The Concealed Erotic Paintings of Sommonte (19th Century)

This wonderfully unique object, from the collection of Henry Wellcome, stands perhaps as something of an embodiment itself of the nineteenth century's complex attitudes to sex — at first glance exuding nothing but chasteness (cue images of covered-up piano legs, lewd ankles, etc.), but upon closer inspection revealing a much saucier substratum. And indeed, it is perhaps not entirely inappropriate that with this multi-layered painting the eye alone won't do: one must get up close and personal and use one's hands. Contrary to first impressions, the painting is actually made up of three wooden slats — two of which are painted on both sides, the third just on one — all slid into the frame in such a way as to show only the pink and white roses to the world. The other much naughtier scenes must be actively uncovered by those in the know. As for which paintings go where, it appears that the first slat (the roses recto, the Lubenzia/Libitina image verso) is attached to the top piece of frame, the removal of which reveals the second slat (the fruit recto and orgy scene verso), with the fornicating couple at the very back. Why the innocent-looking still life of fruit? Possibilities of symbolism aside, it is most likely simply to add another layer of security, should someone accidentally lift the first slat. About the artist — given only as "Sommonte" — not so much is known, but the object is thought to have been produced in Naples, Italy, at some point in the 1800s.

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