King Edward VII’s sex chair — a one-of-a-kind device built for him when he was prince of Wales — is just one kinky object among many that Tony Perrottet tracks down in his search to find Europe’s “forbidden historical fruit.” His tour begins in Scotland, where he drops by locations that were home to sex clubs in the 1700s and makes inquiries into the weird formalities and rites of these secret societies. Next, in two of the book’s best chapters, Perrottet crosses the Channel to survey Parisian brothel culture during the Belle Epoque and gets rare access to the chateau used by the notorious Marquis de Sade. Then he goes to Lake Geneva to tell the alluring but familiar Romantic story of Lord Byron’s and Shelley’s tangled sex lives. Last, it’s off to Italy to learn about love from Casanova and take a peek at “the Pope’s pornographic bathroom.” There, in 1516, the secretary to Pope Leo X had the artist Raphael and his cohorts cover the walls with highly erotic artwork. While Perrottet was able to catch a glimpse, it’s doubtful that your Vatican guide will let you in. Still, images of the bathroom’s art are included in the book. Behold the frescos of deities at amorous play!
In the end, though, “The Sinner’s Grand Tour” provides several titillating stories but no payoffs. What do jaunts through secret backrooms and boudoirs say about the “forbidden” side of European culture? In this account, not much. It’s like visiting a sex museum: You’re teased on the outside, intrigued upon entering, quickly fatigued once inside and unsatisfied on the way out.