If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Secret Cabinet - Gabinetto Segreto

Satyr and Maenad. Roman fresco from Casa degli Epigrammi in Pompeii.

The Secret Cabinet- Gabinetto Segreto

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 the Naples National Archaeological Museum Naples, Italy, and the former Museo Borbonico.

Naples National Archaeological Museum

The Cabinet of "Obscene Objects" was created in 1817 to bring together about a hundred miscellaneous items which were only to be viewed by important visitors of the male sex on obtaining the relevant authorization from the Ministry.


In the prurient climate of restoration in the 1850s it was closed to viewing, but following the unification of Italy it was reopened and the collection was published by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1866.

After the turn of the century it was dispersed, but it is now being reconstituted and enlarged with some two hundred other items. This cabinet was again closed many years and finally reopened in year 2000 as a show-piece of museographical history.


Roman sexuality was a big problem for the 19th-century archaeologists and
curators responsible for excavating and preserving the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Romans and citizens of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum in particular, had a robust appreciation for the erotic in art and everyday objects. 

Fresco of Priapus, Casa dei Vettii, Pompeii. Depicted weighing his enormous erect penis against a bag of gold. Unlike the Greeks, Ancient Romans admired the large penis of Priapus, although they had a sense of humor about it

The enormously well-endowed god Priapus was a common good-luck symbol, seen in everything from frescoes to penis-shaped wind chimes to perky oil lamps. (His huge member supposedly had little to do with sex: It served to scare off thieves.) Stories from mythology painted on walls were full of sexual encounters, secret trysts, and naughty satyrs. In some ways, this erotica was widely accepted on a level that even modern society would have trouble with, let alone Victorian Europe.

The ancient Roman and Greek cultures had a very different attitude about sexuality than successive European cultures, more akin to that of the Kama Sutra. This, of course, was unimaginable to latter day Europeans, who rigidly compartmentalized body, mind and spirit, and to whom any sexuality was sinful and morbid.

foto-vesuvio1 by Giovanni Lattanzi


Some of the best artistic expressions of this can be found in the recovered city of Pompeii. 

Pompeii was frozen in time by the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., and not unearthed until 1748.  

Pompeii was a seaside resort, devoted to the arts, relaxation, and the pursuit of pleasure.

The looting of Pompeii began in the late 1700s under the direction of Charles of Bourbon, better known as Charles III of Spain, who was after fashionable antiquities for his private collections. 

When Napoleon's brother rolled into town in 1806, the French regime drew up the first organized plans to excavate the city in its entirety, and this process continued when control of Naples reverted to the Bourbons under Ferdinand I.

The excavators were horrified to discover erotic frescoes, mosaics, statuary and phallic votive objects. The moveable erotic artifacts were taken to Naples and kept in seclusion in the Royal Museum.

As was common for excavations of the period, frescoes were stripped from the walls, and small decorative objects, pieces of furniture, and statues were removed for safe storage, study, and display elsewhere. In this case, they were relocated to the National Museum (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli). The erotic wall and floor art had lockable metal boxes constructed over them and were displayed to tourists for an extra fee (women and children excluded)

The collection consists of a series of materials assembled during the eighteenth century with an intentionally erotic theme but which were removed from public view for a long period because they were considered obscene and therefore became famous and an object of curiosity.

In 1816, a limited-edition French guide to the collection - with illustrations - began making its way around Europe. Most copies were confiscated and destroyed by the French authorities, and the guide eventually became a highly sought-after collector's item.

Francis 1
When Ferdinand's son, Francis I, visited with his wife and young daughter in 1819, he was shocked by the explicit imagery and ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in a secret cabinet, where access could be restricted to scholars (and male visitors willing to bribe the staff). He was of the opinion that "it would be as well to confine all the obscene objects of whatever material in one room, the only people allowed to visit this room being of mature age and proven morality." Thus the Royal Bourbon Museum officially instituted the "Cabinet of obscene objects", originally to contain the "disreputable monuments of pagan licentiousness", but which later came to harbor even works from modern times such as Titian's "Danae".

In Pompeii itself, metal shutters were installed over erotic paintings, making these two thousand-year-old images accessible to tourists for an extra fee - and to men only, of course. All of this fervor only served to make the collection more famous, and it became a rite of passage for European gentlemen to view the secret collection on their ‘Grand Tours’.

These pictures are fairly explicit and aren't for everyone. Few of the items on display here are excessively prurient by contemporary standards. These are historical cultural artifacts, not pornography. Nonetheless, consider yourself warned.
pompeii mosaic

bronze bells supported by phalluses

Erotic terracotta sculptures_ex-votos of private parts_ penises a breast and on the right  a womb

domestic wall painting from Pompeii


Priapus from the house of the Vetii, Pompeii
Among dozens of stone penises, phallic wind chimes, and naughty mosaics, one item became the most famous: the marble group with Pan and The Goat, found in 1752 in the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. This piece de resistance is a detailed carving of a satyr having intercourse with a female goat, her cloven feet pressed up against his chest as she gazes back at him at him with some fondness.
In 1849, the collection was bricked off and remained famously off limits to women, youngsters, and the general public. For a century and a half the collection remained out of sight, on view only during brief liberal periods under Garibaldi and again in the 1860s.

Following the Unification of Italy the director of the Museum, Giuseppe Fiorelli, removed many of the objects from the Cabinet and reaffirmed the importance of the collection as a palaeo-anthropological record of sexuality. Indeed, in view of the fact that the purchases continued to be made, such as an ancient mosaic portraying pygmies bought in Rome in 1894, it was obviously intended as a national collection. At the same time, however, access was once again restricted, a state of affairs that continued throughout the first half of the 20th century and even following the Second World War. It was reopened in 1976, but then closed again to allow comprehensive restoration of the rooms.
The Gabinetto Segreto was finally opened to the public in 2000 and moved into a separate gallery in 2005.


Gabinetto Segreto, the "Secret Cabinet" - the hall containing the erotic works from Pompeii that since the 1880s have been hidden away in the caverns of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples until they were finally put on display in 2000.

The name "Gabinetto Segreto" (Secret Room) actually has a historical reason: indeed, the term “Secret” was often applied during the Renaissance to places, rooms, and gardens used to house special collections which were assembled during this period with ancient and modern works of art inspired by the themes of love and sensuality.

Right from the very first excavations of the Vesuvian cities, the work diaries had recorded with considerable embarrassment the discovery of increasingly large number of “obscene” objects, a circumstance that led them to be displayed in a “reserved” room of the Museo Ercolanese in Portici, which could be visited on request and with a special permit.


The paintings are divided between more sophisticated, mythological works which derive from the tradition of Greek and Hellenic erotic painting and the more popular, realistic paintings which were done to adorn brothels and special rooms of private houses.

amuleto di bronzo
There are numerous small bronzes, oil lamps and personal amulets, worn by men and women as protection against the evil eye and illnesses.

Phallus set in a small temple (carved of tuff), from Pompeii, c.1-50 AD
Cippi sepolcrali etruschi a forma di fallo con nomi iscritti, da chiusi o perugia

In the Roman world, the male member was considered a symbol of fertility and an auspicious omen of prosperity and at the same time warded off evil; noise too was considered to be a powerful talisman.

Tintinnabulum bronze with Mercury riding a ram ithyphallic, from Pompeii, first century AD by Giovanni Lattanzi

The two apotropaic remedies, when combined, enjoyed great popularity in the Vesuvian towns and cities, as is shown by the numerous bronze bells supported by phalluses or ithyphallic figures, used in shops as an auspicious sign of good business, and possibly even in houses as amusing furnishings for banquets for announcing each course of a meal: 
a particularly important figure in this series is the splendid figurine of a gladiator from Herculaneum.

An image of a penis and testicles (engraved into the roadway) pointing towards a brothel close by.

As a powerful lucky charm, the phallus was also placed, in all ancient cities, on walls, pavements and along streets; in Pompeii, phalluses were often used in the basements of houses for protective purposes, but also on shop fronts, especially for bakeries, where they were sculpted on the architraves of the ovens.

hic habitat felicitas phallus

There is a famous relief in travertine marble with a phallus and the inscription “hic habitat felicitas” (here resides happiness) from the bakery in the insula of the House of Pansa.

A section of the “Gabinetto Segreto” is devoted to erotic objects from the Borgia Collection including the following exhibits: a bronze Etruscan mirror with an engraved erotic scene and a series of small dwarves in stone with enormous phalluses in their hands, of Egyptian provenance and dating to the Ptolemaic period.

Museo Archeologico - Pan teaching his eromenos, the shepherd Daphnis,

Lastly, room LXII contains some finds which do not strictly belong to the “Gabinetto Segreto” such as the group of Pan and Daphne, the marble sarcophagus with a scene of the Dionysian cult, both from the Farnese Collection, the black and white mosaic with pygmies from Rome, while a small section illustrates the history of the collection in the archive documents.



The small group depicts the god  whose features are only human in the upper part of his body, is accurately reproduced, both in the detail of the goat fleece, and in the smooth firm surface of the body which clearly emphasises the musculature;

 the face is carefully rendered, and its features display the hybrid nature of the god. The supine goat bends her head gently while she languidly meets the gaze of Pan.

The structure of the work is almost a parallelepiped; the subject is perfectly suited to the decoration of a garden, which in Roman villas reproduced a vision of nature full of idyllic-pastoral connotations that derived from Hellenistic art and literature.

Despite the gentle harmony of the piece, however, the scandalous nature of the subject in the eyes of Bourbon society made it possibly the most strongly censored work amongst the various objects in the collection: only the king was permitted to see it before it was locked in a cupboard and hidden even from the eyes of Winckelman.

Indian Goddess Lakshmi ivory 1-50 AD found at Pompeii Naples Archaeological Museum.
The statue portrays Lakshmi, Indian divinity of feminine beauty and fertility. Naked, with two handmaidens at her sides bearing toiletries, her body is adorned with heavy jewels: a diadem on her forehead, a necklace on her chest and large and numerous rings on her ankles and wrists.

Her long hair, also richly embellished, flows over her shoulders down to her waist. She is probably one of the apophoreta, ‘gifts to be carried away’, as Martial recalls in his Epigrams, a sort of prize for winning the dice games which took place during the numerous banquets, consisting of silver, bronze or ivory statuettes.

A round hole above the head suggests, however, that the statuette served the purpose of a handle, probably for a toiletry object, or that it was a support for some kind of furnishing.

This small, rare sculpture, found in a modest dwelling in Pompeii, represents nonetheless an important indication of the trade relations that existed already by the 1st century A.D. between the Western Mediterranean countries and the East by means of the port of Puteoli, known today as Pozzuoli: created in Augustan times, the port received from every known destination spices, slaves, wine, grain, ceramics and precious objects destined for sale on the Roman market.

Aphrodite with bikini putting on sandal near Priapus fountain - from Pompeii AD 79 Naples Archaeological Museum Secret Room

The statuette portrays Aphrodite on the point of untying the laces of the sandal on her left foot, under which a small Eros squats, touching the sole of her shoe with his right hand.

The Goddess is leaning with her left arm (the hand is missing) against a figure of Priapus standing, naked and bearded, positioned on a small cylindrical altar while, next to her left thigh, there is a tree trunk over which the garment of the Goddess is folded.

Aphrodite, almost completely naked, wears only a sort of costume, consisting of a corset held up by two pairs of straps and two short sleeves on the upper part of her arm, from which a long chain leads to her hips and forms a star-shaped motif at the level of her navel.

The 'bikini', for which the statuette is famous, is obtained by the masterly use of the technique of gilding, also employed on her groin, in the pendant necklace and in the armilla on Aphrodite’s right wrist, as well as on Priapus’ phallus.

Traces of the red paint are evident on the tree trunk, on the short curly hair gathered back in a bun and on the lips of the Goddess, as well as on the heads of Priapus and the Eros.

Aphrodite’s eyes are made of glass paste, while the presence of holes at the level of the ear-lobes suggest the existence of precious metal ear-rings which have since been lost. An interesting insight into the female ornaments of Roman times, the statuette, probably imported from the area of Alexandria, reproduces with a few modifications the statuary type of Aphrodite untying her sandal, known from copies in bronze and terracotta.

Judgment of Solomon

The scene formed part of the internal decoration of a podium that surrounded the garden of the Casa del Medico (VIII, 5, 24) in Pompeii, noted for the presence of a third scene with the so-called “Judgment of Solomon”, which is also kept in the Archaeological Museum of Naples.


The whole cycle depicts pygmies fighting crocodiles and hippopotamuses, a theme frequently used in depictions of this type, of which there are examples in mosaics and pottery.

Pygmies were depicted from Archaic times in scenes of combat with cranes and, in Hellenistic times, represented the symbol of a remote exotic world, portrayed in its most grotesque and comic guises.

The scene is set on the banks of a river, in which there is a boat with a prow in the form of a donkey’s head, steered by two pygmies fully armed with helmets, spears and shields who are transporting amphoras.

There is also a hippopotamus in the river devouring a pygmy while a second pygmy, on the back of the animal, tries to free his companion from its jaws by hitting it with a jug.
A banquet is taking place on the river bank: beneath an awning stretched between two trees there is a triclinium on which lie five pygmies, and a round table with a container on it, next to which two pygmies are coupling, while a third pygmy plays the double flute.

To the right of the scene is a dancing procession, represented by a pygmy, an ibis and two pygmies waving sticks, while on the edge of the picture two pygmies are depicted having a conversation. The women are distinguished by the length of their tunics.

The scene takes place within a fenced-off area with entrances, beside which is a building. In Roman times, this was one of the favourite scenes for the decoration of tricliniums, which were intended for rest but also for the pleasure of the master of the house and usually positioned in open spaces.

The erotic scene accompanied by music beneath the awning is also found in Pompeii in a fresco still in situ on the front of the right panel of the summer triclinium (p) positioned under a pergola in the Casa dell'Efebo.


The small fresco depicts the sensual kiss between the cyclops Polyphemus and the nymph Galatea.

The brown skin of Polyphemus, whose identity is revealed by the presence on the left of a ram, pan pipes and a shepherd's crook, contrasts with the whiteness of the nymph, portrayed from behind and depicted as a young girl with a soft, smooth body.

The background is neutral. The figures are portrayed with deft rapid brush strokes, almost as though they were intentionally designed to convey the delicacy of the theme.

An interesting aspect of the theme lies in the fact that it identifies a little-known version of the myth: in the more well-known version, Galatea never succumbed to the courtship of Polyphemus as she was hopelessly in love with the shepherd boy Acis.


The tintinnabulum, equipped with four little bells linked to four four small chains, depicts a gladiator with a turban, short tunic and sandals.

He holds a dagger in one hand and a manica or arm-guard in the other. Portrayed with his arms raised and advancing, the gladiator fights against his own phallus which becomes a panther with a wide-open mouth,
about to pounce on him. 

Tintinnabulum_Pompeii_MAN_Napoli_Inv27840_Tintinnabulum in the shape of a winged quadrupede phallus.

The ithyphallic tintinnabula had a heavily apotropaic value, stemming from the combination of the phallic symbol, bestower of good fortune and prosperity, with sound, which had always been used to ward off evil.

They were sometimes used during sumptuous banquets to announce a new course; more frequently they were hung in private houses and especially in public buildings so that they chimed when visitors passed and warded off the evil eye, rather like the Priapus preserved in situ on the right–hand post of the door leading to the atrium (c) in the Casa dei Vetti (VI, 15, 1) in Pompeii.

*original post date Sept. 2, 2009







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  1. Wonderful, good drafted article. Well done.
    I was two times in Pompeii and it is one of the most beautiful places i`ve seen. It was a very voluptuous time for the population. One reason might have been that Siegmund Freud wasn`t born. The people lived more in present and reflect not so much about the things they do and feel and wish and want... (sic!)
    Lustfull times this must have been up to the volcano eruption.

  2. Thanks, Billy....

    Most of us would have thought that
    if we go back to historical past,
    we are likely to presume we
    go back to a golden age of virtue and purity,
    but on the other hand find an epoch of
    such depravity that our minds
    might well regard inconceivable.

    To understand or to condemn
    classical sexual practices and cultural values?
    In all its enormity, we reassure ourselves -
    this is only a weakness incidental to humanity,
    be it ancient times or contemporary.

    We have come upon an age of open sensuality,
    a totally different attitude towards
    sex and enjoyment of a variety of sensuality,
    take for instance --
    phallic festivals like the Liberalia,
    Priapuses found in every home,
    phalluses on children's rings
    and bells made of phalluses
    that served as amulets & lucky charms,
    festivals like the Bacchanalia
    when well into the night,
    celebrators became
    heated with wine degenerated
    into the extreme of licentiousness,
    and people indulged without a
    blush in the most infamous vices,
    Pan doing it with a goat ( ! ),
    the sacred poet Virgil probably
    lusted for Alexis, a beautiful boy,
    even Horace celebrated incest,
    adultery and sex with female slaves.

    We wonder how more explicit,
    degenerate, or erotic they could have been.
    And now, we have the Secret Cabinet
    fulfilling its goal of expanding our understanding.

  3. you gotta love them ancients, love the soundtrack.....ecstasy of another kind.....p&h&h2u x

  4. Incredibly. Unbelievable text.
    And everything is true.
    Nothing is comparable. We will understand nothing of all, can understand.
    We cannot understand it and not value. Do not judge.
    My question is:
    Who are we? How degenerated we are today?
    How erotic we can be? And will we one day be it?

  5. In truth, ancient Pompeii erotica
    shouldn't come as a shock or horror
    to modern Western culture.
    Creative and free,
    how similar things are today.
    Whereas there are ways of living
    and acting that are higher,
    more noble, and less carnal than others,
    modern sexuality also reek of
    pleasure excesses, sex offenses,
    various levels of experience with
    alcohol, drugs and sex.

    Will we one day be it?
    On balance, I believe that
    each member of the society
    have an innate need to progress
    by learning the middle ground
    between repression and freedom--
    to distinguish right and wrong,
    what is regarded wrong and
    what constitutes "right" , which
    is expected to be socially constructed.
    Our development should be either one
    towards more acceptance and
    openness toward so-called "alternative lifestyles"
    or alternatively a return to even more puritan ways...

  6. I long for a little bit more tenderness. And with it of linked sincerity. All other arises, there I am sure. We have all one internal voice. Sometimes we must stop to shout - then we hear them whispering.
    I love your mind. Really and sincerely. For a long time nobody has inspired and impressed me like you.
    Thank you for it.

  7. Glad you enjoyed it, d...
    Gotta have some cool
    Moanin' jazz here :-)