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Secret Cabinet

The collection, known historically as the “Gabinetto Segreto” (Secret Room), consists of a series of materials with an erotic theme assembled during the eighteenth century. However, they were removed from public view for a long period because they were considered obscene and therefore became famous and an object of curiosity. One of the most famous pieces is the marble group with Pan and a goat, which was found in Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.

History and formationThe 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. 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. After the transfer of the museum from Portici to Palazzo degli Studi, a short period followed when the collection could be seen without special restrictions until 1819, when the future king Francis I, during a visit with his daughter Carlotta, suggested to the director that it would be better to form a separate collection; it would be known as the “Cabinet of obscene objects” and would later be “reserved”; it could only be visited by “people of mature years and known morality”, and consisted, during the period, of 102 “vile monuments to pagan licentiousness”. In the years of the revolution, those who sought more openness of the Room and greater generosity in issuing visitor permits were opposed by others who thought that it should even be prohibited to see the Venuses and other nude and seminude figures that abounded in the collection of the Naples museum. The reactionary spirit prevailed, so that the collection was moved to the first floor and the door was walled up so that “its memory could, as far as possible, be dispelled”. Since then until recent times, the “Secret Room” has had alternating fortunes depending on political events. In the years following Garibaldi’s entry into Naples, the collection was opened to everyone except children and, with special permission, to women and the clergy; a catalogue of the “Collezione Pornografica” written by the then director of the museum Giuseppe Fiorelli was published. However, it was again closed by the Savoy government which prescribed that permits were necessary for all visitors; this continued until 1931. Reopened in 1967 but closed again for restoration and maintenance work, the “Gabinetto Segreto” has recently been opened to the public once again and its arrangement largely follows that of Fiorelli with the sole exception of the display of the Vesuvian materials which have been divided according to chronological, iconographic and functional characteristics: the material of pre-Roman date, mythological painting, garden decoration, the painting of the brothels, eroticism in banquets and amulets. RouteThe most famous piece in the collection is the marble group with Pan and the goat, found in 1752 in the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. 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. There are numerous small bronzes, oil lamps and personal amulets, worn by men and women as protection against the evil eye and illnesses. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

Further information
Collection data

De Caro 1999; De Caro 2000.

Location: Mezzanine floor; rooms LXII, LXV