Show and tell
Licentious secrets abound in the world’s great museums, discovers Tony Perrottet
DURING the 19th century, tourists in the grand museums of Europe often had their own private agenda. What they really wanted to see were those wicked cabinets. The first and most famous of these was the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples, where the raunchy artworks of the ancient Romans, unearthed from the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, were off-limits to the general public. Access had been restricted since 1819, when the prudish heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future king Francesco I, dropped by the museum on a visit with his wife and daughter and was horrified to discover a graphic sex show culled from noble Romans’ villas. There were penis-shaped oil lamps and phallic wind chimes. There was a statue of the satyr Pan having his way with a she-goat. There were hermaphrodites being ravished, virgins deflowered, the god Priapus caressing his enormous member. And there were raunchy frescos from the walls of ancient Roman brothels, where prostitutes advertised their particular carnal skills. Prince Francesco stormed out in disgust, covering the eyes of his blushing daughter.
From that date on, only ‘‘ mature’’ gentlemen of ‘‘ well-known moral standing’’ were permitted to enter the room which, not surprisingly, took on a legendary status. Visitors from all over Italy arrived with spurious letters of introduction. Foreign travellers flocked to Naples on their grand tours and simply paid off the HENEVER someone implies that history is boring, I bring up Napoleon’s penis. Suddenly, they’re riveted to the spot. While the emperor’s petite baguette was notorious enough during his lifetime, it achieved celebrity status in its own right after Napoleon’s death in 1821, when it was allegedly sliced off during the autopsy and stolen by his sleazy and resentful physician.
The story of Bonaparte’s manhood, while attached to his person and roaming free, manages to combine everything we need to connect with the past: sex and fame, love and glory, tragedy and farce. It’s a rip-roaring saga and history is brimming with such riotous tales.
When I met John K. Lattimer, the elderly American urologist who bought Napoleon’s penis at auction in 1977, I was introduced to his extraordinary collection of historic memorabilia kept in his New Jersey home, including Nazi suicide vials, medieval chastity belts, Abraham Lincoln’s blood-stained collar, Marilyn Monroe’s bathing suit and JFK assassination relics.
The doctor’s omnivorous interest echoed the passions of past scholars and the largely forgotten use of secret cabinets, those specially designated rooms within the world’s great museums where anything deemed scandalous was safeguarded under lock and key and access was granted only to a lucky few. Peep into the past: The
cover of Napoleon’s Privates:2500Yearsof HistoryUnzipped by
Tony Perrottet guards. It was a turning point in cultural censorship.
As the conservative Victorian era progressed, the British Museum, the Louvre and museums in Florence, Rome, Madrid and Dresden established their own secret cabinets full of banned objets open only to citizens ‘‘ of the right sort’’.
The British version, known as the Secretum, became particularly famous among connoisseurs for its eclectic range. The core of the collection, donated in 1865 by a doctor turned banker named George Witt, was 700 phallic amulets found in ancient Assyria, Egypt and the classical world. (Witt, an amateur scholar who had made his fortune in Australia, espoused the theory that all great world religions began with phallus worship.) This was soon supplemented by a lewd instrument from a medieval nunnery known as ‘‘ St Cosmos’s big toe’’, pioneer porn from the Italian Renaissance and erotic curios from around the empire, with emphasis on India and the Orient.
Today, the secret cabinets have been prised open for the wider public, although not entirely disbanded. In 2000, Italian officials at the Naples National Museum begrudgingly allowed women into the notorious Gabinetto Segreto of ancient Roman art by appointment, although under-18s are still forbidden. (The room remains by far the most popular destination in that sprawling institution.)
For its part, the British Museum began diffusing items from the Secretum among its other collections in the 1930s, with several now on public display. Although 300 pieces, many from the former Witt Collection, were still kept in the notorious Cupboard 55 in the late 1990s, the last few were finally removed in 2005.
On the literary front, the legendary enfer , or hell, section of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and Private Case of the British Library, long the home to risque books, were disbanded in the 1970s, but the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan maintains a ‘‘ locked cage’’ in its Asian and Middle Eastern division for dusty volumes on Japanese brothels and Indian sex rites. The motive for the restricted access, librarians tell visitors, is no longer censorship; it’s concern that the books will be stolen. DURING the 18th century, Paris was the unrivalled sin city of Europe. Even the uproar of the 1789 revolution, which was initially supported by many French aristocrats, only helped promote its hedonistic reputation, at least until the Terror of 1793-94 squelched tourism.
No sooner had the Bastille fallen than the capital was flooded with foreigners, curiosity-seekers and political delegates from the French provinces, all looking to enjoy carnal delights while they savoured the newly democratic ambience. To help out-of-town gentlemen navigate the underbelly of the city, and to control the problem of over-charging, a unique and practical guidebook was quickly published for those seeking prostitutes in the Palais Royal, the enormous entertainment complex that doubled as a red-light district. Today, this pocket-sized opus — List of Compensation for the Ladies of the Palais Royal, and District, and for the Other Regions of Paris, Comprising Names and Addresses — provides an intimate glimpse of the 18thcentury sex industry.
The anonymous author notes that one lady of the night, nicknamed La Paysanne, or the country girl, charges a very reasonable six livres for her services, plus a bowl of punch. (The guide notes that La Paysanne only works during the day, preferring to sleep at night.) Mme Duperon and ‘‘ her four friends at salon No 33’’ are far more expensive, he warns, at 25 livres, while a certain Georgette is definitely to be avoided if she is drinking: ‘‘ a perfect disgrace’’.
For the new revolutionary era, the Palais Royal was soon renamed the Maison Egalite, or Equality House. While prostitutes thronged the sprawling complex, their presence did not deter visits by young couples or families. Conveniently placed opposite the Louvre, the palace’s gracious open spaces included gardens, cafes, clothes boutiques, theatres, billiard halls and amusement-park attractions.
There was a natural history museum, the world’s first wax museum, owned by Dr Curtius (where the young Madame Tussaud was apprenticed), a zoo and freak shows where you could gawk at a 287kg giant and a 200-year-old woman. There were astronomical machines showing planetary movements and a vehicle pulled by a mechanical deer, which would go backwards or forward on command. For refreshments, visitors could head to the Cafe Mecanique, where mocca coffee was pumped through a pipe in the middle of each table.
According to historians’ best guesses, the prostitutes continued to ply their trade untroubled by the revolution’s increasing violence. Less lucky was the owner of the Palais Royale, the duke of Orleans, an aristocrat who dubbed himself Citizen Equality and tried to ride out the waves of fury that had been unleashed. In 1793, he voted for the death sentence of his cousin, King Louis XVI, but was sent to the guillotine himself about 10 months later. Today, the Palais Royale is a pleasant and remarkably unsleazy tourist attraction set around a quiet lawn. This is an edited extract from Napoleon’sPrivates: 2500YearsofHistoryUnzipped by Tony Perrottet. The book has just been published in the US and is available via Australian bookseller sites such as www.seekbooks.com.au ($21.56). More: www.napoleonsprivates.com; www.harpercollins.com.