BBC Homepage World Service Education
BBC Homepagelow graphics version | feedback | help
BBC News Online
 You are in: World: Europe
Front Page 
Middle East 
South Asia 
From Our Own Correspondent 
Letter From America 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
Sunday, 16 April, 2000, 16:31 GMT 17:31 UK
Pompeii's erotic art goes on show
sculpture at pompeii
Not every sculpture in Pompeii was like this
By David Willey in Rome

A collection of forbidden erotic art from the ancient Roman city of Pompeii goes on show to the public this week.

Visitors to the Archaeological Museum in Naples will be able to view about 200 paintings, pieces of sculpture and household objects formerly listed as obscene.

When the kings of Naples - who first started the scientific excavation of Pompeii - discovered the objects three centuries ago, they found some so shocking that only "mature persons of secure morals" were able to see them.

Since then, few people have ever been allowed to open the locked door on the mezzanine floor. But in the Pompeii of 1900 years ago, representations of the phallus were no taboo.

Archaeologists now believe that one such object, inscribed with the Latin for "here is happiness", was not the entrance to a brothel, but a baker's shop.

Extra services

Curator Marinella Lista described the newly refurbished part of the museum, saying that the paintings were found in private rooms in taverns where certain "extra services" were offered to clients.

One of the most striking objects on show is a one-metre high marble statue of a naked woman catalogued as the "Bikini Venus." The artist painted on her a scanty covering, similar to a modern bikini, in gold leaf.

Professor Stefano De Caro, the director of the Naples museum explained: "In many museums you can have erotic lamps or pottery with the sexual scenes. But here you can have all the frame, all the picture of the sexual life in 79 AD.

"It changed two centuries after, and it was different two centuries before. But for this moment we have a complete idea."

The collection has had a complicated history, and for long periods the door of the so-called secret cabinet remained locked.

Political turbulence

But the works have usually been on public show in times of political turbulence, such as during the Napoleonic wars and again when Garibaldi arrived in Naples.

One of Vesuvius' victims

In the 19th century viewing erotic Roman art actually symbolised political freedom.

Due to the small size of the secret cabinet, only 20 visitors will be admitted at a time, and children under the age of 12 will not be allowed into the new part of the museum without their parents' or a teacher's permission.

The Naples museum contains thousands of objects excavated from the ruins of nearby Pompeii, including wall paintings, statues, furniture and garden ornaments.

It even has the remains of food left on the table when Vesuvius suddenly exploded, "mummifying" the city. And now it can show again another part of ancient Roman life.

Search BBC News Online

Advanced search options
Launch console
Europe Contents

Country profiles
See also:

30 Mar 00 | Europe
Roman erotica for public view
Links to other Europe stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Europe stories