Nudity, Art, Sex and Death – Tasmania Awaits


Artist Stuart Ringholt leading a "naturist tour" of MONA

If you’re going to confront sex and death – or at least the art world’s latest depictions of them – you might as well be naked.

This notion was cheerfully explained to me by a fresh-faced Aussie attendant when I first arrived at MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, a radically innovative new institution in Tasmania, whose very purpose is to upend our pre-conceived notions of what a museum should be.  I’d first noticed that an after-hours “naturist tour” was on offer, and asked what this involved.  Apparently, participants would be escorted through the subterranean exhibitions while in the state that nature intended.  The guide would also be naked, of course.  Even the guards would be naked.  Since many of MONA’s artworks deal with the intimate workings of the human body, any naked viewer’s involvement would surely be at a heightened level, the attendant said.

Who could turn an offer like that down…?

My piece on the museum is in the current May issue Smithsonian Magazine, or can be read online here… My project on the visit was to meet MONA’s owner and creator, a professional gambler named David Walsh, an eccentric character who has single-handedly transformed the cultural life of Tasmania, Australia’s remote island-state.  He told me that he had expected his collection of confronting artworks would cause a certain amount of outrage – but it turns out Tasmanians are hard to shock.  Instead, the museum has been wildly successful, bringing visitors from all over the world.

There are some great images of museum on the magazine website, but I thought readers might be interested in a few other photos….

The Museum of Old and New Art on the Derwent River -- one of the world's biggest private collections of contemporary art -- the best way to get there is by ferry from Hobart


David Walsh -- a Tasmanian professional gambler who has poured his fortune into acquiring provocative art


Over 100 plaster casts of vaginas line one wall...

X-ray images of lovers embracing (in one case, a man is having his way with a chicken...)

The Cloaca, a machine that reproduces the human digestive system -- staff "feed" the creation in the morning and collect the odiferous result in the afternoon...


Tony Perrottet is the author of Napoleon’s Privates: 2500 Years of History Unzipped and The Sinner’s Grand Tour: A Journey Through the Historical Underbelly of Europe;

Casanova Slept Here

Was Casanova more than just a pretty face?

Smithsonian Magazine has just published my epic quest to separate fact from fiction in the life of history’s greatest lover. The man is so surrounded by mythology that many people assume him to be a fictional character (and maybe it’s hard to take seriously someone who has been portrayed in film by Heath Ledger, Donald Sutherland and even Vincent Price, in the Bob Hope vehicle Casanova’s Big Night.) The story was prompted by the French government’s purchase of Casanova’s erotic memoir for $9.6 million — a record for any literary manuscript. I was able to examine the 4,500 page tome in the National Library of Paris (and check out the secret watermarks of two hearts touching…) and then head to Venice, where fashion icon Pierre Cardin let me into his private palazzo, where Casanova’s bedroom is still intact, used for trysts with young nuns he recalls as “M.M” and “C.C.” Finally, I made the journey to rural Prague, where Casanova ended up at the end of his life working as a librarian (of all things!) in the gloomy Castle Dux.

You can read the full story here.

As an addendum, I wrote a piece on the story that Casanova collaborated with Mozart on the libretto of the opera Don Giovanni, about a great womanizer… Casanova recounts 122 affairs in his memoir, but Don Giovanni claims 10,000…

All this is a follow-on from the initial research I did for Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour — in the latter book, I managed to track down the prison cell where Casanova languished for over a year (he was ostensibly arrested for dabbling in the occult, but really because he was seducing the mistress of a chief Inquisitor…) He managed to escape after 15 months with a disgraced monk — the only two prisoners to ever do so. When he returned to Venice years later, even the Inquisitors wanted to know how he did it…



The Five Artiest Brothels in France

I just posted a fun blog on the Huffington Post from my recent trip to Paris, about the five brothels most revered for their artistic decor.  I revisited a marvelous gallery of historical erotica I discovered while researching The Sinner’s Grand Tour.  You can read about it here

Some of the photos were a bit too lurid to include in the post (at least without artful cropping) — I thought readers of the MoSex blog might appreciate them, however…

Of course, one might also go to paris and drop in on Au Bonheur du Jour gallery at 11 Rue Chabanais to see the images and artifacts in the flesh…


The s-and-m brothel on Rue Navarin had a special room for mock black masses…
The legendary dancer “Irene”, star of tableaux vivants in One Two Two, a brothel frequented by Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Marlene Dietrich, amongst other Hollywood stars…

Painting at 32 Rue Blondel, once favored by Henry Miller and Anais Nin in the 1930s

The Vatican And (Historical) Sex

I’ve just done a series on “penetrating the Vatican” for Slate, which is running this week (one episode a day) — about the secrets of the Vatican Library (Day One), the private tours of the Sistine Chapel (Day Two) and oddities like the Vatican supermarket (Day Three)

Coming up are the Secret Archives and the pope’s bathroom, which is covered with erotica by Raphael in 1516…

A lot of Slate readers (presumably the vocal Catholics) seem to have taken umbrage that I refer to sex a lot in the story — either with hidden erotica from the Renaissance, medieval erotic tomes, the Showtime series the Borgias or the so-called “Joust of the Whores,” a highlight of Papal debauchery.

It’s an interesting experience — many of my stories are quite innocuous, but something about the Vatican and sex seems to touch a few buttons… either that or the readers who comment have no sense of humor at all!  (No doubt it’s both…)

What Is It About Nuns And Sex?

I went to Venice to research both Napoleon’s Privates and The Sinner’s Grand Tour, and found that he subject of randy  nuns came up constantly.  It seems that the fantasy of the sex-filled Venetian convent, which crops up in novels, dialogues, Casanova’s memoir and modern porn films, dates back for centuries… and, even better, has a concrete historical basis.


            Italian nuns have left quite a subversive legacy.  This is thanks largely to the literary labors of Pietro Aretino, a Venetian author who is today hailed as the “father of modern pornography.”  In addition to his ground-breaking book of sonnets – The Sixteen Postures, which described a string of athletic sexual positions with handy engravings – Aretino penned the classic Secret Life of Nuns, whose panting prose would not be out of place on a site today.  It depicts lonely young novices in ritualized “jousts” with monks and priests (“First tilt went to the trumpeter… spurring himself on with his fingers, he ran his lance right into his lady-friend’s target right up to the hilt…”) and devoted to the pastinaca muranese, “crystal turnip,” a state-of-the-art dildo made of fine Venetian glass and filled with warm water.  The nuns kept erotic manuals hidden in their prayer books and always offered their charity to male pilgrims (“We’ll try every which way,” declares one nun as the penitents arrive, “there’s bound to be one that suits us!”)

Overheated?  Certainly in the details.  But while Aretino’s work is hardly a documentary of convent life, its roots lie in reality.  By poring over contemporary letters, diaries and legal documents, historians have established that Venetian nunneries were the most liberated in Europe.  In the 1400s, the skyrocketing cost of dowries meant that many of the city’s noblest families were obliged to place their teenage daughters, regardless of their wishes, in convents.  Few of these developed a spiritual calling.  It was openly accepted that the top convents were a “safety valve” for Venice’s surplus of well-born single women, who could go on to enjoy a level of sexual freedom unique for the time.

The nunneries were run like luxury boutique hotels.  Novices were given duplicate keys so they could come and go as they pleased from their palatial apartments, which were filled with artworks and overlooked the Grand Canal.  Wearing the most fashionable, low-cut dresses, they would entertain male visitors with wine-fuelled banquets, then invite their beaux to spend the night in their rooms.  They took romantic gondola rides with admirers to private picnics to the islands of the Venice Lagoon and went on poetic moonlit walks in the secluded gardens.  The most passionate eloped – presumably with men who were not obsessed with dowries.  The mature-age abbesses rode the city in luxury carriages with their pet dogs and oversaw their girls’ activities with a maternal eye.  If a nun fell pregnant, she would simply give birth in the privacy of the convent and the pass the child off as an orphan abandoned on the doorstep.

Church officials in Venice and Rome turned a blind eye to these activities, but reluctantly investigated some of the most blatant and scandalous cases.  The Italian academic Guido Ruggiero has pored over countless documents to find that only thirty-three convents were prosecuted for “sex crimes against God” (as they were called, since the nuns were in theological terms the brides of Christ).  The legal details read like a cheesy Italian soap opera.  One Sister Filipa Barbarigo was found to have juggled ten different lovers at the same time – an impressive roster of nobles, artists and even, playing with fire, her own abbess’ boyfriend.  Violent scenes of jealousy erupted one night at the busiest convent, Sant’Angelo di Contorta, when a certain Marco Bono interrupted his lover Filipa Sanuto in her room with another man and chased him into the street, then went after a dozen other nun’s naked boyfriends with his sword.  A few days later, the brother of one of Sister Filipa’s other lovers pursued her angrily through the convent and slapped her for seducing the young boy with her “unbridled lusts.”

Signor Ruggiero helpfully collated his findings into two tables (below), the second of which suggests that the Church was particularly zealous in prosecuting nuns who had dabbled in “rough trade” – low-born boatmen, carpenters, artisans or gardeners.

By the 1500s, the famous nunneries of Venice even attracted tourists:  Male travelers from England and Holland were delighted to mingle with such refined women who like Japanese geisha offered private musical concerts and engaged them in sophisticated conversation on literature and the arts.  The Venetian diarist Girolamo Priuli denounced them as unofficial courtesans, sleeping with foreigners in exchange for financial presents.  This discreet arrangement exploded in scandal in 1561, when a convent founded for reformed prostitutes was found to be in business, with the Father confessor as pimp – having had relations with twenty of his charges himself.