Erotic artworks so explicit as to be embarrassing – at least to the chaste eyes of visitors to the 19th century from 1748 and also continued through the various political vicissitudes of the following century, such as the short-lived bracket of the Neapolitan Republic and the short reign by the French Joachim Murat.
In 1816, Ferdinand von Bourbon founded the “Royal Bourbon Museum” (now the National Archaeological Museum of Naples) by merging various art collections, which also houses the finds from Herculaneum and Pompeii that had been kept in the Royal Palace of Portici until then. Whoever is responsible for the exhibition of the “obscene things” already suggests in this first arrangement that they be assembled in a reserved room, as has actually been done since 1794 at the behest of the court painter and artistic advisor Philipp Hackert.
He also recommends in the future Real Museo under construction “Some free spaces for keeping priapism and other things, so it requires a specific broadcast to watch.”
The painter’s advice was not followed at first, at least until 1819, when the heir to the throne Francis I, accompanied by his wife Maria Isabella of Bourbon Spain and his nine-year-old daughter Luisa Carlotta, was literally terrified that the sight of these artifacts of erotic art is considered scandalous, because they are really too explicit, not only for the reserved girls and married women, but for all visitors in general.
It is necessary to take care to preserve the seriousness of the Bourbons and the museum itself, avoiding both unnecessary embarrassment for those who find themselves in front of such filth and the sarcasm of some European visitors who do not hesitate Do not draw parallels between the freedom of the Pompeians and that of the Neapolitans of the time.
Francis I admonishes (speak: commands) a “Lock up in one room all obscene objects, of whatever material; to which space only persons of mature age and known morality could have access”: And that’s how it happened Secret cabinet with obscene objects, then renamed of confidential itemswhere, according to a first inventory issued by the director at the time, one hundred and two “notorious monuments of the Gentilesca license” are initially collected.
In the years that followed, the fury of censorship meant that all works of art, not just Pompeian, considered “obscene”, i.e. the nude Venus, such as the Venus Callipygia, of the Farnese collection were also hidden from the public.
Over the years, the Secret Cabinet continues to arouse the curiosity of many visitors, including foreigners, such as the young European nobility involved in the Grand Tour, and the outrage of those who become champions of morality, like these very concerned Priest (whose name is known) asking the king to destroy all the works contained in the cabinet:
This room is hell, it corrupts the morals of the most chaste, religious and holy people
It’s almost as if he’s speaking from personal experience…
In fact – one sometimes sees how politics manipulates art and history – after the revolutionary uprisings of 1848 (the “spring of the peoples” ended anyway, at least in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with a return to the status quo), the Bourbons see in the ” infamous monuments”, expression of a much more uninhibited sexuality than at that time, almost a parallel to the people’s longing for greater freedom, and so in 1851 the secret cabinet is walled up so that “it would scatter memory as much as possible”.
Legend has it that Giuseppe Garibaldi, when he arrived in Naples in 1860, ordered the immediate “liberation” of the Secret Cabinet with a great crash of the ruined walls. In reality, the story is a bit simpler: if it’s true that the general orders the collection to be reopened to the public (except for children and members of the clergy without permission), it’s also true that he’s not there before one wall, but just a gate with three locks, the keys of which are kept by three different agents. One of the keys is not found and so Garibaldi orders the doors to be “broken down”.
However, the “liberation” did not last long. After the unification of Italy, the new rulers, the Savoy, also showed a keen sense of modesty, and the museum returned to seek permission from the superintendent to access the cabinet. At least until 1901, when a zealous Ettore Pais, the new director of the museum, managed to ban all visits unless there was a proven need to study.
And if an important historian of antiquities like Pais had judged the Pompeian erotic collection to be scientifically uninteresting, the fascist era went even further.
These finds reveal an aspect of ancient Rome, permissive and vicious, that the fascists certainly dislike to construct their myth, so much so that during the twenty-year visit to the Secret Cabinet requires a permit personally signed by the Minister National Education is required (which also closes the Pompeii brothel to the public).
To be honest, nothing changed after 1945, despite the public’s curiosity about this collection, which in the minds of many had to reveal who knows what disturbing erotic experiences.
Even in 1954, faced with the Italian malpractice of arriving through back streets (tipping the wardens) where this is not legally possible, the museum management must remember that “it is strictly forbidden for custodians to call attention to or report the presence of the cabinet […]the collection can only be visited by scientifically qualified adults of both sexes and in any case by serious-looking adults“.
Almost twenty years had to pass before the Secret Cabinet and the brothel of Pompeii could finally be visited freely in 1971, except for minors.
But the vicissitudes of this collection do not end here: a few years after its reopening, the museum has to close again for renovation works, until the definitive reopening (only children under 14 must be accompanied), which took place with the beginning of the new millennium and, so we hope, with a better awareness of the importance of this erotic thematic collection, which, despite the difficulty of separating the finds from their original context, will help broaden our perspective on the history of Roman sexuality, which does not mean looking out of the keyhole to see, but to understand how and to what extent this was part of everyday life, combined with a religiosity steeped in superstition and apotropaic rites.
Here the depiction of the god Priapus (his cult comes from Greece) with an exaggeratedly oversized phallus can be explained by his function as the deity responsible for the fertility of plants and animals, especially in the Roman world. The physical quality of the deity also performs a superstitious function against the evil eye, and for this reason an image of Priapus (or simply an erect penis) was often placed at the entrance to Pompeian houses.
The Tinker Walkers, equipped with ghost-catching bells that hang on the doors of houses and shops, have the same function, always as a prevention against evil eye and bad luck. However, they also try, at least in the case of the titinnambulum in the form of a gladiator, to evoke laughter by showing the man fighting with his own penis with the menacing aspect of a panther.
The frescoes with erotic themes, as well as other objects that adorned the homes and gardens of the Pompeian nobility, often refer to mythological figures such as Leda and Zeus, Polyphemus and Galatea or the Hermaphrodite and the Satyr: they are therefore artistic expressions, telling stories from the Greek -Roman culture, in which sexuality was represented without too much inhibition.
The frescoes found in the Lupanari, on the other hand, are of modest artistic value, where the different positions of the clutch were represented for purely commercial purposes. There is also no shortage of caricature scenes, such as that showing pygmies mating on a boat on the Nile, or that of the god Pan, seized by the desires of a sleeping woman, discovering that he is a hermaphrodite and attempting to mate escape because it is sterile.
In summary, thanks to the Secret Cabinet collection, you can learn about many sides of Roman sexuality: religious beliefs and related superstitious/apotropaic aspects, mythological depictions, mere commercial pornography, poetic depiction of amorous encounters, and some other objects that still exist sind has no explanation with our standard confirming that the past cannot always be interpreted or judged, let alone censored.