Sunday, March 8, 2015

The art of femicide

Benvenuto Cellini's "Perseus and Medusa", presently in Florence, Italy. Photo by the author

Celebrating the international women's day on March 8, may be a good occasion to remember how violent humans can be, not just against women but, at times, especially so. Look at the image above: it is Cellini's interpretation of the myth of Perseus and his victim, Medusa. As I described in an older post, a peculiar feature of this piece of statuary is how realistic it is in its depiction of the brutal murder of a young woman.

Within some limits, a true artist, such as Cellini was, can transcend the crude reality and we correctly admire this giant bronze as a masterpiece. However, it is also clear that Cellini was representing something he knew well: death and murder. He lived in an extremely violent time, and he tells us many details of his figthst in his "Life".

But Cellini's times are not really special in human history. The theme of "femicide" has been present in art for millennia and, recently, I discovered that the composition of Cellini's Medusa has been directly inspired by Roman art. Here is an example of how the Romans of Imperial times depicted the myth:

This is a fresco of the Roman Villa of Stabia (image courtesy of Bill Storage), an area that was buried during the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The composition, the posture of the body of Perseus, and many details are the same as Cellini's Perseus (except that the body of Medusa is missing, here). Cellini could not have seen this specific fresco, since it was discovered much later than the time when his Perseus was fused, but it is just one of a way of representing the myth of Medusa in Roman times: - there are many others, for instance this one:

This cameo goes back to, probably, 25 B.C. - A.D. 25, presently it is at the J. Paul Getty collection.

As you can see, the theme and the composition are the same. This way of depicting the beheading of a young woman must have been rather popular in Roman times and it didn't go out of fashion even in much later times, such as in the Renaissance, the time when Cellini fused his "Perseus".

And in our times? Well, things may not have changed so much as we like to think. Humans - and males in particular - remain extremely violent creatures. So, the theme of killing women didn't disappear; it is still with us. Some things never change.


  1. The Middle Ages is still far then, we will make a great effort to reach it...

  2. I have seen this painting in the Vasiaran Corridor, in Florence. I perfectly understand that this is a reaction to the feminicide trope by a woman that has been victim of a lot of violence, a fantasy to vindicate a real action. But there is something wrong within us if these fantasies are so popular among both genres.