"It's like a menu," the tour guides like to say, before going into detailed descriptions of the lewd frescoes plastered all over the walls. As if the descriptions are needed. The wide variety of creative sexual positions is clear for all to see. "And look here, Lewinsky style " -- nervous tittering from the American tour group.
But tour guides at Pompeii -- the city buried by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD -- are likewise feeling a bit more jovial these days. After all, one of the main attractions is open again. As of late last week, tourists could once again tromp through the Lupanare, the ancient city's colorful whorehouse.
The renovation of the two-story building took more than a year and cost €200,000 ($254,000). The result is a rebirth for the colorful frescoes, murals and explicit sexual images which can now be seen in all their former splendor. The Lupanare, in other words, will soon be what it was before the renovation work started: one of the most frequently visited locations in a city full of fascinating sites.
A prostitute sits on top of a customer; a tanned Roman approaches a pale nude; two men kneel behind a bent over woman. But as risqué as the murals seem today, they may have served a purpose -- that of advertising the services on offer in the Lupanare. It was excavated in 1862 and consists of a two-story building with five rooms and a latrine on each floor. The rooms are outfitted with stone beds once covered by mattresses. The upper floor was more luxuriously equipped and probably reserved for wealthier customers -- and each of the rooms has names engraved in the walls, perhaps those of prostitutes and their johns.
Behind the enticing imagery, a drab profession
"The legend that Pompeii was a lascivious city is true -- and not true," chief Pompeii archaeologist Pietro Giovanni Guzzo told AP. "There was ample opportunity for sexual relations, but the prostitute in the technical sense was confined to one place."
In other words, taking the revealing frescoes in the Lupanare to be a representation of everyday life in Pompeii would be about as naïve as mistaking contemporary pornography for the real thing. In both cases, what is really shown is an idealized version of sex. Indeed, the daily drudgery performed by the Lupanare's prostitutes was likely far less exciting than the sensuous murals suggest. Those murals were essentially ads, placed eye-catchingly above the portals of the single rooms.
The windowless chambers where the prostitutes worked were separated from the anteroom only by curtains. Archaeologists discovered marks on the stone blocks that indicate customers didn't even remove their sandals during sex.
"The Lupanare is a kind of ancient counterpart to the sex shops in today's train stations and city centers -- a place whose straightforward, functional architecture is anything but inviting. In fact, this place where people went in search of pleasure was probably profoundly joyless." That's how an article in the German archaeology journal Abenteuer Archäologie sums up what scientists know about the brothel. "The cramped and uncomfortable chambers, stuffy and blackened by soot from candles, couldn't have offered any very cultivated form of pleasure," according to the article.
Two loafs of bread
The Lupanare was certainly no luxury brothel, contrary to what is often deduced from the frescoes. The discoveries archaeologists have made suggest business here was rapid and not especially relaxed. Customers scrawled notes on the walls of the building -- which has helped archaeologists work out what the prices were. In Pompeii, prostitutes often offered their services for little more than the equivalent of two loaves of bread or half a liter of wine. The money was pocketed by the brothel's owner.
And so the Lupanare -- a word derived from lupa, a word meaning female wolf but which also was slang for prostitute -- offers a glimpse of economic reality in Pompeii and many other Roman cities during the first century after the birth of Christ. Prostitution was widely accepted and wasn't considered adultery, which was a punishable crime. People with a low income and even slaves with just a little bit of pocket money could afford a visit to the brothel.
Pompeii's prostitutes were mainly slaves of Greek or Oriental origin. But that's only one reason why they were available so cheaply. Former slaves often continued to work in the sex trade. They hadn't been trained in any other profession, and so they often had no real alternative. And not all women who worked as prostitutes were slaves. Customers had all sorts of women to choose from, and this may have helped to keep prices low.
The renovation was the first since 1949 and was meant to patch leaks and to brighten up the frescoes which had turned yellow and partially faded. The building has been restored several times since being unearthed in 1862 -- after 1,600 years of being buried in the volcanic ash of Mt. Vesuvius.