Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 24, 1999
John R. Clarke Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. 406 pp.; 16 color ills.; 90 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (0520200241)

The very name of the collection containing many of the depictions of sex discussed in John Clarke’s Looking at Lovemaking—the “secret room” (il gabinetto segreto ) in the Museo Nazionale, Naples—suggests the challenge this material presents to interpreters of Roman visual culture. In this beautifully illustrated study, Clarke sets out to consider these coyly closeted objects in context, in order to analyze a cultural construction of sexuality that is markedly different from that of the late twentieth century. After addressing the Greek and Hellenistic background, he devotes three chapters to the Augustan-Julio-Claudian period—one on male-to-male sex featuring the Warren cup and its Arretine ware parallels, one on male-to-female sex concentrating on the Farnesina paintings and Arretine representations, and one on ithyphallic and macrophallic Ethiopian bath attendants. This is followed by a chapter on erotic wall paintings in Pompeian houses and another on these pictures in Pompeian public buildings, and a final chapter on the spread of sexual imagery throughout the Roman world on terracotta lamps and in the third-century wall paintings of male-female couples from the House of the Painted Vaults in Ostia. Clarke concludes with thoughts about viewership and posits a variety of Roman sexualities stretching beyond the ruling elite’s preoccupation with the dominance of the penetrator and the class status of the penetrated.

Let me first say that I find much here that is praiseworthy. Clarke’s book is the first systematic study of this material since Otto Brendel’s pioneering 1970 essay “The Scope and Temperament of Erotic Art in the Greco-Roman World” (Theodore Bowie and Cornelia V. Christenson, eds., Studies in Erotic Art, New York: Basic Books, 1970. pp. 3-69), and Clarke’s insistence on examining especially the wall paintings in spatial context as well as his use of straightforward terminology are especially to be lauded. (However, the man in the cunnilingus scene in the Suburban Baths and on lamps is surely not “licking the woman’s vagina” [p. 224], but her vulva or clitoris).

Far more problematic, however, are some of the interpretative choices the author makes. Even though mention is made of Foucault and the occasional phrase is borrowed from postcolonial or semiotic models (“the Other” in Chapter 5; “sign systems” on page 193), the fundamental issues of language and its relation to knowledge and analysis that those discourses raise are not engaged here. For example, although Clarke contends that the term “lovemaking” is “neutral” (p. 15), it certainly is not. Its use here not only obscures the role that prostitutes and pueri delicati (boy love slaves) play in erotic representation, but it also contributes to a kind of all-pervasive empathic identification with the sexual subjectivity of represented figures: the participants on the Warren cup are identified as “lovers” (p. 73) depicted in “a romantic, elevated manner” (p. 78) and the reader is encouraged to muse on the emotions of a male-female couple. (p. 204) This perspective, I think, has far more to do with modern viewership and notions of sexuality than with the ancient attitudes the author is trying to reconstruct. (p. 13)

Also informed by modern sensibilities are the many dichotomies in Clarke’s analytical framework that impose artificial divisions—between the couplings of the gods and of humans, between luxury and lust, and between the sexually arousing and the humorous—even though the representations themselves appear to belie these divisions. (pp. 13, 162) The author sees the ancient world as one of ideal “somatypes,” and this aesthetic exclusivity masks the fact that, for example, ithyphallic hunchback dwarfs could be not only objects of ridicule, but also objects of sexual desire. (See J. J. Winkler, Auctor and Actor, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, pp. 286-291.) Moreover, Clarke deals almost exclusively with scenes of human coupling (p. 13), regarding them as somehow separate from the rich range of phallic representation that pervaded Roman visual culture, even in elite households where the triumphant little akroterion-antefix phalli of Roman wall-painting are found in both public atria and more private cubicula. (For the complex play of phallic imagery in the Roman world, see my “The Phallus as Signifier . . .” in N. Kampen ed., Sexuality in Ancient Art, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 170-183; for the akroterion-antefix phalli: P. W. Lehmann, Roman Wall Paintings from Boscoreale, Cambridge, Mass.: Archaeological Institute of America, 1953, pp. 129-130, n. 204.) By considering only scenes of sexual interaction between humans, Clarke is able to posit a decorous “upper class norm” where sex scenes are a tasteful part of cubiculum decoration as they are in the villa beneath the Farnesina. When an erotic scene appears in the peristyle of a “non-elite” house, it is judged to be “displaced” from its correct context, and the pictures of intercourse in the corridor of the Lupinar are deemed “an upper-class fantasy.” (pp. 160, 202) This high-low model has long been a standard one in the field, and tends to reinscribe exactly the notions of propriety and hierarchy that the author is trying to call into question. (pp. 178-179; 275-279) Furthermore, his evidence for an upper-class norm is slight, for there is no evidence to support the traditional ascription of the villa beneath the Farnesina to Agrippa and Augustus’ daughter Julia; in fact, luxurious houses in Rome in the late Republic and early empire tended to be associated with wealthy freedmen and their descendants. (Plut. Pomp. 40.5; Ovid Fasti. 6.639f.) For too long we have assumed that expensive objects that seem elegant to us were necessarily made for the Roman ruling elite.

And this brings me to what I see as the aesthetic and conceptual centerpiece of Clarke’s argument: the Warren cup (recently purchased by the British Museum). This is an exquisite silver cup featuring a sex scene with two men on side A and one with a man and boy on side B. Although the piece has no provenance, there are parallels for the man and boy scene in Arretine ware and on the rare cameo glass Ortiz perfume flask. This is decidedly not the case for side A, however, which is a unique example of a sex scene featuring two men of the same age. Is this, as Clarke maintains, a piece that tells a different story from that of ancient literature, or one that represents an elite sexual fantasy? (pp. 85, 98) Perhaps, but I think the author owes it to his readers to let them know that it also represents a point at which the history of ancient erotic art and the history of modern homosexuality intersect in the person of its earliest known collector: Edward Perry Warren. (See S. L. Dyson, Ancient Marbles to American Shores, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998, pp. 136-139; D. Sox, Bachelors of Art, London: Fourth Estate, 1991, and on Warren and the Arretine forgeries: F. P. Porten Palange, “Fälschungen aus Arezzo: die gefälschten Arretinischen Punzen und Formen und ihre Geschichte,” Jahrbuch des Römisch-Germanischen Zentralmuseums Mainz 37.2 1990 pp. 523-652). A wealthy Bostonian who was educated at Harvard and Oxford, Warren was a passionate romantic phil-Hellene and a collector of ancient art who established a community of homosexual aesthetes at his home at Lewes House in Sussex. He fostered the early careers of Bernard Berenson and John Beazley and in 1895 became the purchasing agent for the ancient collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Between them, he and his partner, John Marshall, the antiquities purchasing agent for the Metropolitan Museum, were responsible for the acquisition of much of the best-known Greek and Roman art in this country, including the ever-controversial Boston Throne. Their particular proclivities as collectors were seemingly well known during their lifetimes, for thermoluminescence analysis has revealed that a whole series of Arretine ware pieces from their collections, decorated with erotic scenes and symposia, are modern forgeries. Significantly, Warren composed a three-volume lifework titled A Defence of Uranian Love, an ardent plea for the importance of man-boy love in which bodies have the beauty of Greek statues and boy-love is compared to what Warren dubs “Pausanian love”—love between adult men. That, of course, is exactly the comparison that the Warren cup features. Moreover, the representation of a boy voyeur in the unique man-to-man scene on side A of the cup finds a sole parallel on one of the forged Arretine molds now in the Metropolitan (08.258.37). The Warren cup may well have been a sexual fantasy for learned men, but I do not believe it is an ancient one.

Despite these reservations, however, I think John Clarke is to be applauded for bringing the art of sex in ancient Roman visual culture out of the “secret room” and into the arena of scholarly debate.

Barbara Kellum
Professor, Department of Art, Smith College