In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still only allowed entry to the once secret cabinet in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
Bronze wind chimes of "phallus-animals" were common household items. Note the child on one of the wind chimes -- the large phallus (whether on Pan, Priapus or a similar deity, or on its own) was not seen as threatening or erotic, but as a fertility symbol.
The second image, from Schefold, Karl: Vergessenes Pompeji: Unveröffentlichte Bilder römischer Wanddekorationen in geschichtlicher Folge. München 1962., with its much more brilliant colors, has been used to retouch the younger, higher resolution image.
It is unclear whether the images on the walls were advertisements for the services offered or merely intended to heighten the pleasure of the visitors. As previously mentioned, some of the paintings and frescoes became immediately famous because they represented erotic, sometimes explicit, sexual scenes. One of the most curious buildings recovered was in fact a Lupanare (brothel), which had many erotic paintings and graffiti inside. The erotic paintings seem to present an idealised vision of sex at odds with the reality of the function of the lupanare. The Lupanare had 10 rooms (cubicula, 5 per floor), a balcony, and a latrina. It was one of the larger houses, perhaps the largest, but not the only brothel. The town seems to have been oriented to a warm consideration of sensual matters: on a wall of the Basilica (sort of a civil tribunal, thus frequented by many Roman tourists and travelers), an immortal inscription tells the foreigner, If anyone is looking for some tender love in this town, keep in mind that here all the girls are very friendly (loose translation). Other inscriptions reveal some pricing information for various services: Athenais 2 As, Sabina 2 As (CIL IV, 4150), The house slave Logas, 8 As (CIL IV, 5203) or Maritimus licks your vulva for 4 As. He is ready to serve virgins as well. (CIL IV, 8940). The amounts vary from one to two As up to several Sesterces. In the lower price range the service was not more expensive than a loaf of bread. Prostitution was relatively inexpensive for the Roman male but it is important to note that even a low priced prostitute earned more than three times the wages of an unskilled urban laborer. However, it was unlikely a freed woman would enter the profession in hopes for wealth because most women declined in their economic status and standard of living due to demands on their appearance as well as their health. Prostitution was overwhelmingly an urban creation. Within the brothel it is said prostitutes worked in a small room usually with an entrance marked by a patchwork curtain. Sometimes the woman's name and price would be placed above her door. Sex was generally the cheapest in Pompeii, compared to other parts of the Empire. Although an estimation of price is difficult to guess, one should suspect the prostitute's age, appearance, and skill level would play a part in the price. All services were paid for with cash.
These pictures were found in a changing room at one side of the newly excavated Suburban Baths in the early 1990s. The function of these pictures is not yet clear: some authors say that they indicate that the services of prostitutes were available on the upper floor of the bathhouse and could perhaps be a sort of advertising, while others prefer the hypothesis that their only purpose was to decorate the walls with joyful scenes (as these were in Roman culture). The most widely accepted theory, that of the original archaeologist, Luciana Jacobelli, is that they served as reminders of where one had left one's clothes. The Thermae were, however, used in common by males and females, although baths in other areas (even within Pompeii) were often segregated by sex.
Collected below are high quality images of erotic frescoes, mosaics, statues and other objects from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The mural of Venus from Pompeii was never seen by Botticelli, the painter of The Birth of Venus, but may have been a Roman copy of the then famous painting by Apelles which Lucian mentioned. In classical antiquity, the sea shell was a metaphor for a woman's vulva.