The Secret Cabinet

 Posted by on April 29, 2011
Apr 292011

Or, Sex in the Museum

By The Royal Jester

The golden ratio in art and architecture of the Greeks and the precise engineering of the ancient Romans, among their other sophisticated achievements, drove the resuscitation of western society following the grim Medieval period. These ancient cultures were much admired and influential even though the occasional poem or piece of artwork seemed to indicate a more “naughty” view of their world.

It was not until the mid-eighteenth century with the unique discovery of Pompeii preserved in time that this perspective really began to change. There is an anecdote of King Carlo III of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily) visiting one of the new excavations with his entourage. It was a festive atmosphere since the workmen were about to bring to surface a sculptural masterpiece.

The desired moment occurred and the sculpture was raised. The King took one look and suddenly, and with great embarrassment, left the site. It was a statue of Pan being intimate with a she-goat or, as we would say in the vernacular, fucking the beast. The statue was quickly taken away to what later became known as the National Archaeological Museum of Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli).

A descendant of King Carlo III, the soon to be King Francesco I and much sooner to be embarrassed, visited the museum with his wife and daughter. As a consequence of his little foray into the art world all items considered obscene were removed and isolated in a separate room sometimes referred to as the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) or the Cabinet of Obscene Objects.

The Secret Cabinet was available only to those who were mature and of sound moral character. Of course, this made the collection highly desirable to view, even though most were denied access, and led to its notoriety.

Through the decades that followed, the Secret Cabinet was variously made available to a select few, closed and opened, allegedly walled shut, opened in the 1970’s then suddenly and mysteriously closed for “renovations.” The room is now opened to all except minors unless accompanied by an adult. It requires a separate entry ticket, but it is free.

An attempt was made early on to explain away the erotic or “obscene” art found at Pompeii. Such work was alleged to be solely associated with the numerous brothels that were excavated (the most famous being the Lupanere or “den of she-wolves”). But the truth is that erotic art, especially in the form of a penis, can be found everywhere as common household items including wind chimes and lamps. The penis may be a fertility symbol, but, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein’s, a penis is a penis is a penis is a penis.

Pompeii was not alone in coping with peculiar artwork. The British Museum had its own Secretum or Secret Museum, sometimes referred to as “Cupboard 55” in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum. There was also the “Private Case” of the British Museum Library devoted to printed material.

These special collections were then officially restricted after the Obscene Publications Act of 1857 to protect the museum from scandal. Eventually, however, the various pieces that comprised the Secretum were re-assigned to their appropriate civilizations with full public exposure. Wisely enough, some pieces were kept together as part of a display in order to illustrate prudish Victorian attitudes. After all, they had it coming.

Does your local museum or library contain secret collections of erotica? Who knows? If they do remember that you probably need to be an upright citizen of sound moral character. Nowadays that can be quite a challenge.