The Borghese Sleeping Hermaphroditus has puzzled, fascinated, and titillated people for centuries. This marble sculpture dates from 2nd century B.C.E. Rome and depicts a recumbent youth, voluptuous and unblemished, who appears female, with round hips, buttocks, and breasts. Then the observer sees the male genitalia nestled between the figure’s legs. The statue is an image of the god Hermaphroditus, the child of Venus (Aphrodite) and Mercury (Hermes). When the statue was unearthed in 1608, it was purchased by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who added the statue to his collection, going so far as to give the Sleeping Hermaphroditus its own room, the Sala dell’Ermafrodito. In 1620, the Cardinal commissioned Gian Lorenzo Bernini to create a gorgeous cushioned mattress for the statue to lie upon. Napoleon took the statue with him to France in 1807, where it became part of the collection that is now in the Louvre. Despite its popularity, little has been written about the work beyond tidbits of information scattered through books. Although highly-specific information is not readily available, we can come to understand how this work was appreciated as an ideal during the early modern era.
In this paper, I will explore the idealism suggested by the Hermaphroditus through the examination of material found in medical, alchemical, and even religious sources. This information will augment a discussion of the discovery of the work and how the recumbent figure was displayed in the villa. By examining these perspectives, I will highlight how the statue is an embodied perception of perfection—sexually and spiritually—that still might be deemed appropriate to a location such as a cardinal’s home.
Hannah Bostwick, ’16
Sponsor: Christina Penn-Goetsch