A giant marble phallus. An ancient brothel. A seductive statue of Eros and Psyche exchanging a passionate kiss. This is the untold story of love in antiquity, revealed in a stirring, spine-tingling exhibition in Athens.
Dedicated to Eros – the winged and whimsical god whom ancient Greeks adored for aeons – the exhibition takes an unabashed look at an attitude to love and lust. It might have set many modern Greeks blushing, but the show's startling success in its opening month has the Louvre yearning to bring it to Paris, city of love.
Organisers say they are considering the offer, but it would mean having to cut short the Athens show, which has proved to be a popular addition to the tourist trail since it opened at the Museum of Cycladic Art last month.
"We want to show the sweeping scope of love in ancient times," said Nicholaos Stampolidis, the museum's director. "But for this to happen, visitors must have their eyes and minds wide open."
With its 272 artefacts that span a millennium from the sixth century BC to early Christianity, it is the first major exhibition on this theme. Organisers spent three years researching and surveying items before convincing 50 other museums to collaborate.
"It's easy to read and write about love," Mr Stampolidis noted. "But it is extremely difficult to convey love through art, and the project, altogether, was a challenge."
From phallic-shaped lamps, vases and urns depicting men and women gnarled in sexual scenes, to a 2,500-year-old love note and the incised text of a jilted lover's curse, the display documents the changing perceptions of Eros from the 8th century BC when ancient Greeks idolised him as an omnipotent god, to Roman times, when – less potent and renamed to Cupid – he became a mere companion of Venus.
The show is divided into nine sections ranging from the birth of Eros, his upbringing by Aphrodite, the status of women in ancient society, and love in religion and marriage.
The crowd-puller, though, is the second floor. There, visitors face up to the bold and bawdy attitude that the ancient Greeks and Romans had towards homosexuality, prostitution and even bestiality – or, to use the organisers' euphemism, "bucolic love affairs". "Our ancestors were hardly hypocritical prudes," Mr Stampolidis said. "They were very tolerant; their society was one of openness and lack of guilt."
Indeed, in room after room, viewers gaze at a cornucopia of vases, charms and trinkets depicting graphic scenes of erotic play between an unimaginable combination of partners in unthinkable positions. Tucked away in the inner sanctum, the exhibit also hosts a life-size recreation of an ochre-coloured Roman brothel unearthed in Pompei, Italy.
The exhibition is open to schools and children, although a discreet sign leading to the second-floor advises parents to accompany children under 16. "This doesn't mean that the particular section is barred," Mr Stampolidis said. "It's just best to have a teacher, parent or curator along to answer questions appropriately, allowing no room for any misinterpretation."
Taking the exhibition to Paris would require an major alteration in the existing loan agreement with the other museums, however. "No items of antiquity can be absent from their museum for more than six months," Mr Stampolidis explained. "That would mean, cutting this show short and taking the show to the Louvre for less than a month. It would be very, very hard to pull off such a feat."
Eros: From Hesiod's Theogeny to Late Antiquity is on show at Athens' Museum of Cycladic Art until 5 April