Sex in Antiquity

Sex in Antiquity
28 November 2016 0 Comment

In the rarefied world of art in modern times, curatorial reputations can be made by creating a theme for an exhibition that has immediate public appeal and that means dollars in the cash registers of some of the world’s most important museums and art galleries. It’s a competitive world as well and with the advent of new technologies an ambitious curator has many toys at his or her disposal to go over old ground to shine new light on an artistic conundrum? And when that puzzle includes the name of Leonardo da Vinci, you have a potential show-stopper; a ‘Blockbuster’ made even more so with the hint of sex. Sex does crazy things to us today; less so in Antiquity it would seem.

Have you considered Sex?

I need to entertain myself occasionally and to be honest; rattling on about Caesar or Michelangelo all the time does get a little boring. Oh and I know you have a favorite restaurant, wine or hotel you like to boast about to your friends upon your return from your latest European jaunt and which I’m supposed to wax lyrical about and enlighten a would be traveller. But have you considered sex? In antiquity I mean, and how, if at all, we as a modern society understand it, enjoy it, celebrate it, live comfortably with it and play with it any better than the Etruscans, the Greeks or the Romans?

Turn the Light off Please.

I believe not and that’s a shame to be sure. Our ridiculously social and politically correct world today will have none of it. Meanwhile our leaders continue to ram down our throats a blatantly hypocritical façade of moral correctness and clichéd family values that their own behavior contradicts more often than not. I mean, I only have to mention the name Berlusconi and I’m sure you get my point!  In fact Italy, home of Holy Mother Church in Rome is one of the world’s biggest producers of pornography whilst the USA, groaning under the weight of hundreds of ‘Christian’ groups, is the world’s largest consumer of pornography! History, if we care to study it, can teach us much and history’s take on sex is well, extremely entertaining, and I for one would enjoy a typical Etruscan barbeque of around 400 BC?

The Greeks had a well trained eye for Sex.

The Greek historian Theopompus described how the Etruscan women in the 4th century BC gave themselves to men that were not their husbands. He wrote about a sort of public orgy with drink and lots of feasting, and said that after eating all the men and women watched each other having sex and swap partners. He described the women engaged in gymnastic sexual positions with the men and goes on to write that women shaved their bodies and styled their hair to appear more desirable. Who really cared if the sausages on the unattended grill got a little burnt because nobody was paying attention to them!

The Etruscans invented the Orgy but the Greeks enjoyed them more!

Whilst the women in Etruscan society sat comfortably next to their men and enjoyed a similar social and sexual standing within the community, it would seem that in ancient Greece the men dominated everywhere, including in the bedroom? History shows that in the Greek culture the penis was the main symbol of fertility and there existed a flourishing trade of well-crafted dildos, constructed from leather and polished wood. The male idea of female sexuality was that Greek men believed that women envied their penises. Men created artwork displaying women with dildos and it became standard symbolism in Greek art that female homosexuality and female masturbation were rarely depicted unless seen with a dildo.

Was Ancient Rome left behind; hardly!

And Rome you ask? Few societies celebrated sex more than the Romans who believed that sex was a wonderful pleasure to be pursued in many forms, as befitting an enlightened society. Roman art abounds with imagery of many varieties of sexual activities and there were many bath houses that conveniently provided both men and women with the opportunity to indulge a sexual itch! Rome however did have strict social rules that sadly did not elevate the women in their community as we saw with the Etruscans. Sometimes on the wedding night, the husband would not sleep with his new bride but had arranged to sleep with another woman. The Roman state wanted fertility among mothers whilst widows were not allowed to remarry. Husbands deprived their wives of a life outside the home, or tried to. Roman history is littered with the names and stories of women who defined their age and gave strength to their men, despite a chauvinistic culture. Seduction was an accepted part of the game to rise to power, or maintain it; think Cleopatra.

You, Me and Sex Today?

How do we respond to the subject of sex today? Do we splutter with embarrassment, without the literary or social tools to talk about it openly as we do with so many other topics? A cultural suppression in western culture of such an important expression of who we are has given birth in part to a seedy indulgence into the worst kind of pornography. I think Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist, summed it up very well when he said, “At the heart of pornography is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance.”

We all like a Mystery

Such was the case at the revered Louvre, when in 2012 it mounted an exhibition titled, “Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci’s Ultimate Masterpiece” that ran for only a few months strangely enough. The sole purpose of that exhibition it seemed at the time was to set out and prove that the so-called famous painting, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” began by Leonardo around 1501 and remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1519, was in fact Leonardo’s work. I write so-called famous work because I have held the opinion for a long time that Leonardo was a remarkable artist, but a rather predictable and repetitive painter! An opinion I’ll touch upon a little later.

A long journey before finding a home in 1797

The premise much discussed in the exhibitions catalogue was that because the St. Anne painting had a rather disjointed and complicated journey of ownership prior to it arriving into the fold of the newly founded Musee du Louvre in 1797, the authenticity of authorship of the work was often questioned. Apparently so, at least in some circles, all the way up to recent times when in 2008 scientific examinations were carried out before the painting underwent restoration. The dating of the materials would go some way to removing any doubt, if any still existed by this time, that this painting was in fact a Leonardo da Vinci.

Comparing the St. Anne painting with other works by the Master

The curators in the 2012 exhibition hung juxtaposed to the St. Anne painting other works by the master from the collection of the Louvre as well as compositional sketches, preparatory drawings, landscape studies and the National Gallery of London’s large, magnificent cartoon of the same or very similar subject by Leonardo, which were brought together for the first time since the artist’s death to illustrate beyond doubt that the painting is of his hand. It was an impressive display with all the pomp and intellectual ceremony such a historically important personality as Leonardo would attract. A stifling air of a mystery surrounded this work and “did he or didn’t he paint it” melodrama that would do justice to a Dan Brown novel.

How to pick a painting by Leonardo da Vinci

The exhibition also brought to light, if one could remain objective when one is in the same room with Leonardo da Vinci, that as a painter he had reached his impressive zenith some years earlier, perfecting that ambiguous smile of his, the perfect skin tones of his female subjects and a certain half-light that has you groping for the light switch!  I am more than convinced then and now that Leonardo himself in his later years held painting in rather low esteem, much preferring his forays into scientific studies of the world around him, often manifesting in quite remarkable designs of one machine or another.

Did Leonardo actually like to paint?

There is sameness in his painting that suggests an irksome annoyance for having to do it, and a repetitive iconographic style in his designs and compositions. His remarkable brain became very adept at punching out paintings of a similar sensibility and feel, which was just as well, because he was always distracting himself and upsetting patrons as he constantly changed horses midstream to satisfy his endless curiosities about life and how it functioned. A great mind such as Leonardo’s had little time to consistently bury it in something he knew well and which no longer challenged him; for him painting had become such a thing!

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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