In the 19th century, visitors to the grand museums of Europe often had their own private agenda. What they really wanted to see were the so-called Secret Cabinets.
The first and most notorious of these was the Gabinetto Segreto in the museum of Naples, where the raunchy images from the ancient Roman era, unearthed from the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, had been kept under lock and key since 1819. That year was when the heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future King Francesco I, had dropped by on a casual visit with his wife and daughter and was affronted by the graphic images of pagan fornication, which had once decorated the houses of even the most noble Romans. There were phallic lampshades and amulets. There was a statue of the satyr Pan, having his way with a she-goat. The lusty god Priapus was depicted pushing his own massive member along on a wheelbarrow. The heroine Europa was being ravaged by Zeus in the form of a bull. And there were vivid frescos from the walls of ancient Roman brothels, where Roman prostitutes advertised their particular carnal skills. Prince Francesco stormed out in disgust, covering the eyes of his blushing daughter.
From that date on, only “mature” gentlemen of “well-known moral standing” were permitted to enter the room – which, not surprisingly, took on a legendary status. Visitors from all over Italy arrived with spurious letters of introduction. Foreign travelers flocked to Naples on their Grand Tours and simply paid off the guards. It was a turning point in cultural censorship. As the conservative Victorian era progressed, the British Museum, the Louvre, and museums in Florence, Madrid and Dresden established their own secret cabinets full of sinful treats, where citizens “of the right sort” could appreciate all that had been culled from the boudoirs of history.
The London version, known as the Secretum, was locked up in Cupboard 55 of the Department of Medieval and Late Antiquities and became particularly famous amongst connoisseurs for its eclectic range. The core of the collection, donated in 1865 by a British doctor-turned-banker named George Witt, was some 700 phallic objects found in ancient Assyria, Egypt, and the classical world. (Dr. Witt, an obsessive amateur scholar and former mayor of Bedford, espoused the theory that all great world religions began with phallus worship). This was supplemented by a lewd instrument from a medieval nunnery known as “St. Cosmos’ big toe,” cutting-edge Renaissance porn (including the only extant copy of I Modi and a banned Italian masterwork called the “Sixteen Positions”) and erotic curios from every corner of the Empire, with particular emphasis on India and the Far East.
Today, the Secret Cabinets have been pried open for the wider public, although they have not been entirely disbanded. In the 1930s, the British Museum began diffusing the Secretum amongst its other collections, but around 300 exotic objects from the old Cupboard 55 are still kept separate in the Department of Prehistory and Europe (some curators argue that the collection should be preserved as a “time capsule” of Victorian taste). And in 2000, the Museo Nazionale in Naples begrudgingly allowed adult women into the Gabinetto Segreto by appointment, although under-18s are still forbidden. The room remains by far the most popular destination in that sprawling institution.
Clearly, our deep-rooted fascination with the carnal elements of history shows no signs of abating. In recent years, armies of scholars have applied themselves to exposing the minutia of sexual customs throughout the ages, with whole shelves of books now devoted to the history of fellatio or medieval homosexuality, and lurid exposés on the sex lives of everyone from Joan of Arc to Martha Washington. In certain academic circles, the only lesbian nun ever found in Renaissance Italy is more famous than Paris Hilton.
This sex craze has been denounced by some as trivializing history. I strongly disagree. To enter the past in our imaginations, we need some common ground – and what better place to start than with mankind’s eternal drives, our lusts, as well as our lechery and depravity? When it comes to sex, even the most apparently trivial question can open a doorway into the past and raise questions that are surprisingly profound. •
SOURCES/FURTHER READING: Gaimster, David, “Sex and Sensibility at the Art Museum,” History Today, 50 (9), September, 2000, 10-15; Kendrick, Walter, The Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture, (Berkeley, 1996); Johns, Catherine, Sex or Symbol: Erotic Images in Greece and Rome, British Museum Press, 1982.