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Sat 21 Sep 2002 15:30 BBC Radio 4

30 minutes
First broadcast:
Saturday 21 September 2002

Secret Mueum looks at how the explicit erotic, sexual and pornographic art and artefacts found on site in Pompeii were collected together into what became known as The Secret Museum.

As you wonder through the streets of Pompeii on a hot Neapolitan day you are quite likely to spend much of your time looking down at the wonderful marble roads which lead you through a city paved with magnificent mosaic floors. You might lean through the windows of ancient villas and imagine the empty houses alight with family life, you might trace at waist level ancient graffiti scratched onto the walls of city streets paying tribute to the pleasures and pains we've all shared.

However, if you were to look up to the higher walls in quiet street corners, you'd the get the surprise of your life… For, thrusting proudly into the bright Mediterranean sun, the people of Pompeii had a habit of placing huge, beautifully sculpted and remarkably life-like stone penises, which jut out above the street, to us today a mystifying and surreal disembodied gesture.

The remaining explicit art and artefacts on site in Pompeii is a tiny fraction of the erotic, sexual, and pornographic archaeological finds. From the most extraordinary sculpture of Pan making love to a goat to hundreds of humble pottery casts of male sex organs, Pompeii was awash with phallic symbols and sexually explicit material. The first archaeologists of Pompeii were confounded.

They gathered all the unsuitable material together and put it aside into what became known as The Secret Museum. No one was to be allowed to see this unseemly collection, no one, except the people who had permission. And so, unwittingly, the archaeologists of Pompeii produced the first modern pornographic experience in which sexually explicit representations were separated from all social context.

  • A couple making love

    A couple making love

    A couple making love from the hidden chamber in the House of the Centenary. The dark square in the top right-hand corner represents a peep hole. This image and the peephole are discussed in the programme.

  • Venus


    Venus with fish from the Public Baths at the Sea Gate to Pompeii, one of the buildings where archaeologists discovered other explicit sexual images, and which is featured on the programme.


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