Penn Museum unveils “Fifty Shades of Pompeii”

Fifty Shades of Pompeii

Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY

Erotic scene in fresco from Pompeii.

Since its release in 2011, E. L. James’ erotic novel series “Fifty Shades of Grey” has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide. The books have enthralled readers with salacious tales of sexual bondage, sadism, and masochism.

But when it comes to risqué behavior, James ain’t got nothing on the art of the Ancient Roman Empire.

Buried by thick layers of ash and mud from the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E., the erotic art of Pompeii has riveted and titillated its viewers since it was rediscovered in the 18th century. The explicit paintings rival any page of James’ modern novels.

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, the Young Friends of the Penn Museum will present “Fifty Shades of Pompeii,” an exposé of the erotic murals and mosaics from the Roman city. The program is the Young Friends’ annual Valentine’s Day-themed event.

C. Brian Rose, a professor of classical studies at Penn and curator-in-charge of the Mediterranean Section at the Penn Museum, will discuss the R-rated mosaics and murals at 6:30 p.m. in the Upper Egyptian Gallery.

“One of the reasons that the Romans didn’t find the depiction of such a wide variety of sexual practices objectionable is that their gods were doing the same thing,” he says. 

Rose will also discuss the roles erotic imagery played in the home décor of the elite in Rome and Pompeii. 

Emily Winetz Goldsleger, the Museum’s assistant director for membership and annual giving, says the Young Friends’ annual Valentine’s Day-themed program is always one of the most popular. 

“It’s a fun and light-hearted event that provides young professionals and graduate students with a peek into the Museum’s impressive research projects and collection, while also having a good laugh,” she says.

Admission is $10 for the general public and $5 for Penn students, faculty, staff, and Penn Museum members. A cocktail and dessert reception will follow in the Museum’s Japan Gallery.

Originally published on January 31, 2013