What's Inside the "Secret Cabinet" at Naples Archaeological Museum?

Erotic art from Pompeii is displayed in the Secret Cabinet
Danielle Oteri

In 1816, a scandalous guide with illustrations was being passed hand-to-hand in France. Written by Colonel Fannin, its title was The Royal Museum at Naples, Being Some Account of the Erotic Paintings, Bronzes and Statues Contained In That Famous "Cabinet Secret." Though it had been officially published by the Naples National Archaeological Museum, French authorities confiscated and destroyed every copy they could find.

Three years later Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies visited the museum and was appalled by the hundreds of sculpted phalluses and naughty mosaics. He ushered away his wife and impressionable young daughter and ordered the works to be hidden away from public view. No woman would ever be allowed to see these works again, he declared. Only gentleman with "well-known moral standing" could from that point enter il gabinetto segreto.

As German and English men swanned through Italy on the "Grand Tour," the museum at Naples became a popular layover. By pressing money into the palms of the museum guards, men were able to gain access to the pornographic treasures tucked inside the secret cabinet.

Where Did the Erotic Art Come From?

On August 24, 79 C.E., the citizens of Pompeii woke up to what should have been just a normal day in their prosperous Roman city. Mount Vesuvius erupted and entirely devastated the city. The molten lava poured over construction crews repairing roads, bakers at their ovens, and lovers in their beds.

Rescue teams were dispatched by Emperor Augustus, but with no survivors, the city was erased from Roman maps. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, locals knew the site was there, though impossible to access as it was covered with igneous rocks and ash.

Excavations didn't begin until 1748, ordered by the Bourbon king Charles III because he desired new antiquities for his personal collection. The barracks he ordered built in the city center of Naples (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) became a repository for the best artworks at Pompeii that would be vulnerable to the many looters at the site.

The entire culture of the Roman city and the private lives of its citizens were chipped from the hardened lava and brought back to the living. Frescoes with erotic illustrations were stripped from the walls of Pompeii's brothels. Thousands of phallus-shaped pendants, wind chimes, and candlesticks were brought to the repository in Naples. Scholars explained that these were once household items, often honoring the god Priapus and used as good luck charms or talismans of virility and fertility.

In 1849 the Secret Cabinet was bricked up and sealed. Access was granted in only two brief periods within 150 years. Finally, in 2000 the collection was made publicly available to both men and women. Then in 2005, it was officially installed into the museum with its own gallery.

How to See the Secret Cabinet

Don't bring the kids to see this part of the museum. Though publicly accessible, the Gabinetto Segreto still has a closed gate in front of it and an R-rated warning. The best way to see it is to make an appointment at the front desk when you enter the museum. They will ask you what time and which language you would prefer.

If you're there late and a tour is unavailable, check to see if the door is actually locked. Often it's not and you can walk right in. Just close the door behind you to keep out the kiddos.

Naples National Archaeological Museum

Piazza Museo, 19, 80135 

Please note that galleries open and close without warning and the museum's website is not very helpful. Ask the concierge at the hotel to call and confirm that the galleries you wish to see are open. In addition to the Secret Cabinet, plan to spend at least 3 hours in the museum. It is the greatest collection of classical art in the world.

Was this page helpful?