The Secret Museum (cabinet) open to the public at the British Museum.
The term Secret Museum or Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) principally refers to the collection of erotic or sexually explicit finds from Pompeii, held in separate galleries in theNaples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy, the former Museo Borbonico. TheBritish Museum also contained secret rooms.
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 a different sense of shame for sexuality, and viewed sexually explicit material very differently to most present-day cultures. Ideas about obscenitydeveloped 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 1821 they were locked away in a Secret Museum. For good measure, the doorway was bricked up in 1849. 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. 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 Benito Mussolinisaw 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.
Roman erotica lacks a sense of sin
Jonathan Jones on Art Blog
The British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition displays plenty of erotic art, but to modern eyes it misses that essential naughty element
Sex is a highlight of the British Museum’s exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, as I point out in my review. The villas and brothels of Pompeii were full of erotic paintings, sculptures and kinky artefacts. Yet this art lacks something essential to modern sex.
It lacks a sense of sin.
The pagan Romans could express disgust at some kinds of sexual behaviour. In his biography of the emperor Tiberius, the Roman historian Suetonius paints a shocking portrait of the tyrant as a dirty old man, telling how Tiberius created a sinister pleasure island on the isle of Capri where he committed brutal outrages – and collected pornography. There’s a great scene in the classic television drama I, Claudius where John Hurt as Caligula ingratiates himself with Uncle Tiberius by giving him a smutty painting. But the reality of Roman life revealed by the art of Pompeii reveals that uninhibited sex and unrepressed art were universal in this ancient culture, not the preserve of decadent tyrants.
It is a huge contrast with the Christian society that grew out of the ruins of Rome and still in many ways – whatever our personal beliefs – shapes the culture of the west. That contrast is sharply shown by what happened to the erotic art of Pompeii when it started to be rediscovered by excavators in the 18th century. It was admired, but also considered deeply provocative. For a long time the saucy treasures now on view at the British Museum were kept under lock and key in the “secret cabinet”, a claustrophobic, windowless alcove in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This cloistered academy of voyeurism opened permanently to the public only in 2000.
Even today, it feels sinful to visit the secret museum. It feels dirty to look at dirty pictures. The ancient Pompeiians plainly did not feel like that.The statue of Pan making love to a goat in the British Museum show comes from a respectable garden. Yet without a sense of sin we, today, would not enjoy sex half as much, and that is why modern sexuality owes more to St Augustine than it does to the painters of Pompeii.
While researching my book The Loves of the Artists I realised that sin is the secret ingredient in the Renaissance nude. When Donatello andCaravaggio portray beautiful boys, they are not indulging an accepted, legal desire like ancient Greek and Roman artists. In the Renaissance you could be burned at the stake for “sodomy” and this gives a special risk and excitement to an obviously sexualised statue such asDonatello’s David.
Roman erotic art is startling and fascinating, but it lacks that spark of sin. Like Donatello when he brought the male nude daringly back to life in a Christian world, modern love delights in being bad.