Part V: Phallic images, then and now.
By Bridget Meade
During my recent trip to southern Italy, we toured the Naples Archeological museum. Toward the end, we went into a section that had a sign saying one must be 14 years old to enter. What was beyond the sign caused a few giggles from my group.
Pictures of abnormally large penises were on the walls, a statue depicting a man having sex with a goat was in a corner and small figurines of men carrying baskets with their anatomy were displayed in a case. The bigger the penis, the better life was for Romans and it wasn’t for sexual satisfaction.
To display wealth in America, we drive luxury cars and live in certain neighborhoods. To protect ourselves against “evil” we attend church, treat others well, and vote for the political candidate who best represents our interests. In Roman times, they used phallic symbols to display wealth and guard against evil.
Romans used phallic symbols in their art, often as talismans. In Pompeii, shopkeepers put up paintings and objects on their walls to protect themselves. For example, in one painting called Mercury in ‘rustic style,’ the god is seen marching forward carrying a bag of money in one hand and a phallic symbol in the other.
Many of the paintings and other artifacts displayed at the museum were located in Pompeii and nearby town Herculaneum buried when Vesuvious erupted in 79 AD. When the cities were discovered in the 1700s, the frescoes and statues were brought to the Naples Museum. When King Francis I of Naples saw the display in 1819, he was so embarrassed by it that he put it in a cabinet. Only those who were “of mature age and good morals” were allowed access. The cabinet went through many openings and closings for the next 100 plus years. It was brought out briefly during the 1960s, then shut down again and not opened until 2000.
The thing that struck me was how conservative our societies have become since Roman times. At some point, we decided that nudity and sexuality were dirty and chose to cover ourselves up. In Rome and all over Europe, what were once naked statues now have a leaf covering male genitalia even though female statues have generally been untouched.
In the days following my visit to the Naples Archeological Museum and Pompeii, I jokingly emailed Bob Conrad asking about ThisisReno.com’s policy on phallic images. My joke backfired when he asked me to write about it. In keeping with the emerging forms of journalism, this site does not edit reader-submitted content (unless libelous) and thus does not prohibit phallic images (of course the rules change if it is of one of the founders of the website).
To be clear, I’m not advocating for people to send naked photos just because they will be published. What astounds me is the juxtaposition of what is socially acceptable in today’s society versus what was acceptable during Roman times. The images were not pornographic to Romans as it was a sign of protection and wealth. If similar artwork were published without context today, it would be considered pornographic and outcries for the images to be removed are almost guaranteed.
Thousands of years later, we are not that far removed from the Romans. They invented many medical and other scientific devices that, while they have been refined, we still use today. When Vesuvious erupted, the military was sent to rescue people for the first time in history. They focused on education, commerce, and citizens were allowed to vote. Even though women were not citizens, they were allowed to divorce. We still use their construction in theaters. It is funny how our perception of proper etiquette changes over time when we still have so much in common.
Bridget Meade is an Interactive Journalism graduate student at the Reynolds School of Journalism. She decided to pursue her Master’s in Journalism after she discovered personal blogging several years ago. As a result of online communities like 20-Something Bloggers and the new friends she met all over the world, Bridget’s interests expanded and she redefined her personal and professional goals. Her interests are in social media, specifically Twitter, technology, and networked news. She enjoys snarky humor, the ocean, all things Italian, wine, and time with her 90 lb German Shepherd, Keo.