Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Nov 2012

he Secret Room (il Gabinetto segreto)  (Greek & Roman pornography)

I once asked a tour guide at Pompeii to compare the apotropaic semiology*1 of Roman erotic art and similar erotica in the Indian Kama Sutra or the Northern European Sheela Na Gig. *2 He leered and said, "Pssst! Hey, pal, wanna see some dirty pictures?"

OK, that didn't happen. But it was close. I was at Pompeii with my wife and her father. The guide, with no prompting on my part, asked her father and me if we wanted to look at some "secret mosaics." He unlocked what looked like a medicine cabinet of the kind you find in home bathrooms. It was mounted flush against a small section of an ancient Roman wall covered with frescoes. The cabinet had no back, such that when you opened the front of the cabinet you saw a "secret" mosaic on the wall. In this case, the mosaic was of an ancient Roman happily grinning while weighing his genitalia on a hand-held scale. When my wife tried to sneak a peek, the guide closed the cabinet and said that "women are not allowed to view such things." My wife rolled her eyes the way women do when dealing with adult male children.

I was reminded of all this when I noted in the newspaper yesterday that the "Gabinetto segreto" at the National Archaeological museum has been reopened to the public. That is the room where various bits of ancient Greek and Roman erotic art are on display, from the mythological —a Roman copy of an original Greek statue by Heliodorus of Pan teaching Daphnis to play the panpipes, and the marble group of Pan copulating with a goat, found in 1752 in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum— to various explicit scenes of human sexual activity, sexually explicit symbols, inscriptions and even household items (such as phallic oil lamps). The collection includes paintings done to adorn brothels and special rooms of private houses. There are also small bronzes and personal phallic amulets, worn by men and women as protection against the evil eye and illnesses; there is a bronze Etruscan mirror with an engraved erotic scene and a series of small dwarves in stone with enormous phalluses in their hands, of Egyptian provenance and dating to the Ptolemaic period.

The History of the Collection at the entrance says this:
From Renaissance times, collections of "obscene" objects were considered a worthy feature of any collector's display of relics from antiquity. Sometimes they were kept under lock and key, or else— as in the "garden of Love in the Villa della Farnesina overlooking the Tiber—they were cunningly presented in a decorous context (e.g. Pan and Daphne: inv. 6327, in the Farnese collection).

Statues, items of jewelry, oil lamps and miniature paintings adorned with erotic subjects were prized by aristocratic collectors; they were a source of artistic inspiration (Mosaic with Pan and nymph: inv. 27708), literary erudition
—clarifying ancient authors' allusions to sexuality—or simple prurient curiosity.

The excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid-18th century brought to light a large amount of new material, revealing an aspect of the ancient world that caused no little embarrassment. Contemporary wisdom took the Roman Empire as the ethical paradigm for all subsequent governments. The two medium-sized towns that were being unearthed at the foot of Vesuvius had nothing in common in socio-economic terms, with those notorious "dens of iniquity" Capri and Baiae. Yet sex emerged in the Vesuvian towns as an important element of daily life, displayed not merely without false modesty, but with a candour and naturalness that caused consternation.

The most enlightened contemporary scholars set about serious study of these finds, but all too soon the reconstruction of the ancients' attitude to sexuality fell foul of Bourbon censorship. This was not simply a question of bigotry: the foreigners visiting Naples on the Grand Tour tended to indulge in ribaldry whenever the collection was mentioned, and their comments could be decidedly defamatory with respect to life and morals in the Kingdom of Naples. Thus the statue of Pan and the goat from the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum was simply locked away in a cupboard by restorer Canart, whereas in the Royal Museum of Portici the "Priapuses" were put in a separate room, Sala XVIII, requiring a special permit.

At time went by the censorship proved to be counter-productive, for it roused curiosity and resulted in the myth, which regrettably lingers on even today, of Pompeii as a dissolute and libertine place, "given over to the most sordid debauchery so that, like Sodom, it brought down divine punishment and was consumed by fire."

The collection was segregated once again during the Restoration: in 1819 the heir to the throne, who reigned as Francesco I from 1825 to 1830, visited the Museum with his wife Maria Isabella and daughter Luisa Carlotto. He was of the opinion that "it would be as well to confine all the obscene objects of whatever material in one room, the only people allowed to visit this room being of mature age and proven morality." Thus the Royal Bourbon Museum officially instituted the "Cabinet of obscene objects", originally to contain the "disreputable monuments of pagan licentiousness", but which later came to harbour even works from modern times such as Titian's "Danae".

In spite of its segregation, the fame of the collection grew throughout the 19th century, as we learn from the number of visitors' permits issued by the Ministry of the Interior. It was not long before these permits had to be printed to keep up with the demand, and needless to say there were complaints about delays, salacious witticisms and also ploys to circumvent the system. The way in which the collection was administered became a symbol of the cultural backwardness of the Bourbon regime, and both the revolutionaries of 1848 and Garibaldi's forces in 1860 pledged to reopen the Cabinet as an assertion of liberty.

Following the Unification of Italy the director of the Museum, Giuseppe Fiorelli, removed many of the objects from the Cabinet and reaffirmed the importance of the collection as a palaeo-anthropological record of sexuality. Indeed, in view of the fact that the purchases continued to be made, such as an ancient mosaic portraying pygmies bought in Rome in 1894, it was obviously intended as a national collection. At the same time, however, access was once again restricted, a state of affairs that continued throughout the first half of the 20th century and even following the Second World War. It was reopened in 1976, but then closed again to allow comprehensive restoration of the rooms. It was finally put on public view once more in April 2000, above all as a show-piece of museographical history.

The Gabinetto Segreto, in spite of the last sentence in the above bit of museum literature, has been closed more than it has been open in the last ten years, for whatever reason. It is, however, now, definitively open to the general public. The Secret Room is relatively small but packed with items; there are separate sections with explanations in Italian and English for Pre-Roman items, Decorations in Boudours and Brothels, Amulets and Miscellaneous Items, Paintings, Erotic Objects from the Borgia Collection (acquired in 1815), plus various phallic symbols decorating the walls. (For purposes of illustrating this entry and to protect your genteel sensitivities —not to mention my own— I have chosen the tamest and most delicately erotic items I could find. You may wish to take that into consideration before dragging the kids through this exhibit.)

[More on the Secret Room here.]

1. Just kidding.      ^back to text
2. Not kidding here. I assume you know about the Kama Sutra. The Sheela Na Gig are naked female figures on churches, walls, and towers, primarily in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. 
 ^ back to text

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