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Pan: “disreputable objects of pagan licentiousness”

“Shocking things go on here. You wouldn’t believe it! Licentiousness! Orgies! …. Even bingo. Oh yes.”
Lurcio (Frankie Howerd), Up Pompeii

“If a boy has the fortune to be born beautiful, but does not offer his arse for the enjoyment of others, may he fall in love with a beautiful girl and never manage to bed her.”
Graffiti found at Pompeii, quoted from Varone, 2001, p131

Pan copulating with she-goat
In 1734 Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples and Sicily commenced a programme of digging around Naples to search for classical treasures, which led to the excavation of Herculaneum (1738) the rediscovery of Pompeii (1763) and the Villa dei Papiri. The discoveries – which included the Villa of Diomedes (1771) in which eighteen bodies of women and children caught by the eruption attracted great interest – and by the 1760s Naples and Pompeii had become one of the favourite stopping points for those undertaking the Grand Tour. But amidst the wealth of classical treasures brought out of the ground were objects of a more troubling nature. One such find was a marble statue of Pan copulating with a goat, unearthed from the Villa dei Papiri in 1752.

According to Judith Harris, Charles and his court were present at Karl Weber’s excavation site when this sculpture group was brought to light:

“Amidst a flotilla of courtiers in silks and befurred velvet finery, Charles and his Prussian wife Queen Maria Amalia arrived in a rustling, stately procession and took their seats on folding chairs. From the bowels of the earth the carved white marble group of two embracing figures, which Weber had found in the Great Peristyle, appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, borne upon a litter carried by prison labourers. A shiver of excitement rippled through the court. Already the dainty turn of that horn revealed the prized Greek look. When the whole sculpture group hoved into view two heads could be seen and two bodies. One seemed to be a man of sorts, though at closer look he wore two small horns on his head. He gazed fondly into the female’s languid marble eyes. For locked in his embrace was a female goat, surely the prettiest in the flock, whom he was in the act of penetrating.”
(Harris, 2005, p47)

Charles was shocked by this find, ordered the excavations to be halted, and consigned the statue to a cupboard, with access granted only with the direct permission of the king himself. Johann Winckelmann asked permission to view the statue, but was turned down. Standards must have lapsed later, as Richard Payne Knight, in his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786) refers to the statue as “well-known”. In the early nineteenth century, this statue became part of the collection of the so-called “Secret Cabinet” to which access was restricted to only “persons of mature age and of proven morality”, a decree made by Francis I in 1819, after visiting the Royal Bourbon Museum. By 1823, any artefacts judged to be “disreputable objects of pagan licentiousness” were restricted to this private room.

One N. Brooke, in his Observations on the manners and customs of Italy (1798) was apparently so disturbed by the sculpture of Pan and the goat that he reported it to be made of bronze, rather than marble:

“At the end of one of the galleries is a small room kept locked, and having no ladies with us, my friend ordered it to be opened, in which is placed a single bronze statue of a goat and satyr in a joined unnatural position, that which decency cannot be described, and had it been mine I would have thrown it into the burning mountain, which had once buried it under its lava.”
(quoted from Mattusch, 2005, p156)

News of these discoveries travelled quickly, despite Bourbon attempts to restrict publications relating to the excavations. The diplomat Dominique-Vivant Denon made a series of drawings (including the infamous Pan & goat) based on the erotic artefacts from Pompeii, and published it under the title Priapees et sujets divers. Collectors converged on Naples and there was a brisk trade in manufacturing copies of erotic objects. Winckelmann reported finding on the market forgeries of Priapic figures from Pompeii in paint and sculpture. One venetian artist, Guiseppe Guerra, specialised in producing copies of frescoes dominated by phallic images, for sale to enthusiastic tourists.

Pierre-Sylvain Maréchal, between 1780 and 1803, published a nine-volume work devoted to the finds at Herculaneum, which contained engravings of priapean themes (though Pan was omitted). Maréchal, whilst portraying the ancient Romans as “childlike” and “innocent” tended to apologise for the presence of erotic imagery and artefacts:

“I know of no way to justify the Ancients in this cynical habit. Their imagination, inflamed by the lure of pleasure, desired that all objects, even the most indifferent and alien to this purpose, should remind them of what seems to have been the sole focus of their existence. Vases, lamps, everyday utensils, and the most necessary articles of furniture became, as it were, accomplices of their libertinism, by showing them its crude simulacrum. We must believe that articles shaped like this were intended only for bawdyhouses.”
(quoted from Kendrick, 1997, p9)

Before the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, Rome had been thought as a font of austere majesty and wisdom, but as the excavations uncovered a wide range of sexually explicit objects and scenes, painted on walls and floor mosaics, on vases, in sculpture and everyday objects, scholars gradually (and reluctantly) came to the conclusion that such erotic displays were not exceptions, but the rule. One popular notion which arose in the wake of these discoveries was that the Roman Empire had collapsed because of moral corruption and depravity (a view that still retains some currency, judging by Roberto De Mattei’s comments back in April, 2011) – and that the eruption of Vesuvius was a divine punishment for the licentiousness of the inhabitants of Pompeii.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that literate people in the eighteenth century were aware of ancient Greek and Roman sexual behaviour – see for example Immorality of the Ancient Philosophers, 1735. References to ancient same-sex lovers such as Ganymede and Antinous appear throughout eighteenth-century texts both as terms of derision and ‘codes’ for establishing shared interest. Anne Lister, for example is said to have learned Latin and Greek in order to seek out references to love and sex between women, and also used classical references to same-sex love in negotiating her affairs with other women. Petronius’ infamous Roman novel, Satyricon (see Wikipedia for a plot synopsis) was available in the eighteenth century and there is a reference made to its corrupting (‘sodomitical’) influence in Tobias Smollett’s (1748) novel, The Adventures of Roderick Random.

The Grand Tour
In the eighteenth century it became fashionable for young men of wealth and rank to go on “the Grand Tour” to France and Italy in order to have their education finished. The tour generally lasted between two and five years, and the great cultural centres of Paris, Rome and Naples were favourite stopping points. The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum also added to the attractions of the Grand Tour, and wealthy antiquarians flocked to Naples, first as collectors, and later as dealers. Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to Naples from 1764, amassed an enormous collection of antiquities, and his residence became a popular stop on the Tour. The Tour was also an opportunity for sexual adventure, and there were frequent worries that travel to France and Italy would “effeminate” young men. Italy, in particular, had a reputation for sodomy and tracts such as Reasons for the Growth of Sodomy in England (1729) blamed Italian influences such as opera, whilst Churchill’s 1764 poem The Times had it that:

“ITALIA, nurse of ev’ry softer art,
Who, feigning to refine, unmans the heart,
Who lays the realms of Sense and Virtue waste,
Who marrs whilst she pretends to mend our taste,
ITALIA, to compleat and crown our shame”
The Times

Attitudes to Italy were also coloured by anti-Catholic sentiments and by the climatic theory of temperament. For example, Montesquieu, in his 1748 work, The Spirit of the Laws claimed that people of cold climates tended to be industrious and orderly whilst those who dwelt in hot climates tended to be lazy and chaotic.

In addition to its cultural possibilities, the Grand Tour was also attractive for the possibility of sexual adventures – including those of a transgressive nature. William Beckford referred to Italy as “the place for sinners of a certain sort”.

The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum also helped fuel a rise in interest in Classical art – and collections of classical art became emblems of of the wealth and taste of their owners. Such was the passion of English collectors for examples of classical art that one contemporary Italian commented “Were our Amphitheatre portable, the English would carry it off.” Not only was the acquisition and possession of art a form of social prestige, but also it was considered desirable to display at the very least an articulate enthusiasm for one’s collection. This led to the growth of interest in theories of art.

The collections of antiquarians such as Elias Ashmole, Charles Townley, Richard Payne Knight and Sir William Hamilton contributed heavily to the foundation of the British Museum. Charles Townley (1737-1805), possessed a terracotta reproduction of Pan and the she-goat by the English sculptor, Joseph Nollekens, who had viewed the original in the 1760s (it ended up in the British Museum’s ‘Private Case’ which later (1865) became known as the “secret museum”). This also led to a re-evaluation of myth. Early Enlightenment thought tended not to admire myth – rationalists such as Voltaire and David Hume portrayed myth as an erroneous attempt by primitive people to explain the world, and deists such as John Toland saw both Christianity and pagan myth as corruptions of a natural primitive monotheism. The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum led to a new interest in interpreting myths as a necessary part of the Classical past.

One influential theorist of ancient art – who also contributed to the rise of interest in Roman erotic themes – particularly the popular notion of “Roman Orgies” – was the self-styled Baron d’Hancarville (1719-1805) who was engaged by Sir William Hamilton to produce a sumptuous catalogue of his collection – a four-volume set of illustrated volumes, accompanied by an essay on the origins of Greek art (Hamilton’s catalogue of vases was an influence on James Wedgwood, who began to produce vases based on the illustrations of Hamilton’s collection in his pottery factory).

d’Hancarville was by all accounts a colourful character, an art historian who supplanted his income with occasional theft and the production of pornographic works. Around 1769-70 D’Hancarville produced two pornographic works – Monumens de la vie privee des douze Cesars (“Monuments of the private lives of the twelve Caesars”) which purported to be a catalogue of etchings taken from various antique objects that depicted the sexual adventures of the various Roman emperors, but the etchings were “fictional” being drawn from the works of Suetonius and Tacitus (Vivant Denon may have been one of the engravers who produced the illustrations). d’Hancarville also authored Monumens du culte secret des Dames Romaines (“Monuments of the secret rites of Roman Women”) which again, purported to show illustrations drawn from cameos depicting pagan erotic practices. Caesars was scandalous, but also proved to popular – and pirated editions began to circulate.

Illustrations from Monumens de la vie privee des douze Cesars

d’Hancarville went on to publish Recherches sur l’Origine, l’Esprit les Progres des Arts de la Grece (1785), a central theme of which was that all art in every culture originated from a single primitive religion, and that this religion was sexual in nature. He attempted to demonstrate that that the image of a bull breaking an egg (the bull representing the generative power of the creator) can be found in every culture. d’Hancarville proposed that previous interpretations of the mythology of the Classic world – which relied on texts, were incorrect. Instead, he concentrated on the artifacts being revealed at Pompeii – vases, sculptures, coins and engraved gems. d’Hancarville, Hamilton (and Charles Townley) played a role in the publication of Richard Payne Knight’s A Discourse on the Worship of Priapus (1786).

The sculpture of Pan and the goat now resides in the “Gabinetto Segreto” (“Secret Chamber”) section of Naples’ National Archeological Museum together with a statue of a rather lecherous Pan together with Daphnis, which was originally part of the Farnese collection. This collection was made viewable by the general public in 2000.

Alistair Blanshard, Sex: Vice and Love from Antiquity to Modernity (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010)
Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, Salvatore Settis, The Classical Tradition (Harvard University Press 2010)
Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
Walter Kendrick, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture (University of California Press, 1997)
Carol C. Mattusch The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum: Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection (Getty Publications, 2005)
Partha Mitter Much Maligned Monsters: a History of European Reactions to Indian Art (University of Chicago Press, 1977)
Vin Nardizzi & Stephen Guy-Bray (eds) Queer Renaissance Historiography: Backward Gaze (Ashgate,2009)
Antonio Varone, Erotica pompeiana: love inscriptions on the walls of Pompeii (L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2001)


  1. Littlesun
    Posted September 6th 2011 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    Great post, very interesting stuff. I’ve seen pictures of that sculpture before and always loved it, but I never knew the story behind it or where it came from.

  2. Pallas Renatus
    Posted September 6th 2011 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Pornography combined with the latest fad, sold to make a quick buck? I suppose some things never change =)

    Interesting, though, the enormous leaps of logic used to justify moralistic judgements. Then again, I suppose we still have people with inordinately large knee-jerk reactions to natural urges…

  3. Labelle
    Posted September 22nd 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    I always thought Pan was just playing with the goat. My eyes have been opened.