May 10, 2000 01:50am
Erotic Art Display Draws Crowds
by: Victor Simpson
(NAPLES, Italy) -- The show is about sex, and how the ancient Romans did it. It also is about censorship, and how modern Italians have used it.
Crowds are pouring into Naples' Archaeological Museum to see the collection of erotic art, many of the 300 artifacts unearthed from the Roman city of Pompeii that was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79.
More than 5,500 people visited on the May 1 holiday alone, the highest one-day total since the exhibition opened a month ago and believed to be a museum record.
The Il Mattino newspaper called it ``an achievement probably due'' to the erotic art show.
The objects in what some call the Pompeii Peep Show - frescoes, vases, statues, engraved cups and dozens of phalluses - have been seen in public only for brief periods since they were unearthed when the ancient city was rediscovered in the 1700s.
The exhibition's curators have included documents showing that the Bourbon kings who ruled Naples at the time were embarrassed by the objects - not from a sense of modesty but out of fear that foreigners making the Grand Tour of Europe would conclude that the people of Naples were libertines.
When Giuseppe Garibaldi's troops reached Naples in 1860 in their drive to unify Italy, one of the first things they did was to open up the collection ``as a liberating symbol,'' said Marinella Lista, the exhibit's scientific coordinator.
But that didn't last long. First pressure from the Vatican, then the onset of fascism, then World War II kept the collection out of sight to all but ``recommended visitors,'' Lista said.
It reopened briefly in 1976, then was shut down ``for restoration.''
``Now we are in 2000. It has been a long time,'' Lista said.
The vast museum, built in the early 1700s, is undergoing major restoration and exhibits hidden for decades because of lack of funds and guards are finally coming to light.
For $6, visitors are allowed to wander through the rooms of the completely restored ``secret wing'' housing the erotic art, although they are limited to 20 minutes to keep crowds from clogging the exhibit.
Even children are allowed to peer at the X-rated treasures - although children under 14 need a letter of consent from their parents or teachers.
The museum says it has received no protests over the content.
Considerable evidence testifies that Pompeii's wealthy merchants and visiting sailors had a taste for eroticism and that prostitution flourished in Roman times.
Most of the artifacts were found in bathhouses or bordellos in Pompeii and Herculaneum, another ruined ancient city near Naples.