‘Erotic’ fresco of Leda and the Swan unearthed at Pompeii

Archaeologists have unearthed a sensual fresco depicting the Ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan on a bedroom wall in Pompeii.

'Erotic' fresco of Leda and the Swan unearthed at Pompeii
A newly discovered mural shows Leda having sex with a swan. Photo: Parco Archeologico di Pompei

While the story might not appeal to modern sensibilities, the legend that Leda, the beautiful queen of Sparta, was seduced – or raped, depending on how you see it – by the king of the gods disguised as a swan was apparently a titillating subject for Ancient Romans.

In an astonishingly well preserved fresco revealed to the public this week, the moment is depicted as a non-violent encounter: Leda reclines languidly, gazing directly at the viewer, as the swan perches between her parted legs.

The fresco was hidden under volcanic deposits. Photo: Parco Archeologico di Pompei

The coupling, which would result in the birth of Helen of Troy and thus the Trojan War and all its consequences (including, many centuries later, the founding of Rome by Trojan refugees), has inspired artists and poets throughout the ages. Michelangelo's strikingly sensual version, now lost but surviving in copies, is said to have drawn on Roman depictions similar to the one just discovered.

The mural was brought to light in a house along the Via del Vesuvio in the Regio V section of Pompeii, an area that has yielded some of the doomed city's most exciting new discoveries in decades since archaeologists began excavating it earlier this year.

One recent find, uncovered in the same house as the Leda fresco, showed the ancient fertility god Priapus weighing his oversized penis on a scale.

READ ALSO: Did the men of Pompeii have a penis problem?

The Priapus painting. Photo: Parco Archeologico di Pompei

Unlike the better preserved Leda fresco, however, the Priapus painting was placed in an entrance corridor, suggesting that it was intended as a public symbol of good fortune – Romans considered the phallus a kind of charm against the evil eye – rather than for personal enjoyment.

In contrast the depiction of Leda was painted on the wall of a cubiculum, a bedroom or private salon, indicating a more intimate purpose.

Pompeii's researchers are considering removing both frescoes and placing them in a museum where they can be better protected, the site's director Massimo Osanna told Ansa news agency.

It's not the first time erotica has been discovered among the ruins of Pompeii: the city's hoard of explicit statues, penis charms and graphic paintings of sex was famously considered so shocking by polite 19th-century society that it was for decades locked away in a “Secret Cabinet” of the Naples archaeological museum. 

As well as livening up private bedrooms, sex scenes also adorned the walls of brothels, where they were designed either to arouse clients or possibly to give them some instructions. The pictures were often accompanied by explicit graffiti advertising prostitutes' services and sometimes listing their price, serving as a kind of 'menu'.

READ ALSO: The grim reality of the brothels of Pompeii

Mural from a Pompeii brothel. Photo: David Blaikie/Flickr


Why Friday the 13th isn’t an unlucky date in Italy

Unlucky for some, but not for Italians. Here's why today's date isn't a cause for concern in Italy - but Friday the 17th is.

Why Friday the 13th isn't an unlucky date in Italy

When Friday the 13th rolls around, many of us from English-speaking countries might reconsider any risky plans. And it’s not exactly a popular date for weddings in much of the western world.

But if you’re in Italy, you don’t need to worry about it.

There’s no shortage of strongly-held superstitions in Italian culture, particularly in the south. But the idea of Friday the 13th being an inauspicious date is not among them.

Though the ‘unlucky 13’ concept is not unknown in Italy – likely thanks to the influence of American film and TV – here the number is in fact usually seen as good luck, if anything.

The number 17, however, is viewed with suspicion and Friday the 17th instead is seen as the unlucky date to beware of.

Just as some Western airlines avoid including the 13th row on planes, you might find number 17 omitted on Italian planes, street numbering, hotel floors, and so on – so even if you’re not the superstitious type, it’s handy to be aware of.

The reason for this is thought to be because in Roman numerals the number 17 (XVII) is an anagram of the Latin word VIXI, meaning ‘I have lived’: the use of the past tense apparently suggests death, and therefore bad luck. It’s less clear what’s so inauspicious about Friday.

So don’t be surprised if, next time Friday 17th rolls around, you notice some Italian shops and offices closed per scaramanzia’.

But why then does 13 often have a positive connotation in Italy instead?

You may not be too surprised to learn that it’s because of football.

Ever heard of Totocalcio? It’s a football pools betting system in which players long tried to predict the results of 13 different matches.

There were triumphant calls of ho fatto tredici! – ‘I’ve done thirteen’ – among those who got them all right. The popular expression soon became used in other contexts to mean ‘I hit the jackpot’ or ‘that was a stroke of luck!’

From 2004, the number of games included in Totocalcio rose to 14, but you may still hear winners shout ‘ho fatto tredici’ regardless.

Other common Italian superstitions include touching iron (not wood) for good luck, not toasting with water, and never pouring wine with your left hand.