How weird was sex at Pompeii?
As I know from past visits, Chicago is a wonderful city. But this time I saw not much of it except the room I was lecturing in, the inside of a friend’s apartment and some very good restaurants (including a café where I shared coffee with the excellent metrolingua.com). Plus whatever I caught sight of from car or taxi.
The truth is that I spent most of the time in self-imposed exile in the B and B where I was staying – a nice place, with excellent muffins, but a slight tinge of the Hitchcock about it all. You kind of felt that all that muffin-making must be a front for something rather more sinister. And I certainly didn’t venture to the basement floor, just in case.
Sight-seeing was off the agenda, because I was correcting the typescript of my Pompeii book which is due with the copy-editor on Tuesday (thank heavens for the Bank Holiday – or it would have been Monday). I have so far finished 4 chapters out of 10. The idea had been to get it finished before I went to Chicago, but that didn’t happen.
Luckily, in a way, the lecture I was giving was on the same general theme. It was called ‘Reconstructing Pompeii’. And it featured one of my favourite, as well as one of the most curious, erotic paintings from the ancient city.
I had a good time giving it, so I hope the audience enjoyed listening. The basic point I was trying to make was two-fold. First the Pompeii we see and visit is not the simple “city risen from the grave” that we tend to assume. It is the product of centuries of construction, reconstruction and ARTIFICE. I had plenty of pictures of the bomb damage inflicted by the allies in 1943 (plus some “after” shots, showing how the ruined ruins were put back together as if nothing had happened). I also had some nice pictures of the state the buildings were actually excavated in (which looks not all that different from the bombed versions).
But the other theme was how we tend to project our own assumptions and pet theories about the ancient world onto the ruins of Pompeii. There were lots of examples here. But the most memorable for most of the audience was, I am sure, one of the paintings from the walls of the “Bar on the Via di Mercurio”. (Another, tamer, image from the same series is on the right.) This has been almost totally destroyed, but we have an early nineteenth century copy of it. It depicts a couple making love, the man penetrating the women from behind, both of them carrying glasses of wine. Just to complete the performance, they are balancing on a pair of tight-ropes.
The picture at the top of this post shows the husband holding up the nineteenth-century version next to the hole in the wall where the original once was. Click on it to enlarge (as they say).
As you can just about see, enough survives of the bottom right-hand corner (a pair of feet and shins) to make it absolutely certain that the original did not have tight-ropes. Somehow the nineteenth-century artist has mistaken some shadows, or the ancient artist’s scratched guidelines, for the tight-ropes.
So far so good.
But in representing what other culture would the copyist find a couple of guidelines and assume that the original artist must have been intending not just show sex, with a glass of wine in each hand, but to turn the whole business into a circus act on a tight-rope too.
It’s not as if the original wasn’t quite weird enough already. But this is a nice vignette of our (or at least our nineteenth-century predecessors') assumption that Pompeii was full of very eccentric sex indeed – and of their, and our, determination to "find" it.