BMCR 2003.07.38

Louis Barré, Museo Segreto. With a Facsimile edition of Herculanum et Pompéi. Recueil général des peintures, bronzes, mosaïques… (1877)

, , , , Museo segreto : Louis Barré. Pompei: Marius, 2001. 2 volumes : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 8888419055 EUR 78.00.

Both libraries and private collections that possess a section of Pompeiana will be pleased by the facsimile edition of this old book, which forms the eighth and last part of the well-known series Herculanum et Pompéi, edited by the Paris house Firmin-Didot.1 This work was one of the major scientific publications of the second quarter of the 19th century about the finds from Herculaneum and Pompeii. The eighth volume is very rare and often missing in otherwise complete sets. It apparently remained hidden, literally under the table, as it contains descriptions and illustrations of objects in the shape of male genitals and representations of sex in all sorts of art and craft found in the excavations of Herculaneum, Stabiae and Pompeii.

From the start of the excavations in these three cities, in 1738, 1748 and 1749 respectively, a lot of ‘obscene’ items were found and — luckily — not destroyed. They were exhibited in the Summer Palace of the Bourbon Kings in Portici and, after being brought to Naples, in the Palazzo degli Studi, nowadays the Museo Nazionale. In 1819 they were banished to a separate section of the museum, appropriately called Gabinetto or Museo Segreto, and were no longer visible to ordinary visitors. The director in 1849 ordered the entrance closed with a real wall in brick which was opened after the fall of the Bourbon Kingdom in 1860. Despite the more liberal periods after the absolute reign, the Museo Segreto remained until the late 20th century. I remember when working in the museum for my PhD around 1980 that special permission was needed to study objects in those rooms. As a matter of fact, it was as late as 2000 that the collection was opened to the general public. The book under review was one of the few publications that dared to present these works and to illustrate them, whereas the increasing bibliography on Pompeii neglected them entirely.2 Laurentino García y García describes the history of this section, highly exhilarating but at the same time very stupid and saddening (pp. 19-26).

The two editors of this reissue of the volume are well-known in the field. The Spanish historian García y García compiled an important work of bibliography, published in 1998 on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the discovery of Pompeii, and has written important articles on historical aspects of the excavations.3 Luciana Jacobelli edited an acclaimed volume on the erotic paintings in the Suburban Baths and has published lavishly on ‘sexual’ and other Pompeian topics.4 During her research in Roman sexuality she obviously came across Barré’s work and made use of it.

The publication consists of two parts. The first volume is the facsimile reprint of the original book, the second includes an Italian translation of the text, modern photographs of the objects discussed (if available) and some lines of comment and bibliographical notes.

Let us first look at the work itself. Louis Barré wrote an extensive introduction in order to defend the edition of the ‘Inferno’ of the pornographic cabinet. He stated that the knowledge of the ancient erotic written sources was considered less problematic than that of the objects. Why should we have problems with these images, belonging to people of the same race of authors like Aristophanes, Anacreon, Ovid, Martial and Petronius? These monuments could even better illustrate ancient life than the texts. Even the venerable Fathers of the church, especially Augustine, were called into the court.

Barré ‘proves’ the importance of the works of arts by the introduction of relevant text passages. Indeed, he finds relevant lines from the most obscure writers and does not bother about the probability that such quotations do not pertain to the objects. The context, date, genre and other matters of fact do not prevent the French scholar from using texts indiscriminately. This display of learnedness may even have served the collector of pornography as an alibi to buy this book: the possessor is a learned man who masters his classics and knows “how to bluff his way” through antique sexuality. The most curious alibi is the following (p. 6): “D’ailleurs, le plupart des monuments dont il s’agit sont vraiment chastes dans leur obscénité même, chastes par l’intention et le style sévère de l’artiste, chastes par la sainteté des idées qu’ils devaient réveiller. Il faut soigneusement distinguer, parmi ces monuments, une partie hiératique ou religieuse, une partie purement licencieuse.” It was only in the later phase of ancient civilisation that the second, worse category of sex came into being, which was partly due to the character of the local people, rough peasants without any education. As to the collection in Naples the author stresses (p. 11) that it is open to “hommes d’un âge mur; et l’on exige même de chaque visiteur qu’il ait obtenu une permission spéciale du ministre de la maison du roi des Deux-Siciles.” Such is true for this catalogue, Barré argues, a purely scientific publication, the description of which is simple and pure (pp. 11-12): “Dans l’exercice d’une sainte magistrature, l’homme de la science ne doit avoir ni rougeur ni sourire. Nous avons regardé nos statues comme un anatomiste contemple ses cadavres.” Things that cannot be named are described in Latin, whereas the illustration, albeit without veils, refrain from showing details like erect penises. This introduction is an important statement: the classicist and the archaeologist are lucky men (women are not admitted to these circles at all) who can frankly study this important aspect of antiquity.

The sixty plates contain not only objects from the cities of Vesuvius, but even some paintings from the Renaissance and statues from the Farnese collection (e.g. Venus Callipyge, pl. 35, said to come from Nero’s Golden House [p. 169], which is highly improbable as the debris within its rooms did not contain high-quality objects of art). The first half is dedicated to paintings and (a few) mosaics and may form the most precious section, as it contains images of decorations now lost. Despite the title of the book, several of these paintings never entered the museum but remained in situ, where they were destroyed. A famous case is that of the paintings in a wine shop cum brothel (pl. 20). Barré’s texts are informative but do not give indications about the context or the provenance. He sometimes wonders why an item has been included in the Gabinetto Segreto but in general tries to underline the more or less pointed pornographic character of the objects. In several cases the image is the starting point for excursus on topics like Roman matrimony, brothels, sex variations, house interiors, etc. The second half of the plates consist of marble statues (the afore-mentioned Venus, the symplegma of a satyr and a goat, a sleeping fisher boy), large bronzes (satyrs from the Villa dei Papyri at Herculaneum) and statuettes in the shape of Priapi, phalluses and lamps. Some reliefs are added as well, whereas terracotta lamps are lacking. Few objects will be seen as porn items: we may single out the already mentioned symplegma and the group of Pan and Daphnis studying the syrinx.

The second book starts with a discussion of Roux-Barré e la costruzione culturale della sessualità by John R. Clarke, well known for his monograph on Roman sexuality.5 According to Clarke, Barré’s volume marks a moment in the construction of sexuality. Even the notion of pornography in the sense we use it is not ancient, since the word was associated with prostitution. The term Museo Pornografico, therefore, explained the collection as a collection of material about ancient prostitution. For the other sexual objects words like secret were used and this led to the name of the Museo or Gabinetto Segreto, in Naples as well as elsewhere (London, Florence, Madrid and Dresden).

Clarke makes clear that the erotic stimuli were limited by presenting the objects according to a strict classification: when one sees all amulets in the shape of phalli, or all intercrural copulations in a set, the onlooker will not gain a close relationship with one of them. Singling out an object could be more dangerous than giving the whole ensemble at once. As a matter of fact, the collection in the Royal Palace at Portici followed this taxonomy, a clear sort of Diderot’s Encyclopédie order corresponding with Enlightenment interest in systematisation. The new Cabinet will have used similar principles. I liked Clarke’s elegant sketch but missed his point as to the construction of sexuality: apart from mentioning Foucault and Halperin he does not explain himself very clearly about the construction of sexuality.

García y García presents the few facts known about Barré and the enterprise of the Herculanum et Pompéi, especially of its eighth volume. Barré (1799-1857) was a prolific author in various fields and known among Pompeii scholars for the texts in Mazois’ fourth volume and those in the Roux-Barré series.6 Barré’s Herculanum et Pompéi was a successful series, translated into German and Italian and copied and reworked in various editions (pp. 11-16). Its success also stems from the fact that the work was less elitist, more accessible to the (new) public of burghers instead of the old nobility, thanks to less expensive reproduction techniques. The Paris editor Firmin-Didot developed a real book industry, focusing on the erudite French bourgeois, and the Musée of Roux and Barré forms a good example of it.

García y García also offers a short chapter on the history of the Gabinetto Segreto, summarised above, while Luciana Jacobelli introduces Pompei città di Venere. This last chapter is the most thorough essay of this section, showing the author’s in-depth knowledge of Pompeii and its erotica. She concludes that erotic images and objects were everywhere and not limited to brothels and/or sleeping rooms. They enhanced the sense of luck and prosperity and belonged to the general atmosphere of Dionysos and Aphrodite surrounding the private sphere in everyday life.

The translation of the text is preceded by a note by the translator, M. Giovanna Canzanella Quintaluce. The catalogue entries contain bibliographical additions by García y García and Jacobelli, mostly adequate but sometimes missing important publications, including those by Jacobelli and Clarke (see notes 4 and 5).

A predecessor of Barré, César Famin had more explicit drawings, showing the penis more clearly. Famin had written a similar introduction to his work as Barré, but I think that his book was used more or less as a pornographic work in the modern sense of the word.7

The re-edition of the book and its update in the form of short comments, modern illustrations and bibliographies is useful for those working in the field of erotica romana. They will find a huge amount of material, partly left unnoticed in previous, more scientific publications, and in several cases the editors were able to reconstruct the find context, making these objects still more useful. The historian of sex and mentality will find other points of interest, such as the attitude towards sexuality as expressed by Barré in his introduction and in the commentary (albeit rather sober in that respect).


1. The facsimile re-edition is that of a later print. The first edition is of 1841. See about the various edition García y García in the second volume, pp. 11-16.

2. 18th-century records tell much more than later ones, firstly since visitors actually saw those objects, secondly because of the different sort of public, the different mentality and interest.

3. L. García y García, Nova Bibliotheca Pompeiana, Rome 1998. He made a mistake in giving these two volumes under review different front pages, for which reason I have to describe them as two different works. They are sold together in a slipcase.

4. L. Jacobelli, Le pitture erotiche delle Terme Suburbane a Pompei, Rome 1995.

5. J.R. Clarke, Looking at Lovemaking. Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 BC-250 AD, Berkeley 1998. This work is not included in the bibliography of the work discussed here, although Clarke shows some of the works published by Barré.

6. In a note (p. 10 note 2) he is compared to García y García himself as a contributor to books edited under the name of another person. Both he and our Spanish editor had “dovuto sottostare al giogo dell’anonimato”, the latter working for Halsted B. Vanderpoel’s Corpus Topographicum Pompeianum.

7. C. Famin, Musée Royal de Naples. Peintures, bronzes et statues érotiques du Cabinet secret, Paris 1836. There are several later editions of the work. See in the present work pl. 20 and the reproduction of these (lost) paintings from Famin in the volume of comment; it is mentioned by García y García p. 13.