A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does the Vatican have the world's largest pornography collection?

March 26, 1982

Dear Cecil:

Is it true that the Vatican has the world's most extensive collection of erotica and pornography locked away where no one who can appreciate it can see it?

Dear M.:

I haven't had a chance to check this out personally, M., having been detained with Grafenberg spot research. But having spoken with parties who know, I can tell you that if it's a truly monster porn collection you want, you don't need to leave the U.S.A.

Years ago a couple researchers from the Kinsey Institute in Bloomington, Indiana, made an attempt to inspect the Vatican's collections, but church officials refused to permit it. Subsequently, however, it was learned that the Vatican had arranged to have its holdings microfilmed during World War II, when it was feared Rome would be bombed.  The film is now stored at St. Louis University in Missouri. The Kinsey folks looked through all the material and found a few mildly erotic art items, but virtually nothing since the Renaissance. From this they concluded that stories about the Vatican's 100,000 books of porn are naught but a myth.

Not everyone buys this, of course. The more conspiracy-minded among us argue that the Vatican wouldn't be dumb enough to microfilm the smut section. One of my correspondents claims the Vatican library has (or had, anyway) thousands of erotic volumes, most of them file copies of works that appeared on the Catholic Church's well-known Index of Prohibited Books. This fellow says he spent time in a World War II concentration camp with a Vatican librarian, who gave him a tour of the library in 1945. He says many of the books, "mainly the illustrated volumes," have since disappeared.

Well, maybe. Most researchers, however, doubt that the Vatican has or ever had much genuine smut on the shelves. Gershon Legman, a prominent student of erotica who helped compile a bibliography of porn for Alfred Kinsey, says the Vatican "has no really erotic books," although there are some fairly tame volumes from the classical era. For instance, a copy of Ovid's The Art of Love is filed with Latin poetry, and Aristophanes' Lysistrata is with Greek drama.

The Vatican also has some erotic specimens among its art holdings, including, among other things, some drawings by Michelangelo featuring various phallic fantasies. In addition there is a famous collection of erotic frescoes designed by Raphael in 1516 and executed by his students in the bathroom of a certain Cardinal Bibbiena. The frescoes, which are badly deteriorated today, consist of scenes involving Venus and Cupid, Cupid and Psyche, and Vulcan and Pallas, and one would be hard put to describe them as even mildly titillating.

That's not to say hard-core porn is unknown in Rome. A student of Raphael's by the name of Guilio Romano produced some explicit erotic art, in particular a series of 20 drawings of various parties having intercourse and such that even by modern standards would be considered pretty out there. These were turned over to an engraver and printed up in book form. Pope Clement VII was outraged and had the engraver heaved into prison, but copies of the book continued to circulate clandestinely in Europe for centuries. Whether the Vatican has a copy today I dunno, but they ought to--most good university art collections do.

As for the Index of Prohibited Books (which, by the way, was discontinued in 1966), I've taken a look at it, and you could probably come up with a racier bunch of titles in your average Walgreen's. About 1,500 books and/or authors are listed; of the small percentage alleged to be "obscene" (obscenity was just one of 12 categories of forbidden works, the remainder having to do with heresies and the like), many were written by such famous authors as Honore de Balzac, Alexandre Dumas (both father and son), Emile Zola, Anatole France, and Victor Hugo. None of the erotic "classics" (e.g., Fanny Hill, the works of de Sade) were listed, maybe because the Vatican figured they were of such limited circulation they weren't worth worrying about.

In short, I think the legendary Vatican pornography collection is a crock. Most of the stories you hear about it are undoubtedly part of the folklore that surrounds any large, old, secretive institution (the Masons are another case in point).

However, there are some truly awesome smut depots out there, if you're into that kind of thing. The municipal museum of Naples, for instance, is said to have an amazing collection erotic artifacts, most of them classical in origin--fornicating satyrs and so forth. The British Museum in London has a famous "Private Case" collection of erotica bequeathed to it by eccentric Victorians that at one time was said to number 20,000 volumes, although theft, vandalism and other causes have reduced it to somewhere between 1,800 and 5,000 volumes, depending on who's counting. In Paris the Bibliotheque Nationale's famous L'Enfer ("hell") collection contains 4-5,000 volumes.

Initially I thought the largest collection of all was held by the Kinsey Institute (formally known as the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction) on the campus of Indiana University at Bloomington. When I checked there were 12,000 books, 50,000 photographs, 25,000 pieces of flat art, 3,700 films, and 1,300 art objects, such as figurines. Subsequently I learned that an even larger collection was owned by the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco, which as of the early 90s had 289,000 films and 100,000 videos. The Kinsey archive spans the ages, but it's safe to say the vast majority of items in these collections is of recent origin. The fact is that color photography, the high-speed offset press, and, more recently, the videocassette have resulted in a profusion of erotica that makes the porn collections of Europe seem positively quaint.

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