It’s really not so easy to follow a post concerning Pauline la Pute (or as she was known in history Pauline Borghese, Napoleon’s sister & Prince Camillo Borghese’s wife). I love the drafty old halls of the Louvre. Why else would I be toiling so at trying to expand the museum for THATLou participants and readers? But I know that an article on the history of the Borghese Collection isn’t that sexy. And though the Borghese Collection’s Three Graces, a perfect candidate for this Sunday’s Ladies at the Louvre hunt (hint hint, nudge nudge…), is a sexy piece of sculpture… They’re, well. Virtuous — so not quite so much fun as our scandalous friend Pauline.
So instead of trying to top the juice, I thought I’d go for the anatomically interesting: The Sleeping Hermaphrodite! There’s an excellent church in Rome (well there are a few, if your all time favourite period of art is Baroque Roman architecture, which is the case for me. This is the lucky result of having glorious gilded swirls, dramatic moving marble, fat flabby volutes, convex and concave facades all crammed down my throat from a young age by my avid mother) called Santa Maria della Vittoria. It’s by Carlo Maderno (teacher to rivals Bernini and Borromini). Sta Ma della VIttoria is famous on a mass scale because of Bernini’s most excellent and much-studied sculpture in the Cornaro Chapel called The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa* (oh the jokes my predominately Protestant and Jewish art history classes would make in HS over the “Ecstasy” the horny saint went through — but that’s for another entry, or another blog. On being juvenile in Rome and New York, sometime. One day. For now though, I’ll try to rein in my enthusiasm and save you from more parenthetical tangents).
In any event, in 1608 when the foundations of the church were being dug they found this 2nd Century AD Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the ground (it’s near Diocletian’s Baths), a Roman copy of a 2nd C BC Hellenistic sculpture. Cardinal Scipione Borghese**, nephew of Pope Paul V, caught word of this find and descended on the construction site immediately, saying “Hey, I’ll be taking that lovely SheMan thank you very much (ah the joy of being a Pope’s “nephew” in 17th-century Rome)” and brought it directly up the Pincian Hill back to his Villa Borghese where he created a room just for his new prized possession, the Sleeping Hermaphrodite. (Incidentally he also paid for the facade of Sta Ma della Vittoria twenty odd years later). Then in 1619 he set Gian Lorenzo Bernini (architect of St Peter’s Baldacchino, as well as of the Fountain of Four Rivers in Piazza Navona) to the task of sculpting the marble mattress to cushion his Sleeping Hermaphrodite.
In Greek mythology they didn’t really give hermaphrodites a lot of importance until the Hellenistic period. The idea of these poor beings with mixed up male-female chromosomes came to the Greeks from the East by way of Cyprus. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1974 edition) says the legend of the Hellenistic period made Hermaphroditus a beautiful youth, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. The nymph of the fountain of Salmacis in Caria became enamored of him and entreated the gods that she might be forever united with him. The result was the formation of a being half man, half woman. It was typical of Hellenistic sculpture in so far as it had a theatrical element of surprise to it and was meant to be seen from two different angles.
There are sleeping hermaphrodites scattered about, but the Louvre’s is the most famous. The Galeria Borghese in Rome has a lesser one, the Uffizi has another Roman copy. Both the Prado in Madrid and Met in NY have life-sized bronze sleeping hermaphrodites, the former ordered by Philip IV. The composition clearly influenced Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus at the National Gallery in London. And we won’t even go into the poets (Swinburne to name one) who devoted ode after ode to the subject.
All of this is good and well, but the big question you are probably asking yourselves — Does the Sleeping Hermaphrodite deserve a space in the Ladies at the Louvre THATLou?
* Whilst discussing the female orgasm, psychologist Jacques Lacan said that “you only have to go and look at Bernini’s statue in Rome to understand immediately that she’s coming, there is no doubt about it.” (“Encore,” Sem. XX: 70-71). This tidbit is a tip of my hat to my sister in law, a psychologist in Buenos Aires who introduced me to Lacan.
** Cardinal Bishop Scipione Borghese was not only Bernini’s patron, but Caravaggio’s as well. If you like the Baroque, you like Scipione.