Is that a dirty picture you got there? Pompeii, the Birth of Pornography, and the Censorship of the Museum

Posted: December 20, 2010 in Uncategorized

Recently the disrepair of the Ancient city of Pompeii has come into international notice due to a number of collapsing and crumbling structures which make up the magnificent site.  Along with the richness of historical and social insight gained from this city, and the empire which fostered and encouraged it, the western fascination with the city of Pompeii was important to the modern world in another way which is not often recounted in the familiar narrative of this astonishing find.  The organization of the artifacts which were extracted from the site of Pompeii lead to the necessity of a new development and radical realignment of structure in the modern taxonomy of visual culture.  The conceptual discipline of the artist, and the ideas of social circulations and consumption of the produced artistic object (which were part of the artifacts unearthed by the dig), faced a crisis created by the excavations original findings. The vast number of these artistic objects, their placement throughout the entire spectrum of Pompeii’s social sites (both public and private), and the open, divergent representation of sexual behaviors and organs, forced a radical and necessary reevaluation of the foundation of the archive for the artistic objects and a new position to be taken in the museum and catalog culture which the art piece was to be displayed in.

Pompeii reconstruction

As the world confronted the art and culture of the Ancient Roman world through the exquisitely preserved city of Pompeii, the individuals who pulled the rich treasures from the hiding earth noted that the objects, in quite a thorough way, did not conform to the ideas (and, more obviously, the sensibilities) they had been educated to believe that they would find in Ancient Roman History – Muscular and Dignified Art from a Strong and Noble Past.  Due to the licentious nature of the vast majority of the art objects which were being recovered a new category would be needed in the taxonomy of visual art which would highlight its questionable nature and encapsulate it in an archive and museum of the unseeable.  This new Taxonomy came to the visual in the guise and terminology of that most elusive of categories, the Pornographic. This new taxonomy of the visual, where a rift is cleaved between the dual and decisive categories of “art” and “pornography”, would be bred from the first commencement of Pompeii’s discovery to the long museological evaluations carried out in the newly created Secret Museum of Naples.

Pompeii residential interior

In 1745, when the solid mud-stone ground made work to unearth site of Herculaneum unfeasible to further attempts, the excavators turned their attention to a not so distant Hill (located a few miles to the southwest of Herculaneum, and evocatively called “City”) which seemed to also be ripe in artifacts.  Due to the ash and rubble cover, which Pompeii had received from the volcanic cataclysm which had engulfed it, digging was conveniently easy at this new archeological site and in early 1748 the first complete fresco was unearthed within, what appeared to be, an entire and intact dining room.  Within the month a plethora of finds were brought to light at Pompeii including the first human remains which were found complete and in the act of grasping a bevy of coins imprinted with the image of the Emperor Nero.

The initial excitement of the richness of the dig, which lead to a chaotic and carnivalesque atmosphere (causing damage and loss too many pieces and structures), was brought under control with the appointment of Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1860 who took a steady charge of the dig and it’s organization.  Creating a complete and functionally correct  mapping of the underlying city, and calling for newly exposed artifacts to either remain in-place or be documented before being moved to the repository Museo Barbonico in Naples,  Fiorelli oversaw the unveiling of a magnificently intact and wondrously evocative City which came to capture the imagination of the Western World.

Goat and Satyr, Sculpture from Pompeii (Excavated 1758)

Though the city Pompeii had met its ill fate 30 years prior to what was termed the “Fall of the Roman Empire”, the Pompeii excavation began to yield a number of items, art and artifacts which reflected a “lax and degenerative moral sense” which the members and leaders of the dig had associated only with the morally depraved Roman State just before its fall (this followed  Gibbon’s notions of Bad and Weakened Morality bringing about the collapse in his “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” which was generally accepted historical fact of the time).  Early on in the excavation cycle a number of items at the Pompeii digs had been unearthed which were composed of items and art which reflected a “questionable nature”.  Most famously, in 1758, a Goat and a Satyr sculpture was revealed in which both protagonists were without doubt in a pleasantly playful and strangely mutual sexual congress.  At once the King Charles demanded the sculpture be removed from public access and shown to none.  Yet already in 1786 Richard Payne Knight referred to the piece in a text called, Discourse on the Worship of Priapus, where he noted that his access to the sculpture had been in a Museum removed from the Pompeii site. This was most likely the Barbanico Museo which, it seems, had obtained its first secret item, and to which, even at this early point in the Museums history, was accessible to the ruling elites with proper connections and long enough purse strings.

Pompeii Fresco in Residence

The segregated taxonomic museum which was housing the more dubious pieces of art removed from Pompeii was obviously underway at this point in time, and it was to continue in this fashion, hidden from all but the few who could reasonably petition for access, for the next 200 years.  Access was withheld from the objects categorized here, and even the information that this Museum existed at all, was withheld from those of a “unenlightened class” (including women), while those of a proper “character”, i.e. upper class males, were granted access after appropriate application to the authorities. Catalogs published at the time, and later, about the general collection would exclude these items, which were either placed in the Secret Museum in Naples or, as in the case of frescoes, locked behind doors and “cabinets”.  It was assumed that the correct type of gentleman could fill in the gaps left by these public accessible guide books.

Pompeii Fresco of Priapus in Cabinet

The problem of these images of “depravity” became more difficult to deal with as the City became more fully exposed to the world.  Everywhere in the uncovered grounds of Pompeii were images, statues and paraphernalia which incorporated images wholly unacceptable to the sensibility of the excavator or to the catalogers of the site.  A literal forest of phallus’s (Priapus,a God, or god form as phallus, which denotes growth, luck, generation, and abundant crops) obviously surrounded the residents of this noble Roman city from ordinary doorways to the shared public square, and frescoes of sexual congress were spied at every turn, both in private dwellings and public brothels, all depicting a multitude of arrangements and participants in every imaginable sexual arrangement (and maybe more shockingly to these excavators the women in these representations were also found on “top” or receiving cunnilingus).

Fresco in Pompeii Bath

It became obvious that a new category was necessary in the taxonomy to divide these images from the normal art object. To understand, to properly contain, and to detail a subtle categorization of these images and objects it was first necessary to find a term which could be applied to them and separating them from the ordinary art object while simultaneously giving these objects status for study and under full official censor.  In Short, the Objects and Representations in the Secret Museum needed a name.

C. O. Muller in his publication “Handbook of the Archeology of Art” (1850), sparingly and offhandedly mentions, in this text, the immense number of obscene objects recovered in the work of Pompeii and dubs the artists who fell into the error of creating these obscene images “Pornographers”.  The English translation of the original German text is the first usage of the term, pornography, and the term spread rapidly and came to be the label applied to this problematic visual imagery.  Muller’s use of the term comes from a second century text by the author Athenaeus and was pounced upon first by him and then the art community to explain the “species” of this type of imagery, what this imagery is meant to do, and by who it is made. Pornography (meaning literally “whore writing”) by being placed in diametrical opposition to the normative representational imagery of art made taxonomic contamination between the two impossible (making art once again safe).

The newly minted objects, now termed pornography, could be responsibly whisked away with a renewed vigor to the locked room of the Museo Borbonico (now the National Museum in Naples which, after a brief colloquial period, came to be called, officially, the Secret Museum) there to be contained as the contagion that it was and as a means of controlling the ideas and affects fostered through the images. Cataloging of the collection housed in the Secret Museum was carried out in 1866 and, to further cement the taxonomic systematization, the catalog was titled the “Pornographic Collection”.  Along with the Cabinets and Locked doors which keep spectators from viewing of the Frescoes, Rooms, and unmoveable sculptures/objects at the grounds of Pompeii, and the exclusivity of entrance to the Secret Museum, the catalog, as well, became an exclusive item to be produced solely for the contemplation of males of the “proper education and sensibility”.


Pompeii Priapus Figure meant to Bring Luck and Good Harvest

The arrangement of exclusivity and pre-requesting access to the Secret Museum in Naples was continued until 2000 (children were still excluded up to 2005), and for the Cabinets, Peep holes, and Locked Doors of Pompeii until 1960.

  1. […] of “alternative” museums and taxonomies for “questionable” art, see here). Additionally these adherents believe (softly also) art should not be “interfered” with by any […]

  2. Emma says:

    Where did you find the Pompeii Fresco of Priapus in Cabinet? I’ve been looking for a print source with a high quality image – can you point me in the right direction? Thanks so much.

    • hapstance says:

      Sorry Emma, but in all of my research for the blogpost I don’t seem to have where I obtained the picture of the Pompeii Fresco of Priapus in Cabinet! A preliminary search comes up with only low resolution pictures.
      I would guess the outrageousness of the image along with its oversized humor makes it a bit “thick” for our consumption!
      If you find a source of the image (or if I do) let me know!

    • Obie says:

      Here is another larger, though lower quality picture at 2001 x 3000 pixels.

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