Today it is tempting to view the sculpture as a piece of vile erotica – but I’m not so sure. The Villa of the Papyri also contained a library full of hundreds of scrolls, suggesting that the man who owned the sculpture was sophisticated and well-read.
Perhaps he was also a provocative pervert who enjoyed scandalising his guests. But even a cursory acquaintance with the Roman world suggests that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Today some people decorate their gardens with gnomes. The Romans preferred sexier, gutsier, more bloodthirsty subjects. Elsewhere in the British Museum’s exhibition, we encounter two sublime marble sculptures depicting tense stags hollering with fear as they are overcome by snarling hunting dogs. The hounds gnash at the ears of their prey, using their claws to gouge deep into flesh.
These sculptures aren’t lewd, but they are extraordinarily violent. While we can appreciate the way in which the sculptor arranged a chaotic subject into coherent forms, they still seem like strange choices for garden ornaments, by our standards. So does a nearby marble statuette of a pot-bellied Hercules, clearly the worse for wear following a drunken banquet, about to take a pee.Natural stone
But the Romans couldn’t get enough of this sort of stuff. One of my favourite Roman sculptures is the Hanging Marsyas. This presents the bearded satyr, Marsyas, bound to a tree. He is about to be flayed alive as punishment for challenging the lyre-playing god Apollo to a musical contest (inevitably, he lost). Several sculptures depicting this scene have survived, including a handful carved from purple-veined marble, which offers a grisly sense of the bloody flesh about to be revealed by the torturer’s knife.nu skin
It is a similar story with the famous Laocoon, that tangle of thrusting limbs, lightning-quick sea serpents and agonised expressions that has haunted the Western imagination ever since it was discovered in Rome and deposited in the Belvedere courtyard of the Vatican by Pope Julius II in 1506. This moving marble sculpture of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons struggling to escape from the coils of their fate, forever frozen in the throes of anguish, has inspired countless artists and writers, from Michelangelo to Dickens.
It puzzles me that the Romans, who valued integrity and gravitas, were so obsessed with gore. After all, their gladiatorial games and spectacles in the arena involving wild beasts and condemned criminals were nothing but a form of ritualised human sacrifice. Ancient Rome was a curious mixture of civilisation and barbarism.usb dac