Bunga bunga wasn’t invented by Silvio Berlusconi. As the murals in Pompeii make clear, the ancient Romans knew a thing or two about debauchery.
Pompeii, the city that disappeared on Aug. 24, 79 A.D. under lava and volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius, is in a sad state. In November 2010, the collapse of the gymnasium for gladiators prompted the opposition to call a no-confidence vote, accusing Berlusconi’s government of chronically underfunding the preservation of Italy’s cultural heritage.
The government survived the motion by three votes. That was a harbinger of its eventual downfall a year later.
“Pompei: Un Art de Vivre,” a show at the Musee Maillol in Paris, seeks to give an impression of daily life in that wealthy town of 12,000-15,000 inhabitants before fate struck.
The exhibition’s leitmotif is the domus, the single- family home, as opposed to the insulae, the multistory apartment buildings that dominated imperial Rome.
These villas easily covered 800 or 900 square meters and were built around three central spaces -- the atrium with an opening in the roof; the tablinum, the main living room; and the peristylium, another court surrounded by columns.
The organizers say such a house would be far preferable to the living conditions of later generations. This is true as far as hygiene is concerned: The Romans wouldn’t have tolerated the squalor at the Sun King’s court in Versailles.
Although only a few houses had bathrooms (balnea) with running water, spending at least an hour at the public baths (thermae) was part of the daily routine.
The show includes a bronze bathtub, shells for cosmetics, bottles with ointments, mirrors and a strigil -- a little scythe used for scraping sweat and dirt from the skin. A wall text informs you that the dark-haired women from southern Italy liked to have their hair dyed blonde.
To profit from the heat of the oven, the bathroom was adjacent to the kitchen. On display, along with kitchen utensils, are glasses, cups and silver or bronze flatware used for the cena, the main meal taken in the afternoon.
Some of these utensils are quite elaborate, such as a decanter in the form of a female head.
A mural depicting the Greek wine god Dionysos confirms our suspicion that the Romans weren’t teetotalers.
However, they always mixed their wine with water. Those who didn’t were considered alcoholics.
Satyrs and Nymphs
Sex was omnipresent. Before Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Romans had a laid-back attitude to extramarital or homosexual affairs.
The walls in Pompeii abound with satyrs pursuing nymphs and other erotic scenes, some displaying an amazing degree of copulatory acrobatics.
In many homes, a proudly erect phallus in marble or bronze occupied a prominent place as a symbol of health and as a protector against evil.
Contorted bodies and a dog desperately pulling at its chain -- reconstructed by pouring gypsum plaster into the hollows left in the ash -- remind you of the fateful moment when life in Pompeii came to a sudden end.
“Pompeii: Un Art de Vivre” is at the Musee Maillol, Paris, through Feb. 12, 2012. Information: http://www.museemaillol.com.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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