of a satyr with an enourmous phallus. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Whatever your own views on the human penis – join the debate! – it seems a little, well, cock-eyed to assume that every time it appeared in the Pompeiian home it did so in an erotic context. Some of these representations are comic; some stand for good luck, health and prosperity; some apparently exist because the eye of the glans struck someone as apt to make a damn fine candle-holder. It’s our own post-Christian prurience that wants Graeco-Roman genitalia to signify in the same way ours do. It’s a feedback loop of shock and expectation. And by focusing on what seems to be the permanent sexual exposure of those whose lives Vesuvius both claimed and prolonged, we forget the questions raised by our voyeuristic fascination with their deaths. A museum guard  at closing time chivvying the gawping visitor past the plaster casts of a carbonised family doubles an indignity it’s convenient to ignore.

Which doesn’t mean all the art in the exhibition is entirely innocent, either – there are frescoes of blurry, energetic lovers, a surprisingly dead-eyed satyr feeling up a somewhat impassive maenad, and the pièce de resistance, a sculpture of the Great God Pan balls-deep in a she-goat which, in the face of substantial odds to the contrary, is not without tenderness on the part of caprine deity and artist alike. But for me, the closest the museum comes to bringing us into bed with the Romans is a textual, not a sexual, artefact: a crude, cramped graffito which, translated, reads: ‘I wish I were the gem [of your signet ring] just for an hour, to kiss you when you moisten it.’

Looking for the erotic art of Pompeii, it’s all too tempting to become Octavien, our burning eyes lifting the skirts of history. But nor should we approach these artefacts like Actaeon – the hunter who stumbled upon the virgin goddess Diana bathing, and was turned into a stag and torn limb from limb by his loyal hounds. The Romans weren’t scared of sexuality, and unlike us, the people this exhibition honours didn’t confine the human body and its more enjoyable functions to a secret cabinet, behind closed doors. All of these objects were designed to be viewed – what none of their makers realised is just how long there would be an audience for the images they captured of their physical lives.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

British Museum

Until 29 September 2013
Advance booking essential

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