Archaeology Odyssey 3:5, September/October 2000

Field Notes

By Judith Harris

Archaeology Odyssey

After more than two centuries, the Naples Museum’s Pornography Collection is on display once again

Anyone who doubts the selling power of sex should visit the Naples Archaelogical Museum. For almost five months now, the museum has been attracting enormous crowds with its newly reopened exhibit of ancient erotica.

Formally known as the Pornographic Collection, the museum’s exhibition consists of some 200 sexually explicit paintings, mosaics, sculptures and household items recovered from Pompeii and other ancient Roman sites.

The highlight of the exhibit is a series of murals taken from brothels and private homes in Pompeii. With their graphic depictions of men, women and gods involved in acts of copulation, these scenes (including the first-century A.D. wall painting of Hermaphroditus Struggling with a Satyr shown below) were obviously designed to titillate or amuse their viewers.

But not all of the artifacts in the Pornographic Collection were originally intended as erotica.

“The ancient Romans’ ideas of sex were quite different from ours,” said museum director Stefano De Caro, an archaeologist who has worked for many years at Pompeii. According to De Caro, Christian ethics have tinged aspects of the human body with sin, but that was not the case in ancient Rome; the Romans did not find sexual images sinful, nor they did always associate specific body parts, such as the penis, with sex.

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