Secret Museum, Naples

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File:Pan copulating with goat 1.JPG
'Pan copulating with goat' - one of the most famous objects in the Naples Museum collection

The term Secret Museum or Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) principally refers to the collection of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum, held in separate galleries in the National Archaelogical Museum, Naples, Italy, the former Museo Borbonico. The British Museum also contained secret rooms called the Secretum. Ther term "cabinet" here refers to a cabinet of curiosities, a well-presented collection of objects to admire and study.

Throughout ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum, erotic frescoes, depictions of the god Priapus, sexually explicit symbols and inscriptions, and even household items (such as phallic oil lamps) were found. The Ancient Roman understanding of sexuality viewed explicit material very differently from most present-day cultures.[1] Ideas about obscenity developed from the 18th century to the present day into a modern concept of pornography. (See History of erotic depictions.) 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[2] they were locked away in a Secret Museum. For good measure, the doorway was bricked up in 1849.[3] 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.[4] The cabinet was only accessible to "people of mature age and respected morals", which in practice meant only educated men. 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 the buried city as validating their own view of history, but at the same time excluded anything that did not fit the preferred model. In the 1930s the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini saw the excavations 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.


  1. For Roman views of sexuality, see Paul Veyne, "Pleasures and excesses" in A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, eds. (Harvard University Press) 1987:183-207.
  2. [1] Archived April 11, 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  3. Laurentino García y García, Luciana Jacobelli, Louis Barré, Museo Segreto. With a Facsimile edition of Herculanum et Pompéi. Recueil général des peintures, bronzes, mosaïques... (1877) (2001) Pompeii: Marius Edizioni On-line Bryn Mawr Classical Review
  4. Hare 2003[unreliable source?]

Further reading

External links

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