Saturday, February 28, 2015

Royal Bourbon Museum's "Cabinet of obscene objects"

An extended family on their Grand Tour of Europe, picked their way through the city of Pompeii.  A uniformed guard approached the gentleman of the party, whispering,  "Wanna see some dirty pictures?"

A small bundle of cash was passed from hand to hand, and the guard opened a medicine cabinet of the kind you find in home bathrooms,  mounted flush against a small section of an ancient Roman wall covered with frescoes.

The cabinet had no back, such that when you opened the front of the cabinet you saw a "secret" mosaic on the wall. In this case, the mosaic was of an ancient Roman happily grinning while weighing his genitalia on a hand-held scale.
Priapus in a cabinet
The women in the group craned their necks to see inside the cabinet, but the guard shooed them off.  "Ladies are not allowed to see these things."

After one and a half millennia of strangling Christian prohibitions on the earthy expression of sexuality,  Europeans were titillated and inspired by the erotic artwork uncovered from the ashes of Vesuvius.


ENFOLDING.ORG:  In 1734 Charles of Bourbon, king of Naples and Sicily commenced a programme of digging around Naples, which led to the excavation of Herculaneum (1738) the rediscovery of Pompeii (1763) and the Villa dei Papiri....  Amidst the wealth of classical treasures brought out of the ground were objects of a more troubling nature. One such find was a marble statue of Pan copulating with a goat, unearthed from the Villa dei Papiri in 1752.
According to Judith Harris, Charles and his court were present at Karl Weber’s excavation site when this sculpture group was brought to light:
“Amidst a flotilla of courtiers in silks and befurred velvet finery, Charles and his Prussian wife Queen Maria Amalia arrived in a rustling, stately procession and took their seats on folding chairs. From the bowels of the earth the carved white marble group of two embracing figures, which Weber had found in the Great Peristyle, appeared at the mouth of the tunnel, borne upon a litter carried by prison labourers. A shiver of excitement rippled through the court. Already the dainty turn of that horn revealed the prized Greek look. When the whole sculpture group hoved into view two heads could be seen and two bodies. One seemed to be a man of sorts, though at closer look he wore two small horns on his head. He gazed fondly into the female’s languid marble eyes.
Αιξ (or Aex) was the nymph or possibly goat wife of the god Pan.
She was seduced by Zeus and bore him son named Aigipan
For locked in his embrace was a female goat, surely the prettiest in the flock, whom he was in the act of penetrating.”
(Harris, 2005, p47)
Charles was shocked by this find, ordered the excavations to be halted, and consigned the statue to a cupboard, with access granted only with the direct permission of the king himself.
 In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals".  "Foreigners visiting Naples on the Grand Tour tended to indulge in ribaldry whenever the  "Cabinet of obscene objects" was mentioned, and their comments could be decidedly defamatory with respect to life and morals in the Kingdom of Naples."  
Add Johann Joseph Zoffany, Charles Towneley con i suoi amici, , 1783 circa.

In spite of its segregation, the fame of the collection grew throughout the 19th century, as we learn from the number of visitors' permits issued by the Ministry of the Interior. It was not long before these permits had to be printed to keep up with the demand, and needless to say there were complaints about delays, salacious witticisms and also ploys to circumvent the system. The way in which the collection was administered became a symbol of the cultural backwardness of the Bourbon regime, and both the revolutionaries of 1848 and Garibaldi's forces in 1860 pledged to reopen the Cabinet as an assertion of liberty.

Following the Unification of Italy the director of the Museum, Giuseppe Fiorelli, removed many of the objects from the Cabinet and reaffirmed the importance of the collection as a palaeo-anthropological record of sexuality. Indeed, in view of the fact that the purchases continued to be made, such as an ancient mosaic portraying pygmies bought in Rome in 1894, it was obviously intended as a national collection. At the same time, however, access was once again restricted, a state of affairs that continued throughout the first half of the 20th century and even following the Second World War.

N. Brooke, in his Observations on the manners and customs of Italy (1798) noted a "statue of a goat and satyr in a joined unnatural position, that which decency cannot be described," which Brooke thought should be thrown back into the volcano.

Dominique-Vivant Denon made a series of drawings (including the infamous Pan & goat) based on the erotic artefacts from Pompeii, and published it under the title Priapees et sujets divers.
Dominique Vivant-Denon, Phallus phénoménal, 1793  
A parody of the monstrous whales by Jan Saenredam.
 Pierre-Sylvain Maréchal, between 1780 and 1803, published a nine-volume work devoted to the finds at Herculaneum, the  LES ANTIQUITÉS D'HERCULANUM AVEC LEURS EXPLICATIONS EN FRANÇOIS. 
A set of LES ANTIQUITÉS D'HERCULANUM... was given by Thomas Jefferson to his young protege, the painter John Trumbull. Jefferson has inscribed it on the front fly leaf of the first volume, "Th. J. begs Mr. Trumbull will do him the favor to accept this copy of the Herculaneum."  Jefferson's gift to Trumbull of this set of Maréchal's ANTIQUITÉS D'HERCULANUM is significant on several levels.

The publication of illustrated books such as Maréchal's, showing the antiquities preserved and discovered at Herculaneum, had an important effect on the growing popularity of Neoclassical styles and themes in contemporary European and American art. Jefferson himself owned a set of Maréchal's work (although it was not among the works sold to the Library of Congress; it appears in the 1828 sale catalogue of his retained library) , and he not only gave this set to Trumbull but ordered a set for the library at the University of Virginia as well. 
Jefferson himself was very influenced by classical styles, as evidenced in his architectural designs for Monticello and the University of Virginia. John Trumbull was also greatly influenced by classical art, and was a central figure in the Neoclassical revival in America.

« »
In the eighteenth century it became fashionable for young men of wealth and rank to go on “the Grand Tour” to France and Italy in order to have their education finished. The tour generally lasted between two and five years, and the great cultural centres of Paris, Rome and Naples were favourite stopping points. The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum also added to the attractions of the Grand Tour, and wealthy antiquarians flocked to Naples, first as collectors, and later as dealers.
The Tour was also an opportunity for sexual adventure, and there were frequent worries that travel to France and Italy would “effeminate” young men. Italy, in particular, had a reputation for sodomy.   William Beckford referred to Italy as “the place for sinners of a certain sort”.
Before the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum, Rome had been thought as a font of austere majesty and wisdom, but as the excavations uncovered a wide range of sexually explicit objects and scenes, painted on walls and floor mosaics, on vases, in sculpture and everyday objects, scholars gradually (and reluctantly) came to the conclusion that such erotic displays were not exceptions, but the rule. One popular notion which arose in the wake of these discoveries was that the Roman Empire had collapsed because of moral corruption and depravity and that the eruption of Vesuvius was a divine punishment for the licentiousness of the inhabitants of Pompeii.

No comments:

Post a Comment