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Hidden Sexuality: The Secret Room (Gabinetto Segreto) in the Naples Archeological Museum

Updated: Apr 25


Naples, Italy is a chaotic, fascinating city.

After a few days spent wandering the cobbled streets in Rome, Italy, we hopped on an ITALO super-fast train and headed to the Naples city center. Having arranged for a driver to pick us up from the train station, we focused on the landscape and terrifyingly pushy way Neapolitans drive within the crowded streets.


 

Disclaimer: Please note that included in this post are photos of explicitly sexual artifacts and paintings.

 


Venus painting, National Archeological Museum of Naples
Venus painting, Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples


With a full itinerary on this trip of a lifetime in Italy, we were only able to stay two nights in the city of Naples, so we made the most of our time. Shortly after checking into our unique Bourbon House B&B, we freshened up and headed back into the crowded chaos of the city. Bourbon House was a quiet and luxurious sanctuary during our stay in Naples. To learn more, read: A Gem Accommodation in the Heart of Naples, Italy: An Honest Review of Bourbon House B&B.






National Archeological Museum of Naples: What is the Gabinetto Segreto?


Our first stop was the National Archeological Museum of Naples. A popular and important stop for many travellers visiting Naples, Italy, the museum hosts many ancient Roman collections, including marble, mosaics and antiquities from the nearby archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The collections are well preserved and serve as a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who lived in the those ancient cities, before the tragic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.




Woman sitting on Man, National Archeological Museum of Naples
Woman sitting on Man, Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples


One of the most fascinating collections in the National Archeological Museum of Naples is tucked away on the first floor. If you did not know it was there, you could easily skip over it. It is called the Gabinetto Segreto (which means Secret Cabinet or Secret Room), and hosts very special ancient artifacts that were indeed shamefully hidden away from the public eye for decades.





The Gabinetto Segreto exhibit in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, features hundreds of sexually charged and obscene paintings and artifacts, excavated mainly from the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Unlike the other artifacts found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, since their excavation, these shocking artifacts were often separated from the other collections and not included in public exhibitions, due to their explicitly shocking sexual nature.




Gabineto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples
Woman on Man, Gabineto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples



Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet): Why were the artifacts hidden the public?


During the early excavations (or more precisely, the extensive looting) at the archeological site of Pompeii, in the 1700s, frescos, statues and artifacts that were found in the ruins were taken and shipped to the National museum in Naples, Italy.


Hiking Mount Vesuvius


Here they were cleaned, catalogued and stored for safe keeping and later display. Among many of the artifacts and paintings found and taken to the museum, were those with explicit sexual themes.


These findings caused embarrassment to the archeologists excavating the sites and thus they painted ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum as corrupt and immoral cities.





In the early 1800s, a limited edition French guide to the extensive collection, including these specific artifacts with the explicit sexual context, was published (with photos) and quickly made its way around Europe. Most guides were collected and destroyed by the French authorities due to the explicit images contained within, for fear they would fall into innocent hands.




Man with Huge Penis, National Archeological Museum of Naples
Man with Penis, Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples


When King Francis of Naples visited the new Royal Bourbon Museum (now the National Archeological Museum of Naples), with his wife and daughter, he was shocked to find that included in the exhibit, were many sexually explicit artifacts. Offended by the imagery, he ordered that all the artifacts that displayed explicit sexuality be removed from the public view. Any artifacts seen as overtly sexual, obscene or pornographic in nature, were separated and hidden, labelled not suitable for the general public.


This is how the literal secret room was first created. Access to the Gabinetto Segreto in the National Archeological Museum of Naples was only available to "mature gentlemen" scholars "with known high moral standing", and/or who intended to conduct further study on the excavations at the archeological site of Pompeii or Herculaneum, with approval.





 

Capuona: lunching as ancient pompeiians

What happened to the erotic frescos that remained at the archeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum?


The frescos that remained on the walls at Pompeii and Herculaneum, that were unable to be locked away in a secret room, had to be dealt with in another manner. When erotic and sexually charged frescos were found at the archeological site of Pompeii and Herculaneum, metal cabinets were built overtop of them to hide them from visitors to the archeological sites.



Only men (not ladies) could pay extra (or bribe) to see inside the "cabinet of curiosities", or "secret cabinet". It soon became a rite of passage for young men of the time, to visit Pompeii or Herculaneum during their European travels and see inside the secret cabinets.


 




Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples
Woman on Man, Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room), National Archeological Museum of Naples




Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet): What is included in the collection?



The Gabinetto Segreto exhibit in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, is tucked away into a corner on the first floor of the museum, where it could easily be overlooked or missed by those not specifically looking for it. At the entrance, there are velvet ropes and sign warning of the content and that visitors must be over the age of 18, or accompanied by an adult.


Among the Gabinetto Segreto collection are countless numbers of stone penises, explicitly beautiful mosaics, detailed and erotic paintings, marble statues and everyday household items, including furniture and oil lamps. The scenes include the sexual act between partners, multiple partners, voyeurism and bestiality.


Click below to scroll through photos of artifacts included in the Gabinetto Segreto:





One statue in particular has become infamous (and somewhat of a symbol for the entire collection). It is entitled: Pan Copulating with Goat. It is a detailed carving of a satyr having sexual intercourse with a female goat. Made from a single piece of marble, this statue was found just outside of the Villa of the Papyri, part of the archeological site of Herculaneum. Click below to see a video of the Pan Copulating with Goat.





The Villa of the Papyri is well known for the extraordinary library and hundreds of scrolls. To learn more about Herculaneum, read: Visiting the Secret Wonders of Herculaneum: The (Other) Archeological Site in Naples, Italy.


Click Here to access our Travel Italy - Herculaneum playlist on YouTube, with access to all videos taken while at the archeological site of Herculaneum, in Naples, Italy.


Click Here to access our Travel Italy - Pompeii playlist on YouTube, with access to all videos taken while at the archeological site of Pompeii, in Naples, Italy.


Click Here to access our Travel Italy - Naples playlist on YouTube, with access to all videos taken while in Naples, Italy.








Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet): When did it become open to the public?


The explicit frescos, multitude of penis artifacts and erotic sculptures of the Gabinetto Segreto were locked away in a secret room in the Royal Bourbon Museum (now the National Archeological Museum of Naples), often facing probable destruction (as was suggested many times since the 1800s).



Wine tasting at Cantina del Vesuvio

Luckily, the director of the Royal Bourbon Museum decided it was better to lock the artifacts away from public view, with only a restricted few holding the key, than destroy historical artifacts (however shocking they may be).


After a few years, the doorway to the secret room was bricked up, in the hopes it would be forgotten.


A decade later, when Garibaldi occupied Naples, he ordered the collection hidden within the Gabinetto Segreto be made available to the public to view (for a very brief time), albeit still limiting who was allowed to view the collection.



As the decades passed, the Gabinetto Segreto collection remained "open" but was further restricted. to the public, until it was officially reopened to the general public in 2000. Finally, in 2005, the Gabinetto Segreto collection moved to its current home, on the first floor in the National Archeological Museum of Naples.




Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet): How to Purchase Tickets


Access to he Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Room) within the National Archeological Museum of Naples, is included in the entrance fee for the National Archeological Museum of Naples, but sometimes can hold different hours of operation.





On the day of our visit, the Gabinetto Segreto would be closed at 330pm, while the rest of the museum would remain open until 730pm (last entry to the museum is 630pm). Be sure to double check on the date and time of your visit to ensure you can see the exhibit.


UNIQUE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE: Visit the National Archeological Museum of Naples with a private guide. Enjoy a two-hour private tour of the museum, with all the insights and information you need.

Single tickets, purchased through the National Archeological Museum website (or at the ticket office upon arrival) are $22 Euro per adult, or $40 Euro for a family (two adults).




Visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum Today:


A few days after we visited the Gabinetto Segreto in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, we visited the archeological site of Pompeii, where there happened to be an exhibit within the Palestra Grande, entitled Art and Sensuality in the Houses of Pompeii.


Click below to scroll through photos of the artifacts within the Art and Sensuality collection:





The exhibit featured many statues and frescoes taken from the archeological site of Pompeii, some with sensual or explicitly sexual themes. This was our first taste of the magnificent sculptures and painted walls we would find while exploring the private homes in the archeological site.

NB: The exhibit closed on September 3, 2023.


LUXURY TRAVEL TIP: Want to see more than the artifacts at the museum? On this full day private tour, visit the archeological sites of both Pompeii and Herculaneum before heading to Mount Vesuvius to enjoy the view from the crater. To learn more about hiking Mount Vesuvius, click here.

No longer are the erotic frescos and sexual architecture found among the ruins of Pompeii censored with built-in cabinets, they are free to see and admire. One of the most famous buildings to visit while exploring the archeological site of Pompeii, and most popular with tourists, is Lupanar (which means brothel).




Painted walls above the doors in Lupanar, Pompeii, Naples, Italy
Painted walls above the doors in Lupanar, Pompeii, Naples, Italy


Within the walls of the famous "red-light district" of Pompeii were found many paintings with detailed images, some above the small rooms of the brothel, which intended to inform guests what specific activities and sexual acts were performed by the woman waiting inside. Ancient Pompeii was indeed an international bustling city with amenities and entertainment for all who visited.




 

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Stone carving on an exterior wall in Pompeii, Naples, Italy
Stone carving on an exterior wall in Pompeii, Naples, Italy


 

What's the difference between Pompeii and Pompei? Pompeii (with double "i") refers to the UNESCO World Heritage Site and ruins of the ancient Roman city, but Pompei (with single "i") refers to the modern Italian city, within the metropolitan city of Naples, Italy). To learn more about visiting the archeological site of Pompeii, read: Visiting Pompeii: Walking The Ancient City.

 

Images of an erotic and explicitly sexual nature have been found throughout the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, not only in expected locations (like Lupanar), but on the streets, bath houses and every day homes. Though there are many theories, there is no undisputed explanation of what exactly the role of sexuality and sensuality held in ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum.


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