Sex in the sculpture garden
The traces were undeniable. We were peering at one of the most famous Roman portrait sculptures in the world, discussing with art-historical intensity the provenance, the marble and the tooling. Then someone had the nerve to point out that on its cheek and its chin were the faint but clear marks of two bright red lipstick kisses.
The sculpture in question was the colossal head – known as the “Mondragone Head” – of Antinous, the young lover of the emperor Hadrian, who died mysteriously, Robert-Maxwell-style, in AD 130 after falling into the river Nile. So distraught was the bereaved emperor that he flooded the Roman world with statues of his beloved, made him a god and named a city after him. There are more surviving statues of Antinous than of almost any other character in antiquity (many from Hadrian’s own villa at Tivoli). They all share the same sultry sensuousness and the luscious pouting lips that characterize the “Mondragone”.
His usual home is in the Louvre, where he ended up in 1808, courtesy of Napoleon. But we were in Leeds where he has come to be star of an exquisite show at the Henry Moore Institute, which opened today (and continues till 27 August). This has drawn together 14 of the many Antinous images, a little gallery of beautiful boys who have travelled from Dresden, Athens, Rome, Cambridge and elsewhere. One of the show’s themes – appropriately enough – is the question of what makes a statue, or a body, desirable. What is it to “want” a work of art?
The erotic charm of sculpture has a long literary history. Back in the second century AD, the Greek satirist Lucian told the story of one young obsessive who contrived to get locked up at night with Praxiteles’ famous statue of Aphrodite at Cnidus. The young man went mad; but the indelible stain on the statue’s thigh was proof enough of what had gone on. Oscar Wilde picked up the theme in his “Charmides” – an engaging piece of doggerel, in which the hero smuggles himself into the Parthenon and “paddles” up to Athena’s statue.
Until today I had never quite imagined that this was anything other than a literary conceit. But the evidence was before my eyes.
The assault on the “Mondragone” certainly did not happen in Leeds. The curators there were as gob-smacked as anyone to discover the tell-tale marks. But at some point between Paris and its unpacking at the Henry Moore, some latter-day Hadrian – man or woman – had given it a couple of real red smackers. In jest, in irony or in passion, we shall probably never know.
It couldn’t have happened to a more appropriate work of art than this surrogate of imperial desire. Presumably it’s much what the emperor Hadrian himself had in mind.