Sexo Italiano!

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful city built upon the water.  Instead of streets this city had canals, and in the middle of this floating city there was a large, open square.  The city was called Venice, and the square was San Marco’s Piazza.  Just a block away from San Marco, there was a small but tidy museum, called the Museo Art d’Erotica.

Three American travelers, enjoying a long trip through Italy, found themselves at the doorstep to this, rather unique, museum late one spring night.  Did they dare go inside, they wondered?  They discussed.  They debated.  They berated.  In the end, yes, the decided to venture through the four floors, not knowing what was in store.  It was a tourist trap, for sure, but surprisingly it was also an educational rattletrap.  A few hours later, they made their way to the exit door, eyes widened, and only slightly traumatized, but assured that a museum about sex wasn’t a snore.

I confess, I was one of those three travelers.  I was traveling through Italy with two of my friends, and we had spent the day exploring the nooks and crannies of Venice.  It’s easy to feel like you’re getting lost in the city.  It doesn’t really happen though.  All of the walkways, bridges, and paths tend to circle back and lead you to San Marco’s Piazza.  The illusion of getting lost is part of its charm, but much of the city is just that – an illusion.  The city looks like it was built upon the water.  It isn’t.  It’s built on pylons hammered down into the marsh.  The great open square in front of San Marco’s Cathedral looks like it’s always been there, but it was only added by Napoleon in the early 1800s.  It’s fitting then that a museum dedicated to erotic art be in this city.  Eroticism, itself is so much about the illusion, the appearance, the look.  Attraction is so often a creation of our own doing, or our own thinking.

Earlier in the day, my friends and I decided to try to avoid some of the crowds by touring the Doge’s Palace, and part of the tour went through the prison. The most famous person to ever be held in the prison was Casanova.  A man so famous for his romantic conquests, and the  effect he had on women, that he was arrested and sentenced to prison.

That evening we sat in the hotel lobby trying to decide what to do.  To describe the nightlife of Venice as “lacking” would be an understatement.  “Dead” is more fitting.  There are bars and restaurants, but they tend to be expensive, and we weren’t looking to spend too much money.  The previous night we had wondered through the city, and we were looking for something different.  There were pamphlets on a table in the lobby that we looked through, and we thought the Museo d’Art Erotic, looked interesting, if a bit of an odd choice.  The literature made it clear that this wasn’t a museum about “sex,” but rather an art museum, full of artwork that was “sexy”, but not sexual.  To me this made perfect sense given our encounter with Casanova earlier, but my friends weren’t so sure.

Why not, I thought?  When in Rome, er, Venice.  Americans always seem to have hang-ups about sex and anything that remotely is considered sexual.  We are eager to live in denial if it means allowing us to deny certain realities that may hit a little too close to home.  I was cultured and worldly, I told myself.  I was a sophisticate.  If I wasn’t  shocked, then certainly my friends wouldn’t be either.  I figured it wouldn’t be any worse than an episode of HBO’s documentary series “Real Sex,” and it didn’t seem “porn-y.”  My friends weren’t so convinced.  Slowly, one came around and agreed, but the other was a hold out.  After more discussion, a consensus was reached, but I promised that I would never revel that they went. {Spoiler Alert: I’m not going to break my promise to them now, or ever, and they will henceforth continue to be called “my friends.”}

We took a water taxi across to the mainland, and walked through San Marco’s Piazza, beautifully lit in the night, but sadly empty.  The cafes were closed and there were no signs of the famed dueling orchestras.  The coffee shop, Caffee Florian, the first to sell coffee in all of Europe, was closing up for the night.  Even the pigeons had sought out stoops on which to rest.  We circled past the Cathedral, and through the piazza and around the corner, until we arrived at the address.

A sign hung over the door.  It was elegant, I guess, as far as an illuminated sign advertising a non-sex sex museum could be.  Through the door, we could see a single, sad looking middle aged woman sitting behind a counter reading a book.  She looked bored, and this caused us all to second-guess ourselves.  She was wearing the standard white shirt and red blazer uniform that museum attendants wear the world over, and suddenly it all seemed so normal, and at the same time, so completely NOT normal.

Should we go inside? Should we walk on? Should we wait to see what kind of clientele this place was getting before we suddenly make a bad choice, and get mixed up with the “wrong sort.” In the middle of this, a well dressed couple who were in their late middle age, walked past us, and went inside. They bought tickets and we watched as they moved up the stairs in the back of the all white, brightly lit entrance.  I don’t know what it was about them, but seeing them go inside made us all feel a bit stupid for over thinking things, and we decide to take the plunge.  We each bought a ticket and walked up the stairs.

The moment we got to the top, I was glad that I did.  The museum was, in fact an actual museum.  It contained a history of artwork dating from the mid 1700s to the present day, all of it erotic in nature.  It wasn’t pornographic, but rather informative from a historical point of view.  I have to be honest here and say that although this was exactly what the pamphlet explained, I was a bit shocked by how academic it all was.

The first floor consisted of few small rooms with a collection of engravings and pamphlets from European history.  Several of them were primary documents that showed the randy adventures of the city’s most famous cad, Casanova, while others were pages from the pamphlets used by the sans-culottes to discredit Marie Antoinette. I had always heard about such documents but never had I actually seen them.  These are often cited as a major spark in the cause of the French Revolution, but looking at the images of the Queen of France in all manner of unflattering positions, with all manner of contemporaries made me wonder if their popularity really wasn’t all about politics after all.

As we moved through the rooms the artwork became more modern.  On the second and third floors, works from the 1800s dominated the floor space.  There were pages from the writings of famed German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld who was among the first to argue for the decriminalization of homosexuality and sexual liberation of women.  There were also examples of the strange devices used by the Victorians to both control desire and to enhance it.  All of it was fascinating by today’s standards.

It was on the fourth floor, however, that things got downright weird.  There is a painting from the Renaissance era that I have always found fascinating.  It’s actually more of a cabinet.  Hieronymus Bosh created it, and it’s come to be known as “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  When the viewer opens the door on the left side there is a very stylized picture of God introducing  Adam to Eve, in the Garden of Eden surrounded by some rather odd looking wildlife.  When the right side of the cabinet is opened, the viewer gets a look into the artist’s vision of Hell, complete with Satan, torture, and a flying whale carcass. When both doors are open, the viewer gets the full view.  On one side is Heaven, on the other is Hell, and in the middle is the largest panel.  It quite shockingly depicts dozens and dozens of people engaging in all things sexual.  The contrast is challenging and forces the viewer to try to rectify all of the differing images at the same time while also coming to terms with the fact that he or she walked into this trap willingly by opening the plain looking cabinet!

800px-The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_by_Bosch_High_Resolution

As we walked up the stairs and turned the corner, we were entering the “modern” floor.  The walls were all black, and there, in front of us was a giant reproduction of the entire “Garden of Earthly Delights.”  However this was….different.  The background was the same, but instead of painted people, this version had plastic baby dolls replacing the people.  It was just wrong on so many levels.  In the next room there were velvet paintings of nude figures and shiny fiberglass black torsos that would have looked tacky on an episode of Miami Vice.  The one thing that caught our attention though was a series of bicycle seats that had been altered.  Some were covered in mink, others had eyes, and one even had a big gnarly set of teeth.  I have no idea what it was all supposed to mean, but it was terrifying.

Like all good European museums, we exited through the gift shop, which contained a small collection of coffee table books, instructional manuals, and even a few “personal collectables,” if you catch my drift…..  Rest assured we all left empty handed.

We didn’t talk much on our way back across the water to the island our hotel was on.  It was late, but I think we were all a bit shell shocked, too.  After all, it had taken mankind three centuries to create what we had seen in a couple of hours, and there was no escaping the fact that we were Americans.

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2 Comments on “Sexo Italiano!”

  1. January 12, 2014 at 2:48 am #

    Stupendous post.

    • May 1, 2014 at 1:49 am #

      Thanks! I appreciate you taking the time to let me know you enjoyed it!

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