Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why sex rather than kissing is depicted in Pompeiian art


With the coming of Valentine's Day there is always a plethora of articles about the history of celebrations of love and romance. But, I found this short reference to a presentation by Dr. Donald Lateiner particularly interesting because I had never thought about why I had seen so much erotic art in Pompeii but did not remember seeing any depictions of a simple kiss. Apparently, Dr. Lateiner thinks it is a result of being "too small a gesture" to be featured in the full length artwork that was in vogue at the time. Knowing how important status was to the Romans though, I would venture to say it was probably not featured because it symbolized subservience. Lateiner points out that people used a kiss to curry favor, beginning with the hands and proceeding then to the shoulders and lastly to the head. Most erotic art that I have seen from Pompeii is usually depicting prostitutes or, at least, not wives. Therefore, a painting of a Roman male kissing a prostitute would be deemed socially unacceptable.

[Image - Erotic fresco from Pompeii I photographed at the Museo Archaeologico Nazionale di Napoli.]

Donald Lateiner, a humanities-classics professor at Ohio Wesleyan University, says that men kissed men on the cheek as a social greeting, while subjects of a king “abased” themselves by kissing the ground in front of him.

While speaking at a press conference in Chicago, he said that people who wanted to curry favour with someone of higher status would “kiss up” the person’’s hands, shoulders, and headin that order.

He revealed that poems, novels, and all kinds of art helped him parse out the history of the kiss.
Lateiner said that many Tuscan and Roman ladies” mirror cases sported erotic scenes “from the world of myth, (or) sometimes from the world of daily life.”

However, on Athenian vases and Pompeian frescoes, romantic smooching is quite rare.
“(Instead) there’’s a whole lot of sex,” National Geographic quoted him as saying.
He said that that might be because artists of the era preferred to depict full bodies, and a “Hollywood close-up” of people kissing would be too small a detail to feature.

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