In Search of the Secretum

Sex has always been the unspoken inspiration for travel.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the first travel book in history, Ulysses, the hero, spends more time in the arms of comely nymphs and enchantresses than actually under sail. Medieval pilgrims were notorious for spicing up their religious devotions with riotous fornication. By the 19th century, the erotic obsession had spilled from the bordellos and bars to suffuse the whole sightseeing agenda, creating a secret itinerary across Europe. For dirty-minded tourists, no visit to Paris was complete without a visit to the Enfer, or Hell, section of the National Library, where banned pornographic books from the Renaissance onward were conveniently hidden. The highlight of southern Italy was the ancient Roman brothels of Pompeii and their frescoes demonstrating sexual positions. Nobody had “done” Venice without visiting Casanova’s prison cell or Provence without admiring the dungeon of the Marquis de Sade. In fact, the discerning traveler was spoiled for choice: Europe’s major museums all had their off-limits rooms containing saucy relics, and every noble family boasted its private cabinet of naughty artifacts.

While researching my book on salacious history, Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, I realized that this deviant itinerary could still be traced through the underbelly of Europe—in short, a Pervert’s Grand Tour. I’d always avoided the most popular attractions of Britain, France, and Italy, but this was an inspiring prospect: I would pick three “official” destinations and seek out some tasteful historical filth.

And I knew just the place to start.

Oh, Behave! The Wicked British Museum

Sexual imagery is so ubiquitous these days that only the most lurid display can raise an eyebrow, but there is still something deliciously furtive about tracking down a Victorian cache of “obscene objects”—the British Museum’s once-forbidden Secretum.        

The prospect had me as wide-eyed as a schoolboy as I made a beeline through the drizzling rain to that hallowed institution in the heart of old London. Once inside, wandering the stolid Georgian corridors of the King’s Library, I fantasized that pulling a book from one of the mahogany shelves would open a secret passageway to a cave of sinful treats—the private collection, perhaps, of Sir Richard Burton, first translator of the Kama Sutra; or Henry Spencer Ashbee, author of the Victorian porn classic My Secret Life; or even Sir William Hardman, “genial connoisseur of smut.”

The reality was slightly less Merchant Ivory, but in my feverish state, nothing could disappoint. After muttering my name into to an intercom, I was ushered into a waiting room by a little old lady, then pointed down some gloomy stairs into the storage areas. The public face of the British Museum immediately dissolved: Marble splendor was replaced by institutional gray. The corridors were shabby, the paint chipped, and windows grimy in that One Flew Over theCuckoo’s Nest sort of way. Things were getting interesting.

Waiting for me was a young curator—Liz Gatti, a fashionable urbanite with an understated nose piercing, looking like a Marc Jacobs emissary now lost in Bleak House.

“We get a lot of inquiries about the Secretum,” she began, as I signed the visitors’ book. “But I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. There’s hardly anything left!”

“Oh, that’s not important,” I said with what I hoped was sober aplomb.

We followed a corridor lined with antique wooden cabinets, each marked with a bronze number plaque, until we stopped in front of 55. This was it. The dreaded Cupboard 55 was the last known resting place of the Secretum.

“No whiff of brimstone,” I joked. Ms. Gatti looked at me askance, then pulled out a fistful of keys.

The Museum Secretum was officially created in 1865, at the height of Victorian sexual hysteria, to protect the more impressionable public—women, children, and the working class—from the moral perils of erotica. At the time, boatloads full of archaeological finds were arriving from abroad, and these revealed the exuberant carnal habits of classical cultures. Excavations in the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, for example, included eye-popping images of uninhibited pagan copulation in every gender combination, the same images that had once graced every bedroom, street, tavern, and brothel of antiquity. Such guilt-free sex, it was decided in London, should be locked safely behind closed doors. (Naples, the city closest to the Pompeii dig, already had a Secretum in its Bourbon Museum; known as the Gabineto Segreto, or Secret Cabinet, it was created in 1819.) According to former curator Dr. David Gaimster, London’s Secretum soon housed 1,100 objects. Only gentleman scholars deemed qualified to interpret such dangerous imagery could gain access.

As one would expect, the Secretum soon took on an underground cachet, luring a steady stream of randy tourists, dilettantes, and voyeurs, who would seek permission from the official “keeper of the Secretum” for a private session with the relics. The 434 phallic objects donated by an oddball collector named George Witt, a former medical doctor who had made a fortune in Australia as a banker, were a particular draw. Witt was convinced that all ancient religions had begun with phallus worship, and he amassed a huge array of examples to prove his thesis. Also in the dark and dingy storage room were a series of graphic Italian engravings from the 1500s called “The Positions,” illustrating pornographic verse by Pietro Aretino; ancient Greek drinking cups adorned with explicit sex scenes; a replica chastity belt; antique condoms; a statue of the god Pan fornicating with a she-goat; and exotic erotica from the colonies, especially India and the Far East.

Wicked items were still being added as late as 1953, but finally, in the more permissive atmosphere of the 1960s, the Secretum collection was gradually redistributed to other parts of the museum. From the 1980s, its remaining relics were kept in Cupboard 55, which today is under the management of the Department of Prehistory and Europe. I naturally assumed that anything still confined to the cupboard at such a late date must be pretty darned offensive. And since the British Museum’s entire storage collection is open to the public by appointment on weekday afternoons, I applied to have a peek.

I actually held my breath as Ms. Gatti creaked open the doors like a vampire’s casket. Blinking in the half-light, I made out rows of peculiar items that looked a bit like dreidels. I peered closer. “Egad,” I said, mystified. They were dreidels.

“Everything has been moved about,” Liz explained. “Today we use this cupboard to mostly house Judaica.” This was deflating and disturbing news: It turns out that most of the last items had been redistributed in 2005. “There was no logic to the Secretum,” she added. “Modern curators believe it’s important to keep items within their cultural context. Keeping ‘immoral’ objects together in one place was a false premise.”

But is there nothing here from the former collection? I pleaded.

“Well …” she said hesitantly, fingering the keys. “A few bits and bobs.”

That was when she cracked open the doors to Cupboard 54. And there, embedded in neat rows of clinically white, acid-free foam, was a selection of pastel-colored wax penises. These miniature ornaments were used in the late 1700s as votive offerings in a village in southern Italy, hung by the peasantry on the walls of Catholic churches as fertility symbols. They had been collected by Sir William Hamilton, who had been posted as the British envoy extraordinary to the court of Naples during the Napoleonic wars (and whose wife, Lady Hamilton, famously ran off with Lord Nelson).

Another foam sheet held ancient Roman rings and charms decorated with erect male members, laid out in neat rows like bright insects caught by a collector.

“Most of the supposedly ‘obscene’ items in the Secretum were not originally created to be titillating,” Liz explained. “These were everyday objects for the ancient Romans. The phallic imagery was actually used for good luck and safety. Even the Roman kids wore little rings with phalluses engraved upon them.”

My eye was drawn to the last display—four soft strips that turned out to be condoms from the 18th century. These pioneer contraceptives were handcrafted from animal intestines, but the result was very attractive. In a nice design touch, they were tied at the open end by little pink silk ribbons.

“They’re like works of art,” I marveled.

Finally, taking a deep breath, I stepped back onto the polished parquet of the real world. As a parting gift, Liz gave me a printout of items that had once been in the Secretum and were now on permanent public display. I searched throughout the galleries and identified many of the items that were once too immoral to be seen—a classical roll call of satyrs, sodomites, hermaphrodites, and maenads, women driven to a sexual frenzy. In one cabinet, a woman was passionately copulating with a horse; in the next, a young girl was “tending phalloi,” pouring seed over a series of erections like gnomes in a garden.

All very impressive—but somehow, under the bright lights of the regular museum, it wasn’t quite the same.