The first time I went to the Louvre, in Paris, I came across a statue of a woman lying on a mattress. As I walked around the sculpture to admire it, I saw that the woman was in fact a hermaphrodite. That wasn’t what impressed me most. Most of all, I was in awe of the bed, which had seams, sheets, a pillow, and looked for all the world like a modern mattress. According to the Louvre, the figure is ancient – dating from the 2nd century BC. But the mattress was sculpted by Bernini, a flamboyant italian master, in 1619.
Theatrical it is – the figure is at repose, yet one foot is lifted in the air, giving the statue an unexpected movement. The line of the body is curved, showing the softeness of his bed, one leg is bent, the other straight. The arms are tangled in the sheets, as is one leg. Is he dreaminng? Just awakening? The sculpture is shown at first from the back, and the museum has taken care to place it in a stratigic spot, facing a window. As you walk into the room, your eye is drawn to the languid pose, the long graceful back, the round buttocks. Then you circle to the front, and the male sex of the statue is immediately, almost crudely, shown. There is a shift in perception – it’s erotic, but also surprising.
From the Louvre: “Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, had rejected the advances of the nymph Salmacis. Unable to resign herself to this rejection, Salmacis persuaded Zeus to merge their two bodies forever, hence the strange union producing one bisexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman.”
When my daughter’s class went to the Louvre in the fifth grade, they had a list of artworks to “search for”. They were divided into teams, and off they went on a gorgeous treasure hunt. One of the artworks was this statue. I asked Julia what she’d thought of it, and she replied, “The mattress was amazing!”
One of the funniest things I saw in a museum happened next to the statue. I was with my cousin and we had just finished examining the sculpture, when an American family came in – father, mother, three kids. The father entered the room first, cast an admiring eye on the statue, and walked to the side where the penis was – and stopped. His expression turned from lacivious to horrified in an instant. His family was heading towards him, and he rushed over, literally grabbed his son who was already halfway around the statue, and dragged his family out of the room declaring loudly, “No, no! Nothing to see here – let’s go find the Mona Lisa!”
Note that a Roman copy dating from around 150 AD has no pillow or mattresss. Bernini was given free rein to sculpt a base for the statue, and he created an incredible, comfortable, sensual bed.