In the National Archeological Museum in Naples, right beside two large public rooms crammed with masterpieces found in the buried city of Pompeii, black iron gates and a surly attendant stand guard over a space called the Gabinetto Segretto, the secret room. This is the new repository for the erotic art that has created both scandal and delight ever since archeologists of Pompeii began uncovering it in the 18th century.
Governments, whether monarchical, fascist or democratic, have considered this material politically explosive. Sometimes they have shown it in public, sometimes they have revealed it only to elites, and always they have puzzled over what they should think and say about it. The aura of muted anxiety and hypocrisy that surrounds it even today suggests that after generations of study we are still uncomfortable with the knowledge that public, explicit pornography was routine in the Roman empire. The Archeological Museum still acts as if showing it is, at best, a regrettable duty. A wall text outside the special room says these discoveries have caused "no little embarrassment."
When I was there last week, the otherwise sophisticated guide who was showing a group through the museum said he found the room disgusting and more or less advised us that we could see it at our own moral risk, without him. When entering the museum we had to make a reservation for this one part of the building, precisely scheduling our occasion of sin. There was no extra charge: The museum doesn't want to be seen profiting from pornography.
When we entered at the prearranged time, in groups of 20, we were greeted by a sweet and earnest young woman who turned out to be our docent. She had views she was determined to convey. We could, if we wanted, wander off and avoid her explanations, but the room is small and we couldn't wander far: Listening to her commentary turned out to be more or less mandatory. Every museum shows scenes of horror (Judith holding the bloody head of Holofernes, to take one famous example) without explaining them, but in the case of pornography it is felt that we require guidance, lest we examine the work in the wrong spirit. The docent was there to bestow an element of moral seriousness on what might otherwise evoke snickers. She told us that the function of erotic images in the Roman world was to "celebrate reproduction" and that phalluses symbolized abundance. Surprisingly, she didn't mention the obvious fact that this phallic-centered culture had no place for female symbols of fertility. Women appear only in sexual congress with men, more often passive than not.
She identified one phallus shape as the logo of a bakery. Indicating a marble sculpture of Pan having his way with a she-goat, she remarked that only now, in our enlightened time, can we "look at this and admire the artistic work." Her job was clear: She's the cultural equivalent of the department of sanitation.
Is she necessary? Most of these images were reproduced long ago in books, and many are available now as postcards in the museum gift shop. But the authorities obviously think that the original paintings, mosaics, vases and sculptures still possess a magic that needs to be approached with delicacy.
This recent installation is the latest compromise between revelation and control in the long history of Pompeii pornography. The Bourbon kings, who ruled southern Italy when the first pornography was discovered, usually kept it out of sight. In the 1820s, certain objects were exhibited in a public museum, but they were quickly whisked away after King Francis I found it embarrassing to view them with his wife and daughter. That led to the creation of a Private Room of Obscene Objects, open only (as an official edict said) to "persons of a mature age and a well-known morality." This, of course, greatly enhanced the collection's reputation.
Giuseppe Garibaldi's government in the 1860s let the public see it, but when power passed to the Savoy kings, they buried the collection again. It was largely hidden during the period of Benito Mussolini, from 1922 to 1943. Even in the late 1940s, anyone wishing to see it needed written permission from a government official, attesting to serious purpose (there was a brisk trade in counterfeit permits). A special pornography room opened in the 1970s but soon closed, rather mysteriously, for "renovations." This year, after much private twittering, the museum has at last provided its pornographic holdings with what the curators consider an appropriately serious context.
As you enter the room, a giant stone phallus floorpiece greets you, as it did in many Roman houses, and a couple of phalluses jut out of walls, like lamp fixtures. A Greek vase depicts sodomy in the most literal way. There are phallic table decorations in metal. Wall paintings found in a brothel amount to a Kama Sutra of sexual positions and apparently functioned as a menu: Clients who were handicapped by shyness or inadequate language skills could point to what they wanted. Sometimes a sculpture's only purpose is comedy. A toga sculpted in marble shows a bulge that could only be an erection. One drawing shows a centaur, male, who turns away in disgust after discovering that Aphrodite possesses a penis attached to a female body.
Harmless as all this may be, it hasn't yet achieved the status of moral neutrality. In the 19th century, it was said to prove that Pompeii was particularly sinful and that the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (which brought life to an abrupt end in that city one summer day in AD 79) was the furious message of an outraged deity, in the Sodom and Gomorrah tradition. But it's likely that Pompeii had no more pornography or brothels than any other Roman port frequented by sailors and salesmen. The difference is that the thousands of tons of volcanic ash that entombed Pompeii gave us not only our best-preserved Roman town but also a uniquely revealing account of its sexuality -- and, of course, a cultural scandal that demonstrates as much about our own nervous attitudes to sex as it does about the lives of the ancients.