Discovering Erot-ic Artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum through Archaeology

In 1710, an Italian peasant, Giovanni Battista Nocerino, discovered a mass of marble and alabaster while digging a well at Resina, near Naples. Fragments of these materials were sold to a dealer specializing in antiques. Supreme Officer of the Guard Maurice de Lorraine, Prince d’Elboeuf, bought these fragments to decorate his villa in Portici.


Fig.2. Attic red-figure skyphos

Fig.3. Statue of Pan copulating with a goat

Fig.4. Hug between a Satyr

and a Maenad

Marble Hercules

However, the prince soon realized the archaeological value of the relics and ordered deeper excavations. Roman artifacts, including a marble Hercules, were found and shipped to Vienna. The project was stopped after a few years due to the difficulty in dealing with the solid rock. Only in 1738, during the Spanish retake of Naples, did excavations resume under the direction of King Charles of the Two Sicilies. Nocerino ‘s well plunged directly into the amphitheater of Herculaneum, one of the three cities buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Thus, a museum was set up to house the discoveries, known as the Museo Borbonico. In 1745, excavations focused on Pompeii, which proved to be an even richer source of treasure. In 1748 intact frescoes and a skeleton holding coins with images of Nero and Vespasian were found.


Fig.6. Pan and Hermaphrodite

Fig.7. Relief with Nymph and Satyr

Fig.8. Statuette of Venus in a Bikini


In the early years of excavating Pompeii, the process was chaotic and circus-like. Remarkable finds were sometimes reburied to be rediscovered by visiting dignitaries. Thefts were common and, even when objects were transported to the Museum, they were often damaged due to lack of knowledge about preservation. Giuseppe Fiorelli ordered the excavation in 1860, mapping the city and implementing the practice of preserving finds there. Despite the disorder, Pompeii’s gradual opening captivated Western culture.



Controversial Artifacts

Tourists visited the Museum and explored the excavations through guides and catalogues. Controversial artifacts, including sexually explicit artwork, posed challenges for authorities. Certain individuals were given access to locked chambers to view these items, while women, children and the poor were excluded. Over time, the room where these forbidden artifacts were kept was named The Secret Museum or Secret Cabinet (Italian: Gabinetto Secret). The term “cabinet” is a reference to “cabinet of curiosities”, a collection of objects displayed for contemplation and study.



Archeology and Pornography

In his book “The secret Museum: Pornography in modern culture”, Walter Kendrick draws a connection between pornography and the archaeological discoveries made in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Kendrick explores how the excavation and revelation of ancient erotic artifacts from these ancient cities influenced and shaped modern perceptions of pornography. He argues that the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th and 19th centuries brought to light a hidden world of explicit sexual images and objects, such that these discoveries challenged prevailing Victorian notions of sexual morality and provided a glimpse into the sexual practices of ancient societies.

Fig.13. Bronze tintinnabulum (wind-chime) representing a gladiator fighting with his panther-like phallus

Fig.14. Relief with a phallus, inscribed “hic habitat felicitas”

Explicit Representations of Sex

For him, the discovery of explicit representations of sex

and eroticism in Pompeii and Herculaneum forced a reassessment of social norms and sparked discussions about the role of pornography in culture. The term thus emerged as a label for everything that did not fit into Victorian sexual morality, by paradoxically demonstrating the fascination with ancient erotic objects. The exhibition of these artifacts excited visitors and generated discussions about the need to create censorship and limits of art, revealing the lack of understanding that the Victorians had of eroticism not only in the ancient Roman empire but also in other cultures.

Fig.15. Aphrodite Anadyomene


Statue of Pan Copulating With a Goat

A discovery made in Herculaneum disconcerted the select public that had contact with it, that it had to be removed from everyone’s view. The court of Charles III in Naples was eager for new excavation sites in Herculaneum, and a 38-year-old military

engineer named Karl Weber was assigned in 1750 to look for the source of the ancient marble pieces. In his excavations, Weber found the villa now known as the Villa of the Papyri (Villa dei Papiri, also called Villa Pisone). The discoveries at Herculaneum were being watched by Charles III’s court with the greatest enthusiasm, partly because most of his courtiers had little else to occupy their time.



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