Wednesday 18 September 2019

Daisy Dunn: 'We could all learn a thing or two from those saucy murals in Pompeii'

An archeologist cleans up the fresco ''Leda e il cigno'' (Leda and the swan) discovered last Friday in the Regio V archeological area in Pompeii. Photo: AP
An archeologist cleans up the fresco ''Leda e il cigno'' (Leda and the swan) discovered last Friday in the Regio V archeological area in Pompeii. Photo: AP

Daisy Dunn

An exquisite ancient fresco has just been discovered by archaeologists in the Roman city of Pompeii. It shows Leda, a legendary queen of Sparta, in flagrante with a swan, but you would be forgiven for thinking she was merely petting the bird, or at least allowing it to rest in her lap, such is the subtlety of the image.

Yes, she is practically naked - and is that a knowing look in her dark eyes? - but it's telling that the painting has proved shocking to some modern eyes. The Romans found a beauty in sexual love that we have forgotten how to express.

The remarkably intact fresco, which is thought to have been painted in a bedroom, was found in a villa on the Via dei Vesuvio. It may well be saucy, but it is far from the raciest object to have been preserved in the layers of debris and ash which covered the Bay of Naples after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

When archaeologists began excavating Pompeii in the mid-18th century, they could hardly believe what they were seeing. The shapes of bodies in the hardened ash made a deep impression. It was the man-made objects, though, which steadily proved the most titillating.

The people of Pompeii looked to have been sex-crazed hedonists. They plastered street signs with priapic images. Among the more eye-catching finds is a bronze lamp shaped like a phallus with bells dangling from it. There's no shame in blushing and giggling. Such objects were made to be enjoyed. But for all these artworks might suggest otherwise, the Romans were hardly more sexual than we are. They were just better at defining love in all its forms.

They could be serious and humorous at once, an enormous phallus inviting not only smiles, but also good luck. Unlike us, they demonstrated little coyness in what they saw as a necessity. Even wedding songs were filled with jolly exhortations for the bride and groom to get to it immediately. They needed children, after all, who could care for them in their dotage.

For all the love scenes that filled their homes and cities, there was little that was purely gratuitous. Even the most explicit wall-paintings commissioned for Roman brothels and bedrooms have a softness or delicacy to them that is worthier of our admiration than scorn. The most evocative ancient art reminds us that the Romans found poetry in lovemaking. It is difficult to say the same of much 21st-century erotica.

What of Leda and her lover? According to the Greek myth, Zeus, king of the gods, metamorphosed into a swan before having sex with the married queen.

As a result of their encounter, Leda produced an egg from which there hatched Helen of Troy and a boy called Polydeuces.

"He holds her helpless breast upon his breast," WB Yeats wrote of the divine swan and his grip on Leda.

That the myth could inspire a scene as tender as that discovered at Pompeii is testament not only to the artist's skill, but also to his romantic imagination. The painter knew that love could arrive in many forms and just as quickly take flight.

Daisy Dunn is the author of 'Pliny: Life, Letters and Natural History in the Shadows of Vesuvius', published by HarperCollins next year

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