As I entered the Gabinetto Segreto at the Naples Archaeological Museum, I expected to encounter unpalatable sexual obscenity. The doorway is gated by a metal fixture emblematic of a prison cell door, and traversing it makes you feel defiant (Figure 1). A collection that originated in a “secret cabinet” for erotically charged artifacts from the Bay of Naples, to be viewed by a select few upon appointment, now comprises an entire room open to the public. However, with the room’s positioning at the end of a long, winding gallery, it is still difficult to find. Asking the guard where the room was located made me feel sultrous, a sentiment augmented by the man’s eyebrow-raised response. “Ahhh, Gabinetto Segreto,” he replied, insinuating that I was seeking the gallery for my own deviant ends.
However, this need not be the case. In Mary Beard’s book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, one of the most comprehensive accounts of daily life in the ancient city, chapter seven touches upon ancient Roman conceptions of pleasure. Beard emphasizes that Roman sexual culture diverged greatly from our own, positing that “power, status, and good fortune were expressed in terms of the phallus” (Beard 2010, 233). Hence, not every display of genitalia was inherently erotic to the Romans, and the presence of the phallus was ubiquitous in Pompeii, dominating the city in “unimaginable varieties” (Beard 2010, 233). Rather than exploiting this culture to educate the public on Roman society’s fascinating difference from our own with respect to sexual symbolism, scholars for generations have reacted adversely, such as by covering up frescoes that were once viewed casually in the domestic context.
Indeed, Beard recalls that when she visited the site of Pompeii in 1970, the “phallic figure” at the entrance of the House of the Vetii (I assume she is referring to Priapus weighing his apotropaic phallus) was covered up, only to be viewed upon request (Beard 2010, 233) (Figure 2). When I visited the site in 2019, people crowded around the image with collapsed jaws, personifying the anxieties of early archaeologists about putting these objects on display. But Priapus’ phallus was not an inherently sexual appendage, and thus does not merit shock for being placed in the home. Rather, his phallus was widely considered an apotropaic symbol often associated with warding off theft. Hence it’s placement in the fauces of the home, a passageway through which a thief may wish to enter.
This history of “erotic” display at Pompeii brings us back to the Gabinetto Segretto. While some pieces in the collection descend from brothels, and prospectively, held either pornographic or instructional applications (scholars continue to debate the function of brothel erotica), other pieces were quotidian decorations in the domestic and public spheres. In Sarah Levin-Richardson’s publication Modern Tourists, Ancient Sexualities: Looking at Looking in Pompeii’s Brothel and the Secret Cabinet, she argues that the 21st century saw a new era of accessibility of the Gabinetto Segreto’s objects. Levin-Richardson praises the newly curated collection, stating that “the decor of the display space mimics each of those locales to help tourists understand the original contexts in which these items appeared” (Levin Richardson, 2011, 325). She highlights the “intended itinerary through space” that the room creates by grouping objects that descend from similar spaces, such as those from brothels, domestic realms, and streets (Levin Richardson, 2011, 325).
Having experienced the Gabinetto Segretto first hand, I find Levin-Richardson’s view of the modern collection far too optimistic. While I understand that rendering the collection open to the public was in and of itself a progressive transformation, an even more beneficial move would have been to eliminate the Gabinetto Segreto entirely by rehoming objects to galleries containing artifacts from similar loci, demonstrating the casual nature of sexual representation and its commingling with more prudent art.
As such, I hated my visit to the Gabinetto Segretto. I resented the curation of the collection, namely the implication that all objects in the collection belong together in a sexually deviant category. As discussed in ARCH 350, when an object is taken from a site and placed in a museum, it is removed from its context, which is the archaeologist’s responsibility to reconstruct through extensive recording methods. In my opinion, it is of commensurate import for the museum curator to reconstruct context within a museum display. At the very least, I would have liked to see clear indications of the non-erotic spaces from which many of the objects originated.
It was particularly disheartening to see a fresco depicting a conjugal bed occupied by a man and woman in the fore with a transparent figure, likely an ancilla, in the background (Figure 3). The perspective is such that we view the couple from behind, not seeing any genitalia. The Gabinetto’s possession of a painting of this sort, one in which sex is not depicted but merely implied, showcases the intense anxieties of eighteenth- and ninteenth-century scholars and curators in making public galleries palatable. I find the lasting seclusion of items like this in the secret cabinet consistent with outdated views on Roman sexuality.
Indeed, I recognized this painting as being from the peristyle of the house of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus. The provenance of this fresco in the domestic realm makes me question its placement in a room that also contains art from the brothel, an inherently sexual locus. Although Levin-Richardson highlights that domestic paintings were grouped together to reconstruct their context, clear identification of the painting’s domestic setting is nowhere to be found. Its location in the peristyle is also significant, as an peristyle, being a transient space, did not feature images intended for people to spend much time reflecting upon. Therefore, if the Pompeians didn’t look upon images like these and revel in their sexual obscenity, they shouldn’t be placed in a “cabinet” that invites us to do just that.