Romans were not shy about sexual exploits and their artists did not hesitate to create artworks depicting the same attitude. Some of the artworks were censored as pornographic due to the explicit sexual nature of the underlying information, specifically to avoid a clash of cultures as the empire continued to expand through conquests. Some of the leading artworks portraying the incestuous nature of Roman art were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum. King Francis I of Naples was so embarrassed by the erotic nature of artworks at the Pompeii exhibition that he ordered its closure from public access. This paper is a discussion of how Roman art returns to some motifs and subjects in multiple media to show the incestuous nature of art.
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The subject of sex is littered all over Roman art using different motifs such as phalluses, Priapus, brothels, and suburban baths among other themes, which underline erotica. Frescoes, statutes, and household items were embellished with sexual themes for different purposes. The use of the phallus in ancient Roman culture was widespread specifically because it was considered a form of a phallic charm commonly known as fascinum. Phallus in this context is taken to mean an erect penis. In any civilized culture, making artworks explicitly representing genitalia would be abhorrent. The Roman Empire is considered as one of the early civilized cultures, but it popularized the ubiquitous use of phallus, which begs the question as to whether the artwork had a different cultural value apart from being a sexual organ. In this context, the phallus was not seen as threatening to the Romans – it was not even considered erotic. On the contrary, its widespread use could be associated with its presumed value in protecting people against the evil eye and other malevolent influences. However, as the empire expanded and different cultures were merged, a clash of values was witnessed, and to some individuals, especially the enlightened audiences, the Roman art on this aspect qualified to be classified as incestuous.
In Greek mythology, Priapus was the god of fertility and sex, and the Romans popularized him through paintings and murals. Priapus is depicted as having a disproportionally oversized permanent erection. The Roman culture was mainly patriarchal and probably this painting gained popularity in the process of asserting such societal perceptions. A fresco of Priapus at the House of the Vettii in Pompeii shows his image with his torso covered with a loose hanging clothing only to leave the permanently erected phallus sticking out. Such depictions could only be construed to pass a certain message, which is basically the potency and power of men in a patriarchal society.
The brothel at Pompeii (Lupanar of Pompeii) was a common theme in Roman art, and they were depicted as having murals and frescos rich in sexual acts. On the way to the brothel was a symbol of male genitalia carved in a stone probably to welcome visitors to the place of sexual exploits. It is not clear whether the sexual artworks were meant to heighten to visitors’ pleasure and arouse them before sampling what was on offer or they were intended for advertising the services offered in the brothel. However, while the Lupanar of Pompeii was the popular brothel, it was not the only one in the region. The artworks in these places created the impression of sex at odds with the reality of a moral society. The sexual services offered and their corresponding prices were captured in the artworks.
Other motifs used in the incestuous Roman art were suburban baths of Pompeii and such frescoes were found near the Marine Gate. In one of the frescoes, two males and a female are depicted having an intercourse, while oral sex is shown in another. The primary function of these paintings is unknown with some individuals arguing that they acted to advertise prostitution in the baths. However, they could also have been used for decoration to create joyful scenes on the walls. Regardless of the purpose that they served, their presence is a clear indication of how incestuous Roman art was and the role that sex and love played in society at the time.
One of the controversial erotic paintings was that of a half-man Pan engaging in sexual acts with a nanny goat. This artwork creates the assumption that perhaps bestiality was tolerated or even encouraged in the Roman Empire. Artists are the mirrors of society and they immortalize different societal trends and activities, and thus there is a possibility that bestiality was entrenched in the ancient Roman society.
Roman artists were blunt when creating artworks to depict sexual exploits that occurred in the society at the time of the empire. The phallus was a popular artwork, and while it was used to guard people against the evil eye, the enlightened society could only take it to justify the incestuous nature of Roman art. Other motifs which were mainly used were Priapus and murals in brothels and suburban baths. The subjects of sex and love took the center stage in Roman art.
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