Tag Archives: erotic art

Ginzburg’s clues and Terence’s Danaë

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As you may have noticed [1] [2], I currently have a crush on the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg. In the latter’s Titian, Ovid, and sixteenth-century codes for erotic illustration is a record of what may be the very first description (an ekphrasis) of an erotic painting, found in Terence’s play Eunuchus.

The scene is like this:

Chaerea, a young Athenian man, spots the girl Pamphila and falls in love with her. He follows her to her house where he substitutes for a eunuch. While Pamphila’s servants prepare her bath, she looks at a painting of Danae and so does Chaerea.

“While preparations were being made, the damsel sat in a room looking up at a certain painting, in which was represented how Jove is said once to have sent a golden shower into the bosom of Danaë.” [3]

Chaerea resolves to follow the example of Jove (Jupiter) — the supreme seducer of Greek mythology — and sleeps with the girl. Some accounts speak of rape:

“a picture of Danae and the golden shower in her lap inflames a young man with such lust and such envy of Jupiter’s sexual agency that he rapes the object of his desire”[4].

The following is (as always) is the part I love. Negative reviews of finger-wagging detractors:

The finger-wagger is Saint Augustine who in the words of Ginzburg intends to “demonstrate the evil effects of lascivious pictures.”

In City of God Augustine says:

“Hence the young profligate in Terence, when he sees on the wall a fresco representing the fabled descent of Jupiter into the lap of Danae in the form of a golden shower, accepts this as authoritative precedent for his own licentiousness, and boasts that he is an imitator of God.”[5]

And that same Saint Augustine on the same passage in Confessions:

“Hence words are learnt; hence eloquence; most necessary to gain your ends, or maintain opinions.” As if we should have never known such words as “golden shower,” “lap,” “beguile,” “temples of the heavens,” or others in that passage, unless Terence had brought a lewd youth upon the stage, setting up Jupiter as his example of seduction.
“Viewing a picture, where the tale was drawn,
Of Jove’s descending in a golden shower
To Danae’s lap a woman to beguile.”
And then mark how he excites himself to lust as by celestial authority:
“And what God? Great Jove,
Who shakes heaven’s highest temples with his thunder,
And I, poor mortal man, not do the same!
I did it, and with all my heart I did it.”[6]

The best Danae is still Klimt’s. I previously posted it here[7].

Tying the loose ends of erotic history

Three years ago I find Le Bât[1], a painting by Pierre Subleyras of a man ostensibly painting on the private parts of a woman. While I knew that it was based on a tale by Jean de La Fontaine, I could not figure out which one.

Last week my friend Paul Rumsey brings the Renaissance print known by the mysterious name “Purinega tien duro” to my attention. It represents a phallic bird.

I start researching.

I find that uccello is Italian slang for phallus. The proof is the Decameron; in the tale of the nightingale (“he hath put the nightingale in his own cage and not in that of another”).

Via that episode I find an enumeration of the more bawdy episodes from the Decameron, being ‘Alibech and Rustico‘ (which I treated at length in my book De geschiedenis van de erotiek), ‘the priest metamorphosing a woman in a mare‘ and ‘Alatiel‘s revirgination‘.

While doing this, I stumble on another Pierre Subleyras painting, The Mare of Peasant Pierre (French: La Jument du compère Pierre), also apparently based on a tale by de La Fontaine, which is the equivalent of above-mentioned Decamerone’s “the priest metamorphosing a woman in a mare”.

The source of the La Fontaine tale is in his Contes et nouvelles en vers, a book I had short-changed in my own book: I only mentioned his rendition of Hans Carvel’s ring, failing to see that it is a compendium, a summary of a great many interesting stories, a  history of written erotica up until that age.

I find that “Le Bât” is translated as “The Pack Saddle.”

I go back to the Contes et nouvelles en vers and I find the text of “The Pack Saddle”. It is the story of a jealous husband who paints a seal (a painting of an ass) on his wife’s private parts, making her inaccessible to other men because the paint would wipe off during physical contact. The wife predictably does engage in amorous encounters, her lover decides to re-paint the wiped-off painting of the ass but he erroneously paints one detail too many. He paints a saddle where before there was none.

         A FAMOUS painter, jealous of his wife;
         Whose charms he valued more than fame or life,
         When going on a journey used his art,
         To paint an ASS upon a certain part,
         (Umbilical, 'tis said) and like a seal:
         Impressive token, nothing thence to steal.
         A BROTHER brush, enamoured of the dame;
         Now took advantage, and declared his flame:
         The Ass effaced, but God knows how 'twas done;
         Another soon howe'er he had begun,
         And finished well, upon the very spot;
         In painting, few more praises ever got;
         But want of recollection made him place
         A saddle, where before he none could trace.
         THE husband, when returned, desired to look
         At what he drew, when leave he lately took.
         Yes, see my dear, the wily wife replied,
         The Ass is witness, faithful I abide.
         Zounds! said the painter, when he got a sight,--
         What!--you'd persuade me ev'ry thing is right?
         I wish the witness you display so well,
         And him who saddled it, were both in Hell.

Case closed.

I feel like I am tying the last loose ends of erotic history.