The British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition displays plenty of erotic art, but to modern eyes it misses that essential naughty element
Sex is a highlight of the British Museum’s exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, as I point out in my review. The villas and brothels of Pompeii were full of erotic paintings, sculptures and kinky artefacts. Yet this art lacks something essential to modern sex.
It lacks a sense of sin.
The pagan Romans could express disgust at some kinds of sexual behaviour. In his biography of the emperor Tiberius, the Roman historian Suetonius paints a shocking portrait of the tyrant as a dirty old man, telling how Tiberius created a sinister pleasure island on the isle of Capri where he committed brutal outrages – and collected pornography. There’s a great scene in the classic television drama I, Claudius where John Hurt as Caligula ingratiates himself with Uncle Tiberius by giving him a smutty painting. But the reality of Roman life revealed by the art of Pompeii reveals that uninhibited sex and unrepressed art were universal in this ancient culture, not the preserve of decadent tyrants.
It is a huge contrast with the Christian society that grew out of the ruins of Rome and still in many ways – whatever our personal beliefs – shapes the culture of the west. That contrast is sharply shown by what happened to the erotic art of Pompeii when it started to be rediscovered by excavators in the 18th century. It was admired, but also considered deeply provocative. For a long time the saucy treasures now on view at the British Museum were kept under lock and key in the “secret cabinet”, a claustrophobic, windowless alcove in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This cloistered academy of voyeurism opened permanently to the public only in 2000.
Even today, it feels sinful to visit the secret museum. It feels dirty to look at dirty pictures. The ancient Pompeiians plainly did not feel like that. The statue of Pan making love to a goat in the British Museum show comes from a respectable garden. Yet without a sense of sin we, today, would not enjoy sex half as much, and that is why modern sexuality owes more to St Augustine than it does to the painters of Pompeii.
While researching my book The Loves of the Artists I realised that sin is the secret ingredient in the Renaissance nude. When Donatello and Caravaggio portray beautiful boys, they are not indulging an accepted, legal desire like ancient Greek and Roman artists. In the Renaissance you could be burned at the stake for “sodomy” and this gives a special risk and excitement to an obviously sexualised statue such as Donatello’s David.
Roman erotic art is startling and fascinating, but it lacks that spark of sin. Like Donatello when he brought the male nude daringly back to life in a Christian world, modern love delights in being bad