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The Secret Room (il Gabinetto segreto)
I once asked a tour guide at Pompeii to compare the apotropaic semiology*1 of Roman erotic art and similar erotica in the Indian Kama Sutra to the Northern European Sheela Na Gig. *2 He leered and said, "Pssst! Hey, pal, wanna see some dirty pictures?"
OK, that didn't happen. But it was close. I was at Pompeii with my wife and her father. The guide, with no prompting on my part, asked her father and me if we wanted to look at some "secret mosaics." He unlocked what looked like a medicine cabinet of the kind you find in home bathrooms. It was mounted flush against a small section of an ancient Roman wall covered with frescoes. The cabinet had no back, such that when you opened the front of the cabinet you saw a "secret" mosaic on the wall. In this case, the mosaic was of an ancient Roman happily grinning while weighing his genitalia on a hand-held scale. When my wife tried to sneak a peek, the guide closed the cabinet and said that "women were not allowed to view such things." My wife rolled her eyes the way women do when dealing with adult male children.
I was reminded of all this when I noted in the newspaper yesterday that the "Gabinetto segreto" at the National Archaeological museum has been reopened to the public. That is the room where various bits of ancient Greek and Roman erotic art are on display, from the mythological—a Roman copy of an original Greek statue by Heliodorus of Pan teaching Daphnis to play the panpipes, and the marble group of Pan copulating with a goat, found in 1752 in the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum—to various explicit scenes of human sexual activity, sexually explicit symbols, inscriptions and even household items (such as phallic oil lamps). The collection includes paintings done to adorn brothels and special rooms of private houses. There are also small bronzes and personal phallic amulets, worn by men and women as protection against the evil eye and illnesses; there is 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.
add box & photo Feb 2017
text in box abridged from Wikipedia - photo by Saiko
The History of the Collection at the entrance to the museum says:
From Renaissance times, collections of "obscene" objects were considered a worthy feature of any collector's display of relics from antiquity. Sometimes they were kept under lock and key, or else— as in the "garden of Love in the Villa della Farnesina overlooking the Tiber—they were cunningly presented in a decorous context (e.g. Pan and Daphne: inv. 6327, in the Farnese collection).
The Gabinetto Segreto, in spite of the last sentence in the above bit of museum literature, has been closed more than it has been open in the last ten years, for whatever reason. It is, however, now, definitively open to the general public. The Secret Room is relatively small but packed with items; there are separate sections with explanations in Italian and English for pre-Roman items, decorations in Boudoirs and Brothels, amulets and miscellaneous items, paintings, erotic bbjects from the Borgia Collection (acquired in 1815), plus various phallic symbols decorating the walls. (For purposes of illustrating this entry and to protect your genteel sensitivities—not to mention my own—I have chosen the tamest and most delicately erotic items I could find. You may wish to take that into consideration before dragging the kids through this exhibit.)
[More on the Secret Room here.]
1. Just kidding. ^back to text
2. Not kidding here. I assume you know about the Kama Sutra. The Sheela Na Gig are naked female figures on churches, walls, and towers, primarily in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England.
^ back to text
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