Show and tell

Li­cen­tious se­crets abound in the world’s great mu­se­ums, dis­cov­ers Tony Per­rot­tet

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

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