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A talk given by The Inquisition at Defuse, on Wednesday 7th November 2012, as part of Designweek in Dublin, Ireland
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Prior to the revival of interest in artifact collecting and classical history in general that precipitated the Renaissance in Italy, Ancient Rome was widely considered to be very ideal of a utopian society of high morals and even higher culture. Several finds early on challenged this view and began the process of broadening our understanding of classical culture in general. Indeed, as more finds surfaced, the concrete expression of Roman decadence, which would have been previously understood to a certain degree, could no longer be ignored.
Which is to say, what art could be more fun than statues with giant boners?
In post-medieval Europe, ancient artifacts of an erotic nature were highly collectable to those that could afford such frivolities. Due to its proximity to the to the 18th century Vesuvian excavations, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (called The Royal Bourbon Museum at the time) drew many of the greatest finds into its collections. The works of an erotic nature drew huge crowds and created a scandal and a quandary for the Kingdom of Naples. The finds were segregated and visitors were required to have permits. This only intrigued visitors further and they tried everything to get in. A trade in false permits even began.
After the Restoration in Italy Francesco I visited with his young family; ‘It would be as well to confine all the obscene objects, of whatever material, in one room, the only people allowed to visit this room being of mature age and proven morality.’ Indeed.
Various Italian political movements of the 19th century used the museum as a bargaining chip, portraying its restrictions as a suppression of liberty and vowing to make it public, as a straightforward record of the moral outlook and mentality of ancient times. The museum was even walled closed in 1851, remaining an off-and-on entity until its eventual re-opening in 1976.
The contentious artifacts date from pre-Roman Italian society such as Attic pottery, to Grecian works, but are predominantly Roman in nature. The collection includes sculptures, votive offerings, ornaments, plaster sections of graffiti, cups and tableware, jewellery, oil lamps and more. The medium best represented is fresco. Through the collection’s variety every aspect of daily life is covered, objects have humourous qualities, represent threatening demons, spiritual requests made to the gods and domestic ornament.
Many artifacts are centred around banquet use. This would tally with Roman literature’s descriptions of the licentious atmospheres at these gatherings. The word ‘orgy’ retains these connotations today.
It appears from the archaeological record that there was loads of this stuff. Ancient Roman (and indeed Greek) society thrived on this myriad erotic imagery, giant phalluses, vaginas, compromised nymphs, ithyphallic satyrs, aroused bestiaries, hermaphrodites, compromised ex-virgins, winged members and all other matter of bacchanalia. Sex for the Romans fell between the spheres of influence of Venus and Bacchus.
And so without further ado here is a very small selection of the ancient world’s greatest knobs and knockers (to bolster this learned debate):
Like ancient Roman filth? Have you seen the Inquisition article on collecting widdles?
The Secret Cabinet,Electa Napoli, 2000
Roman Art and Architecture, Mortimer Wheeler, Thames and Hudson, 1964
Pompeii & Herculaneum, The Glory and the Grief, Marcel Brion, Elek Books, 1960
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Thursday, September 10th, 2009 at
It is archived in Architecture, Art, Culture, Museum, Myth and tagged bacchus, buggery, Culture, dirty, filthy beggars, greeks, Museum, nymphs, orgies, phalluses, Rome, satyrs, sex, venus, virgins.