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Pompeii's Subterranean Spa Expected to Become Popular Tourist Attraction - 2002-01-20

The ancient Roman baths in Pompeii, along with a series of recently discovered erotic frescoes, opened to the public for the first time Saturday (January 19). Officials expect that it will become a popular tourist destination. The ancient thermal baths were discovered in the 1950s while the erotic frescoes only surfaced fifteen years ago as archaeologists were carrying out excavations at the site.

The ancient public spa was built in the first century A.D. just off the Porta Marina, the gate to the harbor of Pompeii. For centuries, it has been preserved and hidden from view by tons of volcanic ash that once covered the city. Even today, two-fifths of the ancient city still remains buried.

Now, groups of 20 to 25 visitors at a time will be allowed to visit the large complex, entering through what used to be the changing room. That is where eight colorful frescoes showing scenes of lively sexual activity were discovered in the mid-1980s.

Each fresco is numbered and each number corresponds to a picture of a box drawn beneath it.

Archaeologists believe the erotic paintings served as a kind of memory aid for customers of the baths. Professor Eva Cantarella, who has written extensively about ancient sexuality, explains. "You enter, and you enter in a room, the first room, which was the room where people would undress, put their dresses in boxes," she said. "There were boxes made in wood. They were painted with an erotic scene. So, the people who would put the dresses in the box would remember both the number and the erotic scene."

The scenes, painted in bright gold, green and dark red, were taken from books, which were fashionable at the time. Professor Cantarella says they can be considered a sort of Mediterranean Kamasutra, the Hindu love manual written in the Eighth Century. The explicit drawings of various sexual acts have led to a debate among archaeologists in Pompeii on whether the Subterranean Spa was also used as a brothel.

Pompeii's superintendent, Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo believes this was the case because the erotic frescoes discovered in the spa are similar to those found in the only known ancient brothel, also located in Pompeii, which was buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. From ancient writers, Professor Guzzo said, we know that prostitution activities flourished in the spas of Pompeii.

But Professor Eva Cantarella disagrees. She said Romans spent their afternoons at the baths to relax and discuss business. They did not go there, she says, for sex.

Supporting her argument is the fact that there were no cubicles in the Subterranean Spa where time could be spent alone with prostitutes. So, she is convinced there is nothing to indicate that it was also a brothel. "The fact that in a place there are erotic paintings doesn't mean anything; it doesn't mean that this is a place designed for sex because the Romans were Pagans so they didn't have the taboos we have," she said. "And so sex was something sometimes very joyful and you could joke around it and sometimes you would find erotic paintings even in the bedroom of a very normal and well-to-do couple."

The ancient baths, buried under volcanic ash nearly 2000 years ago, were found to be in good condition. They were not shown to the public before because they were undergoing restoration. And the restoration, stresses Professor Guzzo, took time. He said the restoration was carried out in two phases, the first in the 1980s and then the restoration work was completed for the frescoes and stuccoes in 2001.

Now, the ancient baths, erotic frescoes, elaborate mosaics and intact stucco ceiling can be admired in all their splendor.

Apart from the changing room, the ancient baths included a cold-water pool with a waterfall, three hot rooms - the tepidarium, the laconium and the caldarium - where the water increased in temperature, and a large outdoor swimming pool surrounded by cypress trees.

Visitors will be required to book their visit in advance to the Pompeii's Subterranean Spa, which is expected to become a very popular tourist attraction.