When I first visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, as a young and deeply closeted queer college student, I found myself wondering if the museum possessed ancient Greek vases decorated with anything other than sex scenes. I saw acts and combinations I hadn’t thought were possible in the modern world, much less the ancient one. Discomfited but intrigued, I came a little closer to realizing what type of life it was that I wanted to lead.
In other words, I had precisely the experience that Edward Perry Warren wanted me to have. A wealthy Bostonian and early gay rights advocate, Warren purchased these spicy drinking cups, wine jugs, and perfume flasks on behalf of the museum or donated them to it between 1885-1910, endowing the museum with one of the world’s finest collections of ancient erotica.
Most of these artifacts were locked away in storage for decades or, if put on display, neutered with paint. It was not until 1965 that Warren’s donations finally went on proud, uncensored display. The classicist Emily Vermeule, writing in 1969, approvingly noted that “the delicacy of earlier generations has been replaced by a studier capacity to enjoy original works of art without intervention by extraneous ethical views.”
But it seems that delicacy has once again intervened in the museum’s galleries of the arts of ancient Greece and Rome, which reopened on Dec. 18. Five of the galleries have been “freshly imagined,” and the others have seen at least a few changes. If you visit today, you will still see plenty of ancient genitals, but, in a dramatic change to what had been true before, you will see only one depiction of genitals in use. In the round space of the bottom of a wine cup painted by the artist Douris in around 480 BCE, a man penetrates a woman from behind. As she braces herself on a stool, letters spelling out “hold still!” spill out of her partner’s mouth.
One of the collection’s most famous erotic scenes is still on view: a large bowl for mixing wine with a scene of the goat-headed god Pan chasing after a young shepherd. Before 1965, strategically applied paint erased Pan’s impressive erection. The paint was removed, but the current rearrangement of the display has positioned the vase so that the other side faces visitors. To see Pan, you must squeeze around the back.
I don’t think every single erotic object Warren collected needs to be on display; some, especially those involving always acrobatic satyrs, are fairly strange. But Warren was right that visitors should see queer desire in the galleries. Yet, other than Pan, not a trace of it now remains on display, despite the museum’s rich holdings of images of queer attraction, flirtation, and consummation.