Last year, historian and travel writer, Tony Perrottet, published his fifth book The Sinner’s Grand Tour. In his book, the celebrated author of The Naked Olympics and Napoleon’s Privates, explores the naughty remnants of Europe’s past. Together with his wife and their two young boys, he embarks on a somewhat controversial journey visiting legendary sites in Great Britain and Europe. Perrottett blends meticulously researched history and scenic descriptions with a hilarious narrative of his often failing attempts to keep his family happy whilst dragging them across Europe. Elke Weesjes talks to the author about combining travel and the history of sex, his adventures abroad, American uptightness and breaking Barbie’s legs.
The book, based on a five part series called The Pervert’s Grand Tour which was first published in Slate magazine, takes us on a journey through the historical underbelly of Europe. The Grand Tour, a custom which flourished in the 17th, 18th and early 19th century, was a trip through several European countries undertaken almost exclusively by rich young men. The primary value of these lengthy excursions was in the exposure to both the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, as well as the aristocratic society of Europe. Following a very similar itinerary, Perrottet shows that these young men weren’t only interested in the more conventional works of art or aristocratic intellectual conversation; travellers were also attracted to those erotic relics scattered all over Europe yet hidden away from public view.
The journey starts in the British Museum of London where Perrottet visits the Secretum, a room created in 1866, at the height of the era’s sexual hysteria, to protect the public from the moral perils of history. Donations came from several freethinking spirits and by the 1890s the Secret Museum boasted over 1,100 wicked objects. Today there isn’t much left of this erotic collection. Perrottet is granted a peak into one of the cupboards with the remaining items. He notes that the items – amulets depicting lovers in ‘a range of coital positions’, 18th century condoms and several phallic objects – seem to be the last buried link to that Victorian hysteria. This visit, which he describes as ‘historian’s heaven’, was only the first stop and makes Perrottet wonder ‘if such peculiar wonders lurked here in London, how much more could be found in the outside world?’.
King Edward VII’s Sex Chair
Together with his wife and children Perrottet continues his extraordinary trip and explores the Hellfire clubs in Great Britain, including the infamous Scottish gentlemen’s club the Beggar’s Benison. It was founded in 1732 in the town of Anstruther and is particularly interesting because, as Perrottet discovers, many items of the ‘club collection’ are still intact and stored at the University of St. Andrews. He views a large collection of phalluses fashioned from glass and metal, but also bowls and platters engraved with male and female sexual organs.Unfortunately the notorious club mascot, a wig supposedly woven from the pubic hairs of King Charles II’s mistresses, has gone astray and all that is left is the wig’s box and stand.
The notorious club mascot, a wig supposedly woven from the pubic hairs of King Charles II’s mistresses, has gone astray
Leaving the British Isles, Perrottet heads to the original City of Sin (or Love) where he, with the help of an 1883 Parisian prostitute guide, discovers the Belle Époque fantasy brothel -Le Chabanais- and the lost “sex chair” of King Edward VII. Tucked away in a dusty corner of a Paris warehouse, Perrottet, against all odds, finds this legendary piece of furniture. Finding the chair, which is a strange cross between a gynaecologist’s chair and a snow sled, is perhaps the highlight of his journey.
The author’s perseverance pays off several times more, for example in the little French village of Lacoste where he, after lingering around town for weeks, is invited into the Sade’s château and descends down the subterranean level, also known as the Dungeon Sade. After studying the sex lives of French medieval peasants as recorded by the Inquisition in Montaillou and exploring the free-love life style of British expats Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley in Switzerland, the family ends up in Italy. An entertaining chapter is dedicated to Casanova, who should have been famous for so much more than his amorous achievements. According to Perrottet, Casanova puts the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame: “Apart from being a theatre director, a violin virtuoso, and a secret agent, he translated the Iliad and created the French lottery system. [...] Just for good measure, he knocked out a history of Poland, several mathematical treatises, and a protofeminist pamphlet. But it was his rollicking sex memoir, written when he was in his sixties, that ensured his immortality”. The author uses the latter as a colourful reference on his visit to Venice.
A Naughty Bathroom
In Rome, Perrottet has another lucky break. He visits the Vatican hoping to find the remains of the Stufetta Bibbiena (the little heated room or bathroom of Cardinal Bibbiena). This pornographic bathroom, covered with erotic paintings by Raphael, has been the Vatican’s most mysterious site since the day it was created in 1516. The build up in the book is immense and some readers might not share the author’s enthusiasm when he finally enters the infamous and controversial ‘little boy’s room’. Some of the panels in this very small space, are the worse for wear, repaired with cement, others are completely missing. The most notorious image in the Stufetta, of the god Pan with a monstrous erection, has been deliberately damaged; someone has specifically etched away his phallus and testicles.
This pornographic bathroom, covered with erotic paintings by Raphael, has been the Vatican’s most mysterious site
The ‘Sinners Grand Tour’ comes to a close in Capri which looks like ‘a place where the Gods would holiday’, beautiful yet known for its long tradition of debauchery, it was established two thousand years ago as an escape for rich Romans. Without too many visible remnants of the island’s controversial past to visit, the author elaborates on the stories, based on secondary literature, letters and diaries. The stories of Emperor Tiberius, who retired to the island in A.D 27, immortalized by the Roman (questionable) author Suetonius, are particularly interesting. According to Suetonius, Tiberius liked to swim in La Grotto Azzura, accompanied by boys dressed up as fish who teased him with their licks and nibbles. Visiting this legendary grotto, which was also a place for the worship of Cybele, the pagan goddess of the earth, marks the end of Perrottet’s exploration of the Europe’s naughty history.
Nine months have passed since The Sinner’s Grand Tour came out in the United States. How has the book been received?
“Not bad, although it is hard to gauge. The book is an unusual combination of academic research and frivolous travel and family anecdotes. In hindsight I don’t know if it worked as well as I hoped. It either attracts one group or the other. I have noticed that especially here in the States, a book needs to belong to one genre. I think that to a certain extent people don’t really know what to do with it. So to cut a long story short, the book has been received fine, but not as well as other books I wrote, for example The Naked Olympics. The latter is pure history although very funny, it is not very personal.”
So did you try to combine the history of sex with a family travelogue in order to reach a wider audience?
“I figured that writing about my family and all the hilarious aspects of dragging your wife and two boys through Europe would make the book a little more accessible. There is a certain logic to it but certain people don’t see it that way. Some readers find those frivolous bits interesting, but I lose them when I really get into the historical research side of it.
In academia, in the 1960s and especially in the 1970s, lots of work was done on the history of sexuality. But a lot of it is really boring. At the same time there are many travel books, but they are often very superficial, so what I have tried to do is combining the both, the popular and the academic.”
Your sources are scarce and often incomplete. This must have resulted in holes in your research. How did you work your way round this?
“The Hellfire clubs were the hardest to research. The sources are very thin and I had to use the word ‘probably’ often because I simply don’t know the exact details. You just have to put together what seems the most probable. The history of sex in Paris and the Belle Époche are on the other hand very well documented. In the case of Paris there are firsthand accounts and diaries. The main problem with the Hellfire clubs was that this raunchy bit of history was followed by the Victorian era, which was characterized by sexual restraint, which contrasted greatly with the morality of the previous Georgian period. Many records were destroyed, letters were burned in an attempt to erase the country’s racy past. Although more sources in France survived, this country too went through quite a conservative time. Much of the more controversial sources were also destroyed. Researching the Stufetta del Bibbiena which was built in the Renaissance wasn’t easy either, but fortunately amazing scholars have gone back and tracked down correspondence between Cardinal Bibbiena and Raphael. So, key facts and wonderful material are there!
The medieval stuff [peasants in the Montaillou] is amazing, huge amounts of evidence turned up because the Inquisition arrested the whole village and interviewed all its residents. So when I went into the Vatican archives, I was able to find a book, a giant document that brought together all these oral testimonies. During the interviews these peasants were in a very intimidating situation and they were often interviewed to find evidence of witchcraft. One aspect of that is contraception, so different contraceptive devices that were used at the time were discussed. This is fascinating evidence for the history of contraception, although it wasn’t what the interview was about, which makes this kind of research so interesting. Every age has its own beauty when it comes to research but also its own weird problems. And problems aren’t always related to a lack of sources. They can’t even figure out what happened to Kennedy in 1963; in this case there is too much evidence.”
The history of the peasants is particularly interesting because you applied a so called bottom up approach. It seems that the history of sex is mostly based on experiences of the upper classes.
“That is a huge problem with the history of sex. People are likely to say that the 18th century was incredibly wild, because they are reading about aristocrats who were hanging out at Versailles. Finding out about ordinary people and sex is very hard. That’s why the story of the peasants is so extraordinary. The interviews are still there and it is amazing to have firsthand accounts, although we need to keep in mind that these interviews were translated by the Inquisitors on the spot.
“People are likely to say that the 18th century was incredibly wild, because they are reading about aristocrats who were hanging out at Versailles”
The people in this region of the Pyrenees spoke Occitan, but the Inquisitors wrote everything down in Latin. This could have affected the accuracy. Nevertheless it is pretty amazing to have the direct voices. Little anecdotes which were besides the point, but still recorded, are particularly interesting. These peasants were jumping in and out of each other’s beds, hiding in cupboards when husbands came home, all sorts of shenanigans happened in this village. These are wonderful intimate insights into the lives of medieval peasants. This sort of evidence is very rare.”
Other ‘ordinary’ people you discuss are prostitutes in Paris. How did you find out about their lives?
“Some of these poor prostitutes and courtesans during the Belle Époche or 18th century London were suddenly plucked from nowhere and then going into this amazing wealth and prestige, marrying aristocrats. Their history was often scorched from the records because the Victorians didn’t want it in their family tree that a relative came from such background. But the prostitute guide (and there were plenty, published regularly over many decades) reveal the truth about these girls. In these guides you can find names of prostitutes. You can figure out who they married and how they got out of the business. You can trace life stories. All of a sudden working class Polly from Covent Garden turns into Lady Mary of so and so. And they joke about it in these guides, which are very gossipy.”
Would you say that the prostitutes’ diaries you used give an accurate image of the life of a working girl in 19th century Paris?
“You tend to hear of the memoires written by these women who ended up becoming millionaires with a house on the Champs Elysees entertaining presidents and famous artists. You don’t hear much of the thousands of women who might have made it a little bit up the ladder, but then slowly sink down and get stuck in these luxury brothels like Le Chabanais. These brothels are beautiful metaphors because they are so sumptuous, but the girls are forced to live in the grimy attic, with three in a bed in a very sickly environment, a tuberculosis horror! They didn’t tend to write down their life stories, although they are sometimes embedded in the prostitute guides. You can read about people on the way up and on the way down. So to answer your question, these diaries give a skewed view of reality. There is definitely a temptation to romanticise the whole thing.”
Your chapter on Paris is particularly entertaining. You must have been thrilled to find the “sex chair” of King Edward VII?
“The chair was a triumph. It was one of those classic things. No one else had asked about it; no one had really pursued it. And it was not that the guy [Louis Soubrier, whose ancestor manufactured the chair] was hiding it either. And the thing that I couldn’t quite understand is why the people in Paris themselves weren’t intrigued enough to look for it. In particular the lady I met who runs the erotic art gallery, did not take it a step further and made a few more inquiries.”
Maybe there is a certain level of fatigue when it comes to Paris’ raunchy past?
“The Belle Époche is not exactly a cliché but they milk it so much in the tourist industry. It is too much. Nevertheless they were pretty excited when it was discovered. The story of the chair was very alive. It worked because there were a lot of characters on many levels; there was the corpulent King Edward VII, the gallery owner Madame Nicole Canet and you got Soubrier- the crazy guy with the moustache, looking a lot like Biggles. The chapter about the Vatican was on the contrary much less alive, which was much more about dealing with bureaucracy and endless archives. So yes, finding the chair was one of the trip’s highlights.”
Looking at the chair, I still can’t figure out how it enables a fat man to have sex with two women simultaneously. Can you?
“It is a matter of debate, the legend speaks indeed of two women. It is a weird design, there is a padded thing underneath, so how it worked exactly, I have no idea. This is an example of where I’d like the reader to send in suggestions. My wife Les, who works at the Museum of Natural History here in New York, made a scale model of the chair. We decided to use a Ken and Barbie doll to try out some different positions. Les had to break Barbie’s hips and legs to make the bloody thing work.
“My wife Les made a scale model of the sex chair of King Edward VII. We decided to use a Ken and Barbie doll to try out some different positions. Les had to break Barbie’s hips and legs to make the bloody thing work.”
The scale model with Ken and Barbie was on display during a party here at Soho house. One of the organisers got all flustered and covered it up, because her 16 year old son was also at the party. America is a funny place, it can be so uptight about certain things , yet it has the most extreme and wild behaviour as well. Mindbogglingly raunchy stuff comes out of this country, yet so many people have a hugely conservative attitude as well. I think it is a shame there is no balance between the two.”
Was this conservative attitude also the reason that you had to change the book’s title from ‘A Pervert’s Grand Tour’ into ‘A Sinner’s Grand Tour’?
“After writing the five part series for Slate, which was called the “Pervert’s Grand Tour”, my publisher suggested to do something on the same lines but then for the whole of Europe. They changed ‘Pervert’ into ‘Sinner’, because they didn’t like the word. Which was a minor tragedy. People assumed that women might not read the book on the subway when it was called ‘A Pervert’s Grand Tour’. American women apparently object to the title. They don’t like the word pervert, which has a very negative association here. Whereas in Australia or in England it is an ironic thing. After all why would you write a serious book about perverts calling it ‘A Pervert’s Grand Tour’? Americans can be quite literal sometimes, which is kind of sad.”
In your book you focus on Great Britain, France, Switzerland and Italy. What was your reasoning behind this selection? Considering its rich past of prostitution I was wondering why you didn’t write about Amsterdam?
“Amsterdam would have been great, although a bit obvious, but it never featured in a mythic sort of way like the other places I visited. Sexual permissiveness seems more of a modern thing in the Netherlands. I guess in the 1960s and 1970s Amsterdam was this incredibly liberal place, but from what I gathered they were quite conservative back in the day. I came across an expression when I was doing research. In 18th century London they used to say ‘As cold as a Dutch woman’.”
Were there any other places that you would have liked to include?
“It is hard to find a good balance. A story needs to sustain a chapter. In Madrid in the Prado for example, there are these amazing paintings by Goya called ‘The Nude Maja’ and ‘The Clothed Maja’. There has been many speculations on who this woman is. This is one of those cute little histories I would love to dive into, but there is just not enough for a chapter. Also, I probably wouldn’t be able to find it out. I had a list of things that would be great to find. Marquis de Sade’s scull got lost in Germany and theoretically it is possible to find it. Or Lord Byron’s autobiography which also disappeared. It would be amazing to find that.
I would have loved to include a chapter on Prague. Casanova who travelled all over Europe ended up in a castle in Bohemia just outside of Prague. He spent the last fifteen years of his life here. He was a librarian in this castle, but was so bored and depressed that he decided to write a memoir. So he produced this huge manuscript, which the French government bought two years ago for a record 9.5 million dollars. Besides visiting the Casanova’s palazzos in Venice, his houses in Paris, I would have liked to visit Prague to the castle where Casanova supposedly worked with Mozart. Back then it was already a miserable place, made worse by the Communists who trashed the place. At the moment it is being put back together, with a museum dedicated to Casanova. It is a very quirky place. It is in many ways an untold story. Casanova lived until he was 73 years old, which is a ripe old age considering the fact he had lived his life on the edge and he suffered from syphilis. His story is a parable of life and art. He lived an amazing adventurous life, he wrote all sorts of things. But people only know him because of this sexual escapades not because of his writings on his discussions with Voltaire or the music he composed together with Mozart. I think that visiting Prague would have been a very logic ending to the book and maybe would have made more sense than its geographical ending in Southern Italy.”