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The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter.
Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.
It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection.
So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal.
Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.
Literature also felt the wrath of the censors, with works such as Aristophanes’ plays mistranslated to obscure their “offensive” sexual and scatalogical references.
Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collection still shocks modern audiences.
Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing.
It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small.
Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.
The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities.
The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.