Gender bender

Painted plaster cast of the Borghese Hermaphrodite, in the South Colonnade at West Wycombe Park. ©NTPL/John Hammond

In 2007 a cast of the Borghese Hermaphrodite was accepted in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to West Wycombe Park. It had originally been brought to West Wycombe by Sir Francis Dashwood, second Baronet, in the mid-eighteenth century.

Hermaphroditus is a figure from classical mythology who has the physical attributes of both the male and the female sex.

The Borghese Hermaphrodite, now in the Louvre. Image Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons

The original Borghese Hermaphrodite sculpture was dug up in Rome in the early seventeenth century and presented to Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who had a special room dedicated to it in his Villa Borghese. The sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini made the uncannily realistic buttoned mattress for it in 1620.

The Hermaphrodite snoozing at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The figure soon became famous. The English courtier and writer John Evelyn bought a reduced copy in ivory in Rome in the 1640s. A copy made for Philip IV of Spain inspired Velazquez’s unambiguously female Toilet of Venus – but this painting would itself become embroiled in gender politics when it was slashed by a Suffragette in London in 1914. 

The Borghese Hermaphrodite shown in a 1765 grisaille painting by Louis Gabriel Blanchet (1705-1772), at Saltram, Devon. Blanchet includes Bernini's mattress, as if it has been discovered together with the figure in a Roman ruin. ©NTPL/Matthew Hollow

The West Wycombe copy reflects the second Baronet’s fascination with the celebration of sexuality in the ancient world.

Ambiguous dreams: detail of the cast at West Wycombe. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The original was sold by Prince Camillo Borghese in 1807 and transferred to the Louvre. There it inspired Algernon Swinburne’s controversial 1863 poem ‘Hermaphroditus’, which explores the sensation of feminine and masculine feelings in the same body.

6 Responses to “Gender bender”

  1. Barbara Says:

    I am willing to expand my last observation here & now. Taste, politics, & how society views sex are 3 things that one can rely upon to change.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes the history of ‘taste’ – whatever form that may take – is a fascinating subject 🙂

  3. le style et la matière Says:

    It is a fascinating piece of sculpture. I didn’t know it was Bernini who was good enough to make him (well, the figure) more comfortable in the 17th century. The cast must be very ancient to have been accepted in lieu of inheritance tax.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it is a wonderful example of combining ancient and modern art, ins’t it?

    The cast seems to be from the eighteenth century. It was accepted together with the sarcophagus and the busts discussed in earlier West Wycombe posts (see ‘West Wycombe’ category link on the right), partly for their intrinsic value but also for their significance as examples of ‘Grand Tour’ taste.

  5. Annie (Lady M) x Says:

    Wow your elegant description of the Borghese Hermaphrodite is far more eloquent than my ‘bird on a lilo’.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Your description is accurate too, except of course the subject should really be called a ‘bird-bloke’… 🙂

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