Erotic Cameos from Antiquity (ca. 1771)

In 1775, when the Marquis de Sade travelled to Italy at the age of thirty-five, he had yet to write his libertine Justine or the unfinished torture-orgy nightmare that is 120 Days of Sodom. Still, at this time, angling after a respectable career in letters, despite an increasingly marred reputation, Sade’s trip led him to confront what James A. Steintrager describes as “the most complete and preserved material culture of the ancient Roman lifeworld”, a world that appeared, at least on the surface, to be “radically other than Christian modernity, including — or most especially — with regard to religion and sexuality”.

In this same period and place, Pierre-François Hugues d'Hancarville — a French art historian and self-styled “baron” — was helping the British diplomat Sir William Hamilton acquire various antiquities, including over seven hundred vases, as well as more risqué objects. D’Hancarville met up with Sade in Florence, showing him plans for the Duomo’s cupola before Brunelleschi’s construction. The marquis and baron shared other affinities beyond an interest in cathedral architecture: Sade was in Italy on the run, sentenced to death in France for feeding poisonous aphrodisiac pastilles to prostitutes, among other awful crimes; d’Hancarville, in and out of debt and jail, was, in Catharine Arnold’s description, “a professional pornographer who had absolutely nothing to lose”.

Not long after meeting Sade, the art historian fell into further trouble over publishing a run of pornographic volumes entitled Monumens de la vie privée des douze Césars (1780), Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines (1784), and the two-volume work featured here, Veneres uti observantur in gemmis antiquis (Venuses observed on ancient gemstones). Depicting erotic figures and themes carved on Roman cameos, which the author mainly dates after the rule of Augustus and Tiberius, this third work proved popular in both the original French and 1785 English translation. (It also seems to have been accompanied by a volume titled Priapi uti observantur in gemmis antiquis, not available in digitized form.) The book has remained influential: the classicist Richard Payne Knight, inspired by d’Hancarville’s subject matter and daring, published An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus in 1786, whose frontispiece is an unruly pile of wax organs. Phallicist Hargrave Jennings looked to d’Hancarville while composing his ten-volume “Phallic Series”, although he questioned whether such a “serious” man could “express himself, as he seems to do, with the lightness of the writer of the preface and notes”.

The English translation of Veneres uti observantur in gemmis antiquis published in London in 1785.

These notes and preface offer somewhat arch glosses of the explicit images that follow. An early engraving of seven erect penises menacingly circling a snail has a simple explanation: many gastropods are simultaneous hermaphrodites and thus symbolize lust. Why, later, does flaccid genitalia have chicken feet sprouting from its testicles? Because it reveals how “vigilance” is not one of the cock’s strongest qualities. And a woman pleasuring a man with her left hand? It speaks to the “complaisance” that Livia Drusilla had for her husband Augustus. Elsewhere, d’Hancarville lets interpretative difficulty get softened by translation. Regarding an image of a shepherd in sexual congress with his flock, he quotes Virgil’s Eclogues: “Novimus, et qui te transversa tuentibus hircis” — a line that, in its expanded form, reads: “Think twice before you utter these complaints again a man. I know who was with you while the goats looked askance.” D’Hancarville concludes his preface by explaining why the images are so small: at such a size they are nearer to the originals and, perhaps more importantly, they “would have still been more indecent had they been otherwise”.

Below you can browse selections of the engraved and hand-colored plates from Veneres uti observantur in gemmis antiquis, courtesy of The Getty.

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