rom the sixteenthth century on, Western culture offers a long history of authoritative attempts to suppress the erotic in all aspects of the arts. Despite all efforts, the erotic could not be tamed and arose in some of the most unexpected of places. Due to a number of cultural turning points in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the West experienced an emergence in erotic art. One such turning point was predicated by the rediscovery of the lost cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum. These discoveries beginning in 1748 produced a major culture shock for Victorians. Excavations of the two cities uncovered a multitude of highly eroticized art. This art in the varying forms of frescoes, mosaics statues, symbols, and inscriptions was regarded by the excavators as pornographic. Even some of the recovered household items had a sexual theme. The Victorian culture, founded largely on studies of the classics, was faced with a cultural dilemma. The ubiquity of such imagery and items indicated that the sexual customs of ancient Roman culture was much more liberal than their present-day prudery.
Throughout their work, much of what excavators thought to be erotic imagery (e.g. oversized phalluses) was in fact related to fertility. For example, excavators went to great pains to cover a wall fresco depicting the ancient god of sex and fertility, Priapus, because of his more than generously proportioned phallus. A majority of the erotic art, although supposedly made to "celebrate reproduction," was phallo-centric (symbolizing abundance) and had few symbols of female fertility (Grant 17). It is interesting to note, the few images of women appear only in sexual congress with men, more often passive than not (Kendrick 12).
In addition, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition in 1819 at the National Museum with his family, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork he had it locked away in a secret room accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals" (Cosney 10), namely wealthy men willing to pay.
Initially this clash of cultures resulted in the public disappearance of the immoral art. With religious stories such as Genesis' account of Sodom and Gomorrah the threat of religious punishment for sinful acts was a much ascribed to belief. In the nineteenth century, the excavated images were considered proof that Pompeii was particularly sinful, and that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (which brought life to an abrupt end in that city one summer day in AD 79) was the furious message of an outraged deity. This idea can be traced through the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii, which ambiguously alludes to Pompeii's destruction as divine punishment. In beginning passage of chapter two, Bulwer-Lytton concludes,
Pompeii was the miniature of the civilization of that age. Within the narrow compass of its wall was contained, as it were, a specimen of every gift which luxury offered to power. In its minute but glittering shops, its tiny palaces, its baths, its forum, its theater, its circus, -in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire. It was a toy, a plaything, a showbox, in which the gods seemed pleased to keep the representation of the great monarchy on earth, and which afterwards hid from time to the wonder of posterity,- the moral of the maxim, that under the sun there was nothing new. The implication that the Roman Empire had fallen due to moral corruption (pagan immorality), warns the contemporary audience that if their modern culture embraces the same virtues, or lack there of, like the citizens of Pompeii, they too would face a hellish end.
In the late eighteenth century Pierre Sylvain Marechal published a nine-volume catalogue of the erotic art discovered at Herculaneum. Most plates were of the Priapus, who was identified by his giant erect phallus, often out of human scale. At one point the author questions the difficulties Victorians had with the uncovered artifact
Ancient relics . . . are full of objects so indecent, if we compare them to modern compositions, that the brush or needle of our Artists hardly dares to reproduce them for us. Nevertheless, we should not take this as an opportunity to slander the customs of the people who left us such relics. One blushes, perhaps, only to the degree that one has strayed from nature; and a virgin's eye can linger with impurity on objects which arouse vicious ideas in a woman who has lost her innocence. [Marechal, 4.23]
In the end, the vast number of images, including those found on vases, lamps and everyday utensils proved to widespread for the author to justify and he concluded that most of these indecent relics were most likely restricted to brothels. The fear of prostitution in the nineteenth century was a forefront for moral combat, and the esteemed art critic's linking of ancient artifacts with prostitution automatically explained its origin yet degraded its cultural significance. Like the cataloguers, the archeologist and scientist had their share of troubles. A new taxonomy had to be devised in order to properly manage the "priceless obscenities." The name chosen for their classification was "pornography" and they were installed in the Secret Museum (Kendrick 11).
The word, pornography, was devised by a German art historian, C.O Muller, whose book, Handbuch der Archaolgie der Kunst, 1850, alluded to "the great number of obscene representations . . . to which mythology gave frequent occasion" (Muller 18) The translation of the word he used to describe the producers of this work was "pornographers". It was from this context that the form of the word "pornography" first appeared in English print (Kendrick 11). The word was publicly acknowledged in 1864, when Webster's dictionary defined pornography as "licentious painting employed to decorate the walls of rooms sacred to bacchanalian orgies, examples of which exist in Pompeii" (Kendrick 13). The term therefore took on only a negative connotation, overlooking the "innocent pornography" with primarily religious or mystical import, negating and demeaning the works of the ancient civilizations.
Due to Pompeii's tragic and incinerary end, the thousands of tons of volcanic ash which entombed the city left it the best-preserved Roman town. The uniquely revealing account of its sexuality and the cultural scandal to cover it up demonstrates as much about Victorian anxiety about sexuality as it does about the lives of the ancients.
Erotic Elements in the Art of the Victorian Era
- Reinstating the Male Nude
- Private vs. Public: Female Sexuality in Victorian Culture
- Slave Eroticism
Bulwer-Lytton, Sir Edward George. The Last Days of Pompeii, by Bulwer-Lytton. Text in the Victorian Web by way of Project Gutenberg.
Grant, Michael. Erotic Art in Pompeii: the Secret Collection of the National Museum of Naples. Octopus Books. London, 1975.
Consey, Kevin. Robin Carson. Pompeii as a Source and Inspiration: Reflections in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Art. The University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Kendrick, Walter. The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. Viking. New York, 1987.
Marechal, Pierre Sylvain. Les Antiquités d'Herculaneum, ou les plus belles Peintures antiques, et les Marbes, Bronzes, Meubles, etc. etc. Trouvés dans les excavations d'Herculaneum, Stabia et Pompeia, avec leurs explications en françois. 9 vols. Paris, 1780.
Muller, C.O. Ancient Art and its Remains; or a Manual of the Archeology of Art. 2nd ed. Trans. John Leitch. London, 1850.
Last modified 18 May 2007