Flesh and Stone

by Danilo Brunetti

Federico Schiaffino explores the subtle seduction of marble through Rome’s masterpieces.

As cold as a statue…” According to a popular saying, this is the description given to a beauty that, although physically perfect, lacks passion and personality. In some cases, however, the opposite can be true. Sculptures, beyond their artistic value, have been known to give off sensual vibes, and are often capable of evoking physical attraction in the viewer, or at least a sense of perturbation and unease. Eroticism thrives on mystery, so a slight gesture or a hinted detail, rather than a fully naked body, is sometimes all it takes to pique one’s curiosity about a statue that, while it may be inanimate, represents an attainable beauty. Sometimes these works come closer to nature than even the models they imitate.

Hercules and Lichas

To better understand the secret of marble’s seduction, one must bear in mind the artist’s inspiration as well as the fact that, until the last century, the Church drastically censured any statue that could be deemed erotic. Nothing could have been more arbitrary: classical statues were immune from any such taboo and represented a pure concept of sexuality, without licentiousness, strictly related to the pagan religion and its liturgical proceedings. The “pornographic” frescoes of Pompeii with their Bacchanalian scenes are nothing but the blatant manifestation of this primordial innocence that knows no original sin. On the other hand, the Church’s censorship of sensual art only served to highten interest in these audacious statues, whose sex appeal was rendered irresistible by the air of scandal surrounding them.

The Capitoline Museums host some of the most significant examples of this erotic art. There’s nothing sinful about them, only the unapologetic naked ness of the bodies and the precision of the anatomical details. In the Room of the Gladiator, we witness the amorous embrace of Cupid and Psyche (a Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue), depicting two young lovers in the throes of passion. In another important statue of Cupid (again a copy of a work by the Greek sculptor Lysippus), the young god pulls back his bow with sinuous movements that replicate the elastic torsion of his weapon. His face has slightly effeminate features that nevertheless represent ideal male beauty.

Esquiline Venus

In the same museum live two exquisite sculptures of Venus. The Capitoline Venus demurely covers herself with her hands—and isn’t it precisely this affected shyness that makes her so desirable? The perfect state of preservation of the statue, a Roman copy of a Greek work by Praxiteles, makes her one of the most admired (marble) women in Rome. Her twin, known as the Esquiline Venus, depicts a slim adolescent tying up her hair, a “code” gesture that, according to modern psychologists, is an implicit come-on. Although this Roman original has lost both arms, it nevertheless expresses a remarkable sexual energy. The statue of the Young Faun, on the other hand, shows the ideal of the male form, with perfect muscles and an imposing stance. The figure holds a cluster of grapes, alluding to unbridled sexual appetites. Male vigor is displayed in all its glory in Antonio Canova’s powerful Hercules and Lichas, which resides at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna.

Ambiguity can be a powerful aphrodisiac, and with the erotic play of light and shadow, it can reveal a surprising combination of sexual attributes. Male or female? The dilemma concerns the famous statue of the Sleeping Hermaphrodite at the Borghese Gallery. It’s a Roman marble replica of a Greek bronze work, in which a youth lounges, mischievously lifting a foot. Seen from behind, the long gathered tresses and the soft curves of the body clearly depict a beautiful slumbering woman, but take a peek at the other side and you’ll find the unmistakable shape of the male sexual organ. The reason for the Hermaphrodite’s lasting fame is its surprising and undetermined nature, as well as the perturbing realization it arouses about the existence of both genders in every human being.

The Rape of Proserpina

Two sensual pieces of the baroque period by Gian Lorenzo Bernini also reside in the gallery. Bernini was the favorite artist of the pope and therefore relatively free to express himself when depicting nude mythological figures. The Rape of Proserpina captures the dramatic moment of the abduction of the young goddess, as Pluto’s fingers viciously press into the flesh-like marble. Apollo and Daphne depicts the exact moment when the nymph, caught by her pursuer, begins to sprout leaves and turn into a tree. Despite depicting vastly different moods, both works prove the unparalleled ability of the artist to capture the moment, infusing matter with energy so the statues become living creatures. In another room in the gallery reclines a lady who boasts throngs of admirers, just as she did in life. Antonio Canova carved a portrait of Paolina Borghese, Napoleon’s sister, in the guise of Venus comfortably resting on a divan. In her left hand, she holds an apple, suggesting carnal temptation. Her husband, Camillo Borghese, was so jealous of this life-like sculpture that he hid it from the indiscreet stares of conventional thinkers. The statue exudes sensuality with its sinuous curves and risqué details, such as the shawl that falls to reveal the dimples at the base of her spine.

Among more recent sensual works is the Fountain of the Naiads in Piazza della Repubblica. Designed by Pietro Rutelli in the early 1900s, the fountain depicts four water nymphs in alluring poses, accompanied by a brawny god who lashes them with sprays of water, causing great scandal in the puritan atmosphere of its day. Across town at the Foro Italico, a sports complex built during the Fascist period, dozens of male marble nudes encircle the Stadio dei Marmi, each one representing a different sport or atheletic discipline.

Paolina Borghese by Canova