Secret Museum, Naples  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The term Secret Museum or Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) principally refers to the collection of erotic or sexually explicit finds from Pompeii and of the Farnese collection, held in separate galleries in the Naples National Archaeological Museum the former Museo Borbonico in Naples.

Throughout ancient Pompeii, erotic frescoes, depictions of the god Priapus, sexually explicit symbols, inscriptions, and even household items (such as phallic oil lamps) were found. Ancient Roman culture had no sense of a shameful nature for all sexuality, and viewed sexually explicit material very differently to most present-day cultures. Ideas about obscenity developed from the 18th century to the present day into a modern concept of pornography.

Although the excavation of Pompeii was initially an Enlightenment project, once artifacts were classified through a new method of taxonomy, those deemed obscene and unsuitable for the general public were termed pornography and in 1819 they were locked away in a Secret Museum. These even included the un-explicit statue Venus Kallipygos, only erotic to 18th and 19th century eyes due to her partial nudity and the exposure of her eponymous "beautiful buttocks". For good measure, the doorway was bricked up in 1849 (Garcia y Garcia et al 2001). At Pompeii, locked metal cabinets were constructed over erotic frescos, which could be shown, for a modest additional fee, to gentlemen but not to ladies. This peep show was still in operation at Pompeii in the 1960s (Hare 2003). The cabinet was only accessible to "people of mature age and respected morals", which in practice meant only educated males. The catalogue of the secret museum was also a form of censorship, where engravings and descriptive texts played down the content of the room.

The excavation of Pompeii was important to a range of powerful, and often conflicting, interests who saw the discovery of Pompeii as validating their own view of history, but at the same time excluded anything that did not fit the preferred model. Later Mussolini saw the excavation of Pompeii as validating the continuity of a Nova Roma. The presence of sexually explicit material, however, was problematic.

Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly a hundred years, the secret room was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s before being finally re-opened in the year 2000. Since 2005, the collection is kept in a separate room in the Naples National Archaeological Museum. A sign on the door warns the public of its contents, and an extra ticket is required.

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The essential nineteenth-century publication was L. Barre, Herculanum et Pompei: Recueil general des peintures, bronzes, mosaiques, etc. . . ., vol. 8, Musee secret (Paris: Didot, 1840), though it was not a comprehensive publication of the phallica and erotica retrieved from the buried cities and surrounding territory since the mid 1700s (see G. Fiorelli, Catalogo del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, Raccolta pornografica [Naples, 1866], and Jules Lacour, Le musee secret de Naples, et le culte des organes generateurs [Brussels, 1914]). An unauthorized publication was equally influential: M[onsieur] C[esar] F[amin], Peintures, bronzes et statues erotiques, formant la collection du cabinet secret du Musee Royal de Naples (Paris, 1832, new ed., 1836/1857); Colonel Fanin [sic], The Royal Museum at Naples . . .”Cabinet Secret”, trans. John Campbell Hotten (London: Hotten, 1871). Important twentieth-century scholarly discussions of the material (now widely published) include Hans Licht [i.e., Paul Brandt], Sittgengeschichte Griechenlands, supplementary vol., Die Erotik in der griechischen Kunst (Zurich: Paul Aretz & Co. Verlag, 1928), and Jean Marcade, Roma Amor: Essay on Erotic Elements in Etruscan and Roman Art (Geneva and Paris: Nagel, 1961). For Winckelmann’s remarks on eighteenth-century replications of ancient erotic frescoes, see his Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen (Dresden, 1762), 31-32, 39-40. --Whitney Davis, Wax Tokens of Libido

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