The Ancient Roman Sculpture That Made People Question Their Sexuality

The Ancient Roman Sculpture That Made People Question Their Sexuality

Created as a joke to trick spectators and make them feel confused about their own sexuality, this sculpture is still fulfilling its mission with modern viewers. How do you feel about it?

The sculpture of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus has intrigued, shocked, offended, and even, as the title suggests, made people question their own sexuality since it was discovered in the seventeenth century. Critics are pretty sure it’s always been displayed in the same way, even back in Ancient times, so that the spectator approaches it from behind, believing they're looking at another of the many female nudes of the time. The provocative way in which this character lies peacefully not only enticed those admiring the sculpture. The delicate curves and the shape of that perfect body lure them, until they realize that in fact the figure they’ve been so attracted to isn’t precisely Venus as they believed, but a representation of her child, a hermaphrodite.

When I started researching on this sculpture, there were tons of articles talking about how open-minded the Ancient Romans were. According to the written records of the time and archaeological findings, the Roman Empire was filled with images of intersexed people representing Hermaphroditus the Greek deity. Moreover, we’re familiar with how openly sexual scenes were depicted in public places, which all together can give the impression of a really liberal and open-minded society. But were they really?

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Sleeping Hermaphroditus. Discovered in 1608, Cardinal Scipione Borghese became its owner. Wanting it to have a decent space to display it, he asked for Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a marble mattress.

Just as it still happens, back in Ancient times, people also believed that the only “normal” possibilities of human life regarding gender were only male and female; that was it. If that was the case, why were there so many sculptures of intersex people adorning wealthy houses as well as public places? In fact, what many see as a symbol of an open-minded way of thinking was nothing else but a cruel joke and an ingrained prejudiced behavior towards what was considered abnormal, an attitude that still prevails. According to Carlos Picón, curator of the Greek and Roman hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, these representations can’t be seen as a sign of tolerance, since back then intersexual people were considered a bad omen, not only to the family but to the city where they were born. Whenever an intersex baby was born, they were immediately sacrificed in an ostentatious ceremony to show the Gods they had received the message and were willing to gain their forgiveness once more.

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Hermaphrodite (1639) - Giovanni Francesco Susini

Society in the ancient world was well aware of intersex people thanks to mythology. According to the Greek mythology, Hermaphroditus was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, a quite handsome young man who took the hearts of those around them. However, no one was as passionate about him as the nymph Salmacis. Wanting to be forever tied to him, she prayed the gods to be eternally bound to the love of her life, and Zeus decided to grant her that wish and fused them in one androgynous being. This might sound great, but for ancient Romans, this was seen as a disability, and society saw intersex people with fear and disdain. For them, this was an abnormality and a corruption from natural forms that had to be eliminated to avoid a terrible doom.

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Hermafrodito (1652) - Matteo Bonuccelli

Whenever an intersex baby was born, a huge ceremony was prepared to expiate their errors and appease the rage of the gods. The only way this could be achieved was by literally drowning the babies in a water purification ritual. Now, there are reported cases of parents actually not believing that their babies were a bad omen but a blessing, so they decided to keep the news hidden from the state, but these cases weren’t that common. As time passed and the empire grew, the attitudes towards intersex people started to change, and what was first seen with horror was later seen with fascination and humor, which is basically the age when the Sleeping Hermaphroditus was created (2th century AD).

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Sleeping Hermaphrodite (2010) - Barry X Ball.

Then again, and as a way to sum up, this doesn’t mean that the artist, whoever they were, created the sculpture as a symbol of this change in mentality. Actually, art historians and critics have been led to believe thanks to Pliny’s records that this is only one of the hundreds of copies from a previous sculpture named the Hermaphroditus Nobilis by Greek artist Polykles, four centuries before. This, as we said at the beginning, has been seen more of a satiric humorous piece of art determined to trick those admiring it only to find they’ve been infatuated not by a woman but by "an abnormal creature." This is a joke that ended up being replicated across the empire, and thanks to this particular sculpture discovered centuries after and replicated throughout the years, we as a society have started to question our gender perceptions, even today. 


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