Slate contributor Tony Perrottet was online at Washingtpost.com to chat with readers about his tour of Europe’s sex-related historical sites. An unedited transcript follows.
Freising, Germany: I’m a bit surprised by the quote, “Medieval pilgrims were notorious for spicing up their religious devotions with riotous fornication”. These days, I usually equate pilgrims with the long pilgrimage to Santiago in Spain, where most hikers seem to be health enthusiasts with an interest in religion.
Do you have any visits planned for Germany or Spain?
Tony Perrottet: Pilgrims these days are a relatively sedate bunch! In the Middle Ages, they were notorious debauchees—every town on the pilgrimage trails apparently loved and dreaded the arrival of pilgrims, who would party all night and cause all sort of raucous disturbances, running off with others’s spouses, inviting groups of prostitutes into the inns…
I’d love to visit Germany, my book just came out there in German—I’ve forgotten what it is in German, Napoleon’s Egg, I believe it translates as…
Washington, D.C.: I wonder if your travels ever took you to Paris, or if you had hoped to go, to learn about the infamous sexual culture of that city. I would think there’d be some historic old brothels to visit, or the birthplaces of the lingerie France is renowned for. Why do we associate Paris so intimately with sex? And is there more to France’s sexual attractions than merely those related to the Marquis de Sade?
Tony Perrottet: You’re right, Paris has been famous for its permissive culture since the time of Louis XIV I think (up there with Venice…) When I was last there, I hunted down some chastity belts kept in the Cluny Museum of medieval art… they used to be huge tourist attractions in the 19th century… There is definitely more than the Marquis to find there, I would love to track down the ancient brothels (actually, it would be quite easy to do, since they published guidebooks to Parisian prostitutes, with their rates and specialities…!)
Anonymous: Tony : I’m curious why you describe the Marquis as a gourmand. Do you think his palete one that appreciated fine food or did he just like to eat ?
Tony Perrottet: Both, as I understand it! He really loved the Provencal food—although not the super-rich sauces etc that the French are fond of, more the natural ingredients, cheeses, meats etc (very modern!) His favorite wine I understand was aged burgundy, although he was relatively abstemious. He ended up being quite obese in his old age (unlike the way he is portrayed in the movie Quills, actually—where he’s relatively lean and mean…) He didn’t get much exercise in prison/mental asylums it seems!
New York, N.Y.: What is it about the passage of time that changes our perspective of what is “thilth”? Nudes of yesterday are today’s art. More recently, Bettie Page was considered obscene and required Congressional hearings to condemn her. Today, artists consider her an icon. Is it possible that the similar fetish models of today, whose films and photographs are found in the back rooms of video stores, will be considered the historical art in the future?
Tony Perrottet: Ha, it’s true that old pornography seems quaint and often gets to be classed on a higher level/artistic status—ancient Roman erotica, which was often meant to be very silly and humorous (Priapus wheeling his enormous penis before him on a wheelbarrow! Phallic wind chimes!) is worth a fortune. In a way, though, today’s pornographers are really only catching up with the 18th century, when very hard core porn was available through all the underground bookstores and by mail order from Amsterdam—I don’t think French gents of the 1700s would be much surprised by the imagery today…
Brooklyn, NY: Dear Mr. Perrottet, What a story! To find that you and the Marquis graced the same terroir so many years ago. Est-ce que c’est possible that you might descendent from the illegitimate offspring of the Marquis?
I love your book, Napoleon’s Privates, which I keep handy in the, um, library of my apartment. Here are my questions:
- did the Marquis have a favorite aphrodisiac?
- were there any tales that you couldn’t tell because they were too salacious for print?
- what’s your next book going to be about?
Tony Perrottet: Actually, the Marquis de Sade’s favorite aphrodisiac was something called Spanish Fly—a weird drug extracted from beatles found in Spain! It caused a tingling sensation in, shall we say, sensitive areas of the body… unfortunately, it was also toxic. In Marseilles, the Marquis slipped the drug into candies which he fed to some prostitutes—they became violently ill and nearly died, and the Marquis had to go into hiding again…
I’d love to expand the Pervert’s Grand Tour into a book—there is plenty of material all over Europe for one, I think—the shadow itinerary is much more interesting (I think) than dutifully going to the Louvre, the Prado, the museums of Rome…
And I don’t think I have any tales too filthy for Slate…!
Anonymous: So you never got to meet the elusive Mr. Cardin for the personal tour of the dungeon ?
Tony Perrottet: No, I never met Cardin! There was a rumor in the village that he was in his chateau, but it was untrue… he tends to be there in spring and summer, for his arts festival. I’ll have to go back!
Apparently, he’s pretty easy to find when he’s in town—he just wanders about the village, so you can go up and say hi…
Wausau, Wis.: I know the classical grand tour never reached as far as your home country of Australia but for a modern perverts grand tour are there any oddities of your homeland you can suggest?
Tony Perrottet: True, upper crust travelers tended to avoid Australia on leisure tours—it was more the lower class convicts who had unplanned, seven year holidays! Of course, they had plenty to keep them occupied—”Rum, sodomy and the lash” on the convict transports over there, and as soon as they arrived, a drunken orgy broke out on Sydney Cove when the female convicts were landed and tots of rum passed out. The marines and officers apparently joined in, and the debauch only ended when a huge thunderstorm broke…
As for today, a modern pervert should be pretty happy in Sydney—it’s quite a liberated place, I think most tastes can be satisfied in Kings Cross…
Cornwall: In a few passages you mention images of copulating and I wonder if there were any new positions you discovered and have added to your own rotation, as it were?
Tony Perrottet: Gee, what can I say…? The ancient Greek position known as “the lion and the cheese grater” should be tried by everyone once…
Tony Perrottet: Actually, just as a footnote to the question on Paris—I just learned that page five of the story has gone live, on Casanova’s prison cell in Venice. For most of history, Venice had a cult status as the sex capital of Europe—Amsterdam was a real late-comer (Venice dominated from around 800-1800 AD). Even in the 1920s, DH Lawrence talks about British women flocking there for favors from the burly gondolas… and of course the nuns were famous during the Renaissance…
Something happened in the mid-20th century, and these days Italians regard Venice as one of their most conservative cities…
Reston, Va: Was the Marquis de Sade influenced by any particular philosopher?
Tony Perrottet: That’s a good question—he was quite an intellectual, and read very widely amongst the new works of the day (the villagers regarded him as a quiet, bookish fellow—at least initially!) He was a committed atheist, which did not endear him to many at the time… and he refused to hang out with fellow nobles, or grovel to the king, which really didn’t help his cause. He had an extreme libertine philosophy, he should be allowed to do anything…!
Tony Perrottet: PS—I forgot to add—someone asked whether I may be related to one of the Marquis’ illegitimate offspring. For whatever reason, he kept his hands off the villagers in Lacoste, and got his prostitutes/staff/victims from faraway places like Lyon and Marseilles—it was very wise, kept him on-side with the local families! I think my ancestors would have been involved in supplying him with local produce and helping with the renovations of the chateau (he had some 50 laborers going for years…) When I go back, I can apparently find more details in the archives in Avignon…
de Sade and Rousseau: De Sade took Rousseau’s ideas and carried them to conclusion. You could count Michel Foucault as a follower.
Tony Perrottet: Yes, Sade was big with the surrealists in the 20s…
Alexandria, Va.: What happened to Venice is that all the young people fled. Only the aged live there now.
Tony Perrottet: True, it’s an odd place now… although still pretty amazing to wander around… it gets a bit livelier around the Biennal and film festival I believe… although hardly like the old days!
New York NY: What are you working on right now, anything really disgraceful?
Tony Perrottet: Actually, I’m finishing off a very sober piece for Smithsonian about my recent visit to Monument Valley in Utah/Arizona—camping with Navajo guides etc on the buttes. I’ve been out West for them every summer for the last six years or so…
I might write something about the Hellfire Club, however, which thrived in Britain in the 1700s… rumors of satanic orgies inolving top govt officials and the like…!
Naples?: I’m just now stumbling across your chat—did you have a chance to visit the “Secret Cabinet” in the Naples Archaeological Museum? I suspect that’s where most of the British Museum’s tidbits ended up.
Tony Perrottet: I certainly did visit the Naples Secret Cabinet—the prototype! It’s an amazing place, reopened in 2000 (they didn’t allow women in until then!) I used it as a sort of model for my opus Napoleon’s Privates—there used to be all sorts of off-limits places in the museums across Europe.
I fear the British held on to whatever they got, in that great 19th century tradition—but the Bourbons had plenty of Roman erotica being found in Pompeii—so shocking that the king had it locked up in 1816 (instantly making it a top destination for a certain type of traveler…!)
Tony Perrottet: Thanks for the questions—got to get out into the seasonal NY blizzard! Cheers, Tony