From Hermaphroditus to Aphrodite: The Transformation of a Statue in 18th century Britain

Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, rejected nymph Salmacis as his lover. Salmacis persuaded Zeus to merge their bodies and that union produced a bisexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman.

From Hellenistic to Roman times, Hermaphroditus has been a popular theme among sculptors. The most famous example is probably the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a Roman copy of an Hellenistic bronze now displayed at the Louvre. In the eighteenth century, Bernini added the mattress on which the sculpture now rests.

The element of surprise is generally considered an important aspect of sculptures of the Hermaphroditus type. Coming from behind, the viewer first sees a naked female Venus to finally identify the sculpture as an Hermaphroditus from the frontal view. Eroticism is another element and quite distinct as seen in the pictures.

Another Hermaphroditus, less popular but equally or even more interesting, is the one in the World Museum of Liverpool. Looking at the picture bellow one easily can recognize that this is not an Hermaphroditus…anymore. It is now a Sleeping Venus as a result of Henry Blundell’s intervention. Blundell was an eighteenth-century British collector known for having amassed the biggest collection of antiquities in Britain.

Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite, marble, 1st-2nd century AD, National Museums Liverpool, World Museum

Blundell bought a Roman copy of an Hellenistic Hermaphroditus but was discontent with its appearance:

Bought at Roehampton, at a sale of Lord Bessborough’s, by a friend with a deal of erudition about it. When bought, it was in the character of a Hermaphrodite, with three little brats crawling about its breast. The figure was unnatural and very disgusting to the sight;

As a result, Blundell requested some modifications to be made:

…by means of a little castration and cutting away the little brats, it became a sleeping Venus and as pleasing a figure as any in this Collection.

Thanks to a sketch from the British Museum, we can at least get an idea of how the statue would look like before Blundell’s intervention. In the sketch we clearly see all the now missing elements, “the three brats” and the penis that Blundell found inappropriate.

Sleeping Hermaphrodite with three infants, drawing on paper, © The Trustees of the British Museum

Blundell’s attitude is not unsurprising for his time, when restoration was a common practice. Despite this, other collectors, such as Charles Townley , were not as eager to alter the image of their sculptures so radically and preferred to limit restoration only to those attributes that were not altering the theme of the original work.

Many characterisations can be attributed to Blundell’s restoration: reflection of the homophobia inherent in the bourgeoisie of the 18th century (and not only), pure vandalism, or an act of ignorance. Most of all, however, Blundell is perfectly capturing the concept of a collector whose expectations from his sculptures are limited to the accumulation of prestige in the next time a person of importance will visit his villa. For Blundell the Sleeping Venus/Hermaphrodite was a tool for projecting power.

This is probably the first and hopefully last intersex surgery performed on a classical sculpture. The operation was a massive failure but at least we can rest assured that no curator or archaeologist will follow Blundell’s example in the future.

“Her prayers found favour with the gods: for, as they lay together, their bodies were united and from being two persons they became one. As when a gardener grafts a branch on to a tree, and sees the two unite as they grow, and come to maturity together, so when their limbs met in that clinging embrace the nymph and the boy were no longer two, but a single form, possessed of a dual nature, which could not be called male or female, but seemed to be at once both and neither.”

Ovid, Metamorphoses, IV, 288ff

Further Reading

  • Coltman, V. 2014. Classical Sculpture and the Culture of collecting in Britain Since 1760. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 84-116.
  • Howard, S. 1968. Henry Blundell’s Sleeping Venus. Art Qarterly, 31. 405-420.

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