When the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were unearthed from under volcanic ash at the foothills of Mount Vesuvius, in the mid-18th century, the materials that emerged from the digs brought to light a certain aspect of the ancient world that caused great deal of embarrassment —the cities’ fascination with erotica. This was not the odd nude sculpture, but phallic shaped oils lamps and items of jewelry, frescoes of couples engaging in sex, scenes of fornications, and the most scandalous of them all —a statue depicting the half-man, half-goat Greek god Pan penetrating a female goat.
Today, it is well known that the ancient Romans had a very liberal view on sexuality, and that Pompeii boasted a large sex industry with dozens of brothels whose walls were adorned with erotic frescoes. Artistic depiction of sex was also found on the walls of bedrooms in private villas. Phallic-shaped amulets hung from the neck of Pompeii residents to ward of evil spirits, and an assortment of sex-themed artworks embellished every home.
The candid display of sexually explicit materials caused such great embarrassment and consternation among the 18th century public, that King Charles III of Bourbon ordered the obscene antiquities to be locked away in a secret cabinet, away from public view.
The secret cabinet or “gabinetto segreto” was originally located at Museum Herculanense in Portici, and only those with express written permission from the King were allowed to view it. But the censorship only fueled the desire to see the erotic art. Illustrations of the frescoes and copies of the banned exhibits were clandestinely reproduced and circulated among the French elites.
After the transfer of the museum from Portici to what is today the Naples National Archaeological Museum, a short period followed during which the collection could be seen without special restrictions, until King Francis I of Naples paid a visit in 1819 with his wife and daughter. The embarrassed king hastily ushered away his wife and daughter and ordered the museum to lock away the collection inside a special chamber, where only gentleman of “mature age and respected morals” could get access to. Women and children were barred from entering.
For the next two hundred years, the Secret Museum remained mostly closed, opening briefly for only a few number of times. When it opened during the 1960s, the restrictions were still in place. Finally in 2000, the collection was brought out and made publicly available for both men and women.
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