Les 120 journées de Sodome, ou l’école du libertinage (The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage) is the lesser-known companion novel to Justine and Juliette by the notorious eighteenth-century French writer and nobleman Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade. Written in 1785, it tells the story of four wealthy male libertines who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. To do this, they seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in the heart of the Black Forest with a harem of thirty-six victims, mostly male and female teenagers, and engage four female brothel keepers to tell the stories of their lives and adventures. The women’s narratives form an inspiration for the sexual abuse and torture of the victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter. In many ways the ultimate transgressive novel of sexual torture, the work went unpublished until the early twentieth century.

Les 120 journées de Sodome is both Sade’s least-known book and the hardest to stomach, which makes it a challenge to illustrate. Just how hard to stomach is probably best-illustrated by the response to Pier Pablo Pasolini’s 1975 film interpretation of the book, Salò, which was almost universally banned and is only more widely available on disk.

As far as we are aware, only two illustrators have attempted to produce illustration portfolios for Les 120 journées. The first was André Collot in 1935, whose rather tongue-in-cheek images you can see here. Johannes Vennekamp’s images are much closer to Sade’s text and ideas, the themes of abuse and torture readily apparent both in the elements of the prints and in the handwritten captions.

Here are the texts which appear at the foot of the plates, together with an English translation:
    Er zerbricht ihr einen Finger, manchmal mehrere. Er schlägt ihr kraftvoll mit dem Hammerschlag den Fuss breit … (He breaks her finger, sometimes several. He strikes her foot powerfully like a hammerblow ... )
    … er will nur ungeheuer, neger, oder verkrüppelte Menschen sodomieren … ( ... he only wants to sodomise hideous, black or crippled people ... )
    … er sodomiert einen Hammel! (... he sodomises a sheep!)
    Die schönsten werden immer am schlimmsten malträtiert … (The most beautiful are always mistreated the most ... )
    Übt als zweites die Passion sie in ein glühendes Schwitzbad einzuschliessen (Secondly, to enjoy the pleasure of trapping you in an overheated sweat bath)
    Er stellt ein Mädchen auf einen Kreisel der sich mit phantastischer Geschwindigkeit dreht; sie ist nackt fest gebunden und dreht sich solang (He puts a girl on a top that is spinning at a fantastic speed; naked, she is tightly bound, and spins for a long time)
    Nach dem Essen ging man zum Kaffee über dazu wollte man gerne um berührte Hintern geboten bekommen (After dinner we went to have coffee, desiring to be offered a buttock to touch)
    Er stellt die semlich auf, feuert eine mit Bleigeladene Pistole ab, die ihre beiden Busen streift, er versucht eine der beiden Warzen abzuschieben (He gets ready, fires a loaded pistol that brushes both of her breasts, then tries to remove one of her nipples)
​​​​​​​    Ich hab’s deiner Schwester gezeigt, ich zeig’s allen kleinen Mädchen in deinem Alter … (I showed it to your sister, I’ll show it to all little girls of your age ... )
​​​​​​​    Er giesst ihr ein Klistier mit kochendem Öl in dem After (He inserts an enema of boiling oil into her bottom)
​​​​​​​    Mir spannt’s beim Stehlen, beim Morden, beim Brand stiften … (I’m tense when I’m stealing, killing, setting on fire ... )
​​​​​​​    Ach! Diese schöne Leiche. Oh, mein Gott! Wie musste es dem, der die Statspannen. Ach verflucht, wie gern hätte ich sie getötet … (Oh! This beautiful corpse. Oh my God! It must have been too tight. Damn, how I would have loved to kill her ... )

The title page, reproduced at the beginning of this page, has the caption ‘Göttlicher Donatien, Genie der Freiheit’ (Divine Donatien, Genius of Freedom)

We are very grateful to Hans-Jürgen Döpp for these images; Hans-Jürgen, the compiler of many books on erotic art, curates the Venusberg online gallery and bookshop which you can find here.