About a week ago I came across a post on Twitter of some phallic images that were produced in the eighteenth century in France. They immediately reminded me of the many anthropomorphised phalli that have been recovered from the ancient Vesuvian sites, and that got me to thinking about their use in French political propaganda, but also about the influence the artefacts of genitalia from Pompeii and Herculaneum had on the illustrators responsible for the images.
Small pamphlets known as libelles were used to spread rumour and invective against Marie Antoinette in the lead up to the French Revolution. From the mid 1780s onwards, these increasingly contained implications and accusations of her sexual misconduct, whether it be lesbian relationships or affairs with political supporters and members of the court. Regardless of whether or not any of these accusations were true was beside the point: the aim was to degrade the queen, her associates, and other members of the French aristocracy.
One particular means of depicting the perceived immoral nature of Marie Antoinette was via a phallic ostrich. The ostrich was thought to be a reference to her Austrian background, as the French words were similar (autrichienne f. / autruche). The cartoon below depicts her sometimes political supporter, the Marquis de La Fayette, riding the phallic bird with the queen in attendance.
More explicit examples of this type include a similar depiction of a man (in this case, unidentified) riding a phallic ostrich, only this time Marie Antoinette is exposing her lower half, as if awaiting penetration.
These avian sex organs are, of course, not at all that dissimilar from the bronze winged phalli that were used as tintinnabulum in the ancient Roman world. The difference, however, is that where the eighteenth century cartoons were meant to demean the French queen and were circulated in an effort to destory her and supporters of the monarchy, the Pompeian versions were apotropaic in nature, and meant to provoke laughter, offering protection from the evil eye or other nefarious spirits.
The same comparison could be made to cartoons of the queen in the middle of sexual acts. These illustrations often depicted lesbian or multi-person encounters, not for titilation or the purposes of erotica, but again, to demonstrate the licentious and undesierable behaviour of the monarch. Here, she is depicted with one of her (supposed) lesbian lovers as well as another man.
Whilst normalised sex acts (i.e. a heterosexual couple) were often depicted in the ancient world in wall paintings, or on objects such as lamps, mirrors, and vases in an allusion to intercourse, the more (for lack of a better term) deviant acts were also apotropaic. These could include reversals such as men performing cunnilingus, women acting as the aggressor, or multiple participants. Meant to provoke laughter and titilate in a non-sexual, but rather protection inducing manner, images such as the one below are found in locations such as the changing rooms of the Suburban Baths. This foursome (two men, two women) includes both hetero- and homo- acts simutaneously taking place. It is not erotic or derogatory; it is (to the Roman viewer) ridiculous.
Of course, what I find most compelling about these is the similarity between the French cartoons and the so-called erotica of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The initial exploration of Herculaneum via that now infamouus well shaft begain in 1709 – long before the first libelles appeared denouncing Marie Antoinette. Statuary and other objects were already being circulated by the nobility of Europe when Charles VII, the Bourbon king, took possession of the area in 1738. Although there were restrictions on recording or publishing any of the finds from the Vesuvian sites (except, of course, officially and produced as a gift of the king) most visitors endeavoured to contravene this embargo. A group of French nobles, begining in 1750, began a campagin of what they deemed ‘conscious archaeological espionage’ in order to view and record as much of what they saw as possible. The group was led by the Marquis de Marigny, who was travelling in Italy before he took up an appointment as the director general of the royal academy of the arts in Paris. With him was one Jerome-Charles Bellicard, an architect and engraver who had previously worked for Giovanni Piranesi in Rome. They would visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the royal museum at Portici by day, and spend the nights recording their observations. One of Bellicard’s notebooks from these evenings of work survives today, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Initially, short pamphlets and various images were published, but in 1753, the group simultaneously published a three volume set of books in both French and English: Observations upon the antiquities of the town of Herculaneum discovered at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Although none of the more phallic centred images of the ancient cities were reproduced in this work, I find it difficult to believe that drawings of those items weren’t also winging their way out of the protection of the court at Portici. After all, it was only about a decade after Marie Antoinette’s death that the practice of hiding away so-called pornographic objects began when a director of the museum, Michele Arditi, moved more than one hundred objects into the collection of the Gabinetto Segreto. In view of this, the visual similarities between the French cartoons and the phalli of Pompeii seem more than mere coincidence. In other words, the authors of French political satire were not as creative – or indeed as original – as they would appear. Wherever you go in time or place – ancient Pompeii or revolutionary France – dick jokes remain.