Friday 8 January 2021

Elisabetta Sirani's Classical Heroines Keeping Calm and Carrying On

Less famous than Artemisia Gentileschi, Elisabetta Sirani, born this day 1638, is my favourite Italian painter. She lived her belief in women’s abilities; she was family breadwinner after her father’s arthritis stopped him working and she founded a painting school for women open to non-aristocrats without connections. 
Self-Portrait as Circe

Although many of her subjects were bible scenes or saints, she read widely in classical literature. and found inspiring ancient women heroes in Plutarch and Ovid, amongst others. In stark contrast with her male contemporaries, she painted most of them fully clothed and business-like. 
Timoclea's Revenge

The funniest is her Timoclea of Thebes, calmly pushing into a well the brutish captain who had raped her during Alexander’s conquest of Greece. But a close second is her self-portrait as Circe, serenely mixing pharmaceuticals according to an instruction manual, no man in sight, while staring the viewer straight in the eye. 


Her Cleopatra, usually depicted topless and miserable with a phallic snake, is an alternative Cleopatra she found in Pliny: she is smiling, modestly clothed and coiffed, proving her own enormous wealth to Antony by dissolving a pearl in vinegar, but with Antony himself excised. 

Berenice Cutting her Hair

Lockdown home-hairdressers may relate more to her ‘Berenice Cutting Her Hair’. Berenice was the wife of Ptolemy III who fulfilled her vow that if he returned safely from war she would dedicate her fabled long hair to her dead sort-of-mother-in-law Arsinoe II, worshipped as Aphrodite. I like the tatty fringe and the gleeful look in her eye as she wields the scissors, as if she had found an excuse to get rid of a tiresome burden while getting moral kudos at the same time. 

Portia Stabbing Her Thigh

Feminist art critics debate whether her Portia (aka Porcia) is a tough and feisty broad satirising Stoic masculinity or a victim of self-harming or sado-masochistic fantasies: the wife of Brutus, she wanted to prove to him that she could conspire as well as anyone to assassinate a dictator. So she stabbed herself in the thigh to prove she could stand pain and wouldn’t talk under torture. I find this one most disturbing and will leave it to you to decide for yourself. 

Sadly, many of Sirani’s classical females have been lost, including a Galatea, a Pamphile (the inventor of silk-weaving) and two of her three paintings of Iole. 

I particularly regret the lost Ioles, especially if one depicted Iole’s escape from her aspiring rapist Heracles: she jumped off the wall of her father’s palace in Oechalia to commit suicide, but her dress billowed out like a parachute and she survived. 

Do Not Try This at Home

This story is told in an obscure work by an imitator of Plutarch, but that would not have stopped Sirani discovering it. It would make a great topic for an art competition for locked-down schoolchildren. This gives me something to plan.

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