Saturday, November 9, 2013

Caroline Vout's "Sex on Show"

Caroline Vout is Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ’s College. In 2008 she was awarded the prestigious Philip Leverhulme Prize for Art History. She is the author of Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome and Antinous: the Face of the Antique, which won the inaugural Art Book Award.

Vout applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome, and reported the following:
Page 99 is, appropriately, not words but image -- for 'reading' images is what Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome is all about. The picture captures what remains of an ancient brothel at Pompeii, an erotic painting above the door giving a glimpse of the kinds of things that happened on the stone bed inside. It is an unusual image as far as the book is concerned in pointing so directly to bedroom gymnastics. Why? Because most of its 200 pictures reveal less about the realities of Greek and Roman sex than about fantasies, anxieties, propriety… Many of these pictures (for example those of Athenian pots decorated with scenes of athletics, or statues in the shape of beautiful gods) offer subtler invitations to think about the temptations and constraints that affected ancient bodies. They show objects used in elite drinking parties or temples, some of them rediscovered by Hellenists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By understanding their visual mechanics, Sex on Show throws new light on ancient sex and gender, cultural identity, religion, as well as modern collecting practices.

A single page, with its atypical image, inevitably struggles to encapsulate the many aspects of our strange relationship with the ancients as seen through the lens of sex. But its failure to do so captures something of the flavour of the book’s subheading and the power not of sex but the erotic. Unlike the consummation that comes from sex, the erotic is always wanting. It is only apt that page 99 should offer but the merest, even potentially distorting taste of the whole, because desire is always veiled.
Learn more about Sex on Show at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue