Updated: Oct 14
Naples is a city of fascinating chaos.
After a few days in Rome, 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.
Only able to stay two nights in Naples, we made the most of our time, and as soon as we checked into our unique B&B Bourbon House, we headed straight for the National Archeological Museum. A popular and important stop for many travellers, 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 a fascinating glimpse into the lives of their people.
One of the most fascinating collections in the museum is tucked away on the 1st floor. If you did not know it was there, you could easily skip over it. It is called the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet or Secret Room), and hosts special items that were in fact kept hidden for decades.
The exhibit features hundreds of sexually charged and obscene paintings and artifacts, taken mostly from excavations at the ancient Pompeii and Herculaneum sites. Unlike other artifacts found, these were often separated from other exhibits in the past due to their explicit sexual nature.
TIP: When staying in Naples, one can take advantage of Pompeii and Herculaneum excursions from the city center, rather than having to stay closer to the archeological sites.
During the early excavations in the 1700s (or to be more precise, the extensive looting) at the archeological site of Pompeii, frescos, statues and artifacts were taken and shipped to the museum, including many with explicit sexual themes. In the 1800s, a guide to the collection was published and made its way around Europe, though most were destroyed due to the explicit images.
NB: The Gabinetto Segretto (Secret Room) is included in the entrance fee for the National Archeological Museum of Naples, but sometimes does hold different hours of operation. Be sure to double check on the date of your visit to ensure you can see the exhibit.
When King Francis of Naples saw the collection, he ordered them be removed from the public view. Any artifacts seen as overtly sexual, obscene or pornographic in nature, were separated and hidden, deemed not suitable for the general public. This is how the secret room in the Naples museum was first created. They were only available to scholars who intended to conduct further study.
Where erotic frescos were found at Pompeii, metal cabinets were built overtop of them to hide them from visitors. Men (not ladies) could pay extra (or bribe) to see inside the "cabinet of curiosities", something that became a rite of passage for young men of the time during their European travels.
Among the secret collection are countless numbers of stone penises, explicit mosaics, detailed paintings, marble statues and everyday household items, like furniture and oil lamps.
One statue in particular has become very famous (and somewhat of a symbol for the collection). It is entitled: Pan Copulating with Goat. It is a detailed carving of a satyr having sexual relations with a female goat. (See video)
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The explicit frescos, multitude of penis artifacts and erotic sculptures were locked away in a secret room in the museum, facing possible destruction (as was suggested many times).
Luckily, the then director of the Royal Bourbon Museum decided it was best to lock the artifacts away, with only a restricted few holding the key.
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 be made available to the public to view (for a brief time), albeit still limited. As the decades passed, the collection was further restricted, until it was finally reopened to the general public in 2000. Finally, in 2005, it moved to its current home in the National Archeological Museum of Naples.
A few days after we visited the Gabinetto Segreto in the National Archeological Museum of Naples, we found ourselves in 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.
The exhibit featured many statues and frescoes taken from Pompeii, some with sensual or explicitly sexual themes. This was our first taste of the magnificent sculptures and painted walls we would find in some of the excavated homes. (NB: The exhibit closed on September 3, 2023).
One of the most famous buildings to visit in Pompeii, and most popular with tourists, is Lupanar (which means brothel). Within the walls of the famous "red-light district" were found many paintings with detailed images, some above the rooms of the brothel, which informed guests what activities and acts were performed by the women waiting inside. Pompeii was indeed a bustling city with amenities and entertainment for all who visited.
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.