The Marmorean Women of Rome

Claire Burgess |

Part 1: Harriet Hosmer’s “Zenobia in Chains”

Harriet Hosmer with her studio assistants in Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Hosmer with her studio assistants in Rome. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“I honor every woman who has strength enough to step out of the beaten path when she feels her walk lies in another; strength enough to stand up to be laughed at, if necessary. That is the bitter pill we must all swallow in the beginning, but I regard these pills as tonics quite essential to one’s mental salvation.”

In the nineteenth century, Rome was the epicenter of creative activity for English and American artists. Literary greats such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne all gathered themselves about the Spanish Steps to immerse themselves in Rome’s art and history in an effort to stoke the flames of their genius.

The doings and denizens of the so-called “English ghetto” are well-known and well-documented. Less known, though, is the stupendously iconoclastic artists’ community for female creatives from the United States. Set up by Charlotte Cushman, an actress famous for her gender-bending performances of characters like Hamlet and Romeo, it was an island of misfit toys for women with ambition and talent, who used this utopia to be freely themselves. They sculpted, which was typically thought of as physically beyond the scope of women, they rode horses unaccompanied, which was simply too daring, and, most shockingly of all, they quite often fell in love with each other. As such, the women in this community were spoken of with derision or reverence, and almost never apathy. Henry James somewhat dismissively referred to them as a “white marmorean flock.” William Wetmore Story called them “a Harem (Scarem) of emancipated females.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was fascinated by them, it seems; he spent much of The Marble Faun fictionalizing their endeavors and escapades.

Perhaps the greatest talent to emerge from this artistic coven was the sculptor Harriet Hosmer. Hosmer was extraordinary from a young age. In an era when women were corseted half to breathlessness, she got a mountain in Iowa named after herself for winning a footrace to the zenith during a stop on a steamboat voyage. The daughter of a physician, she herself attended a medical college to study anatomy. Hosmer was also in a romantic relationship with a widowed Scottish noblewoman for more than two decades (After she moved to Rome, she wrote home entreating her lover to join her: “When you are here I shall be a model wife (or husband whichever you like) [source].”

Studio portrait Harriet Hosmer holding her sculpting tools. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Studio portrait Harriet Hosmer holding her sculpting tools. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hosmer during his travels to Italy. While he was generally unimpressed by her artworks, he did pause to reflect upon her remarkable character:

“She was very peculiar, but she seemed to be her actual self, and nothing affected or made up; so that, for my part, I gave her full leave to wear what may suit her best, and to behave as her inner woman prompts.” [source]

Hosmer worked hard during her time in Rome, and the output from her studio was formidable. She completed works of a fairly wide variety of literary and historical subjects, but she kept coming back to tragic female figures from antiquity. It’s here, especially, that her artistic voice truly resonates, and where we can feel out the lines of influence from the shining stars of Rome’s artistic history. Below are Hosmer’s representations of Daphne, Beatrice Cenci (the young Roman noblewoman who was infamously condemned and beheaded for the murder of her abusive father), and Medusa. Daphne and Medusa (both c. 1853) are gorgeous, sensitive departures from Bernini’s illustrations of the Ovidian myths. While Bernini illustrated the stories of both mythical women with admirable pathos, Hosmer has treated them as beings beyond their victimhood. She does this simply: by rendering the material representations of their curses — laurel wreaths and snakes, respectively — as decorative abstractions just below the bust. These could be portraits of any young, idealized woman unless you look closely.

Likewise, while Hosmer’s Beatrice Cenci (1857) reminds one strongly of Maderno’s St. Cecilia in form and tragic tenor, her simple decision to turn the saint’s bereaved face toward the viewer humanizes Beatrice Cenci in a way that Maderno was unable to with the beatified and petrified St. Cecilia. St. Cecilia’s personhood is sublimated in favor of her martyrdom, highlighted by the deep gash on her neck. The subject matter and compositions of Hosmer’s sculptures here may have clear starting points in the artistic riches of Rome, but all three demonstrate significant diversions in perspective.

Hosmer’s Daphne, Beatrice Cenci (drawing by William Roffe), and Medusa. Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (here, here, and here).
Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, Maderno’s St. Cecilia, and Bernini’s Medusa. Images coursey of Wikimedia Commons (here, here, and here).

It’s widely acknowledged, however, that the jewel in Hosmer’s crown was her Zenobia in Chains, completed in 1859. Zenobia was queen of the Roman colony of Palmyra from 267 to 272. Her native Palmyrene name was Bat-Zabbai, or “daughter of Zabbai.” In Greek, however, Palmyra’s diplomatic language, she preferred the name Zenobia, which linked her not to her father, but to Zeus himself. And she did indeed intend to live up to her chosen name.

Zenobia conquered a good handful of Rome’s eastern provinces before declaring her people’s independence from Rome. Emperor Aurelian wrote a letter demanding her surrender, as the Historia Augusta tells us:

Hac epistula accepta Zenobia superbius insolentiusque rescripsit quam eius fortuna poscebat, credo ad terrorem; nam eius quoque epistulae exemplum indidi: “Zenobia regina orientis Aureliano Augusto. Nemo adhuc praeter te hoc quod poscis litteris petiit. Xirtute faciendum est quidquid in rebus bellicis est gerendum. Deditionem meam petis, quasi nescias Cleopatram reginam perire maluisse quam in qualibet vivere dignitate. [source]

On receiving this letter Zenobia responded with more pride and insolence than befitted her fortunes, I suppose with a view to inspiring fear; for a copy of her letter, too, I have inserted: From Zenobia, Queen of the East, to Aurelian Augustus. None save yourself has ever demanded by letter what you now demand. Whatever must be accomplished in matters of war must be done by valour alone. You demand my surrender as though you were not aware that Cleopatra preferred to die a Queen rather than remain alive, however high her rank. [source

Aurelian did ultimately quash this insurrection, and Zenobia was led, enchained and enslaved, through Rome in his triumphal procession.

Non absque re est cognoscere qui fuerit Aureliani triumphus. Fuit enim speciosissimus. Currus regii tres fuerunt, in his unus Odaenathi, argento, auro, gemmis operosus atque distinctus, alter, quem rex Persarum Aureliano dono dedit, ipse quoque pari opere fabricatus, tertius, quem sibi Zenobia composuerat, sperans se urbem Romanam cum eo visuram. Quod illam non fefellit; nam cum eo urbem ingressa est victa et triumphata … incedebat etiam Zenobia, ornata gemmis, catenis aureis, quas alii sustentabant. [source
It is not without advantage to know what manner of triumph Aurelian had, for it was a most brilliant spectacle … There were three royal chariots, of which the first, carefully wrought and adorned with silver and gold and jewels, had belonged to Odaenathus, the second, also wrought with similar care, had been given to Aurelian by the king of the Persians, and the third Zenobia had made for herself, hoping in it to visit the city of Rome. And this hope was not unfulfilled; for she did, indeed, enter the city in it, but vanquished and led in triumph … and there came Zenobia, too, decked with jewels and in golden chains, the weight of which was borne by others. [source
Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Hosmer’s monumental Zenobia in Chains was exhibited in 1862 at the Great London Exposition, and according to a contemporary review of the work, it was given a place of great honor within the show as a “slight additional modicum of respect which an Englishman feels bound to pay to a woman.” [source] This reviewer goes on to describe Hosmer as immensely brave for entering this arena in the first place, and for showing her own work next to that of her male teacher. He bemoans that there are very few truly innovative or genius sculptors left to us at all, and so her potential failure would hardly be her fault. After all, he wrote, if female artists have the chance to “develop at all, they develop in a grievously one-sided, awkward, defiant way, and use up half their strength in fighting for the right to use the other half.”

The moment in Zenobia’s story that Hosmer decides to capture is when Zenobia finds herself vanquished, bound, and led through the powerful city that she hoped to make her own. Her head is bowed, crowned, and smiling archaically, and the weight of her chains and jewels is, in contrast to the account above, borne all on her own.

Upon first glance, this statue is quite familiar. With its otherworldy monumentality and stillness, Zenobia looks not unlike a number of depictions of Roman goddesses — indeed, Hosmer referred directly to the Athena Giustiniana, which was in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums at the time, as she designed her sculpture. Again, however, Hosmer makes a subtle change here that makes all the difference: the impassive archaic smile so typical of these statues of divinities takes on an entirely different aspect when applied to the bowed head of a strong woman. This is no mere classicizing grimace, but rather an attempt to convey the formidable forbearance of a woman who dared to forge her own path. Zenobia’s expression, and her posture, both emphasize her great strength rather than her defeat. The apotropaic Medusa inscribed on her bejeweled body, is perhaps reappropriated to convey still-dangerous power after victimhood. As Hosmer wrote, “I have tried to make her too proud to exhibit passion or emotion of any kind; not subdued, though a prisoner; but calm, grand, and strong within herself.” [source]

Perhaps the more remarkable aspect of this sculpture, especially given the time period it was sculpted in, was that Hosmer sidestepped the all-too-common eroticization of enslaved women from “exotic” lands (one of countless examples of this from the same era can be seen here). One could certainly point out that Hosmer’s Zenobia is also whitewashed, but the dignity that this enslaved Palyrian queen is granted here is nevertheless remarkable. She is allowed to keep her clothes, for one thing. When men and women alike look upon this fallen queen, Hosmer encourages them to do so with respect and admiration, not lechery.

In closing, I want to return to the reviewer quoted a few paragraphs ago. Despite the massive success of Hosmer’s Zenobia (it sold for a small fortune, and prefaced many large and impressive commissions that speckled the remainder of her career), the reviewer’s keen assessment is ultimately this:

The truth is, that Miss Hosmer has undertaken a task far beyond her powers, and he is only her friend who tells her so, plainly and frankly. Nothing is gained, for her, for art, or for the cause of woman’s work, by shirking the matter, or mincing it … Hers is essentially an imitative talent, without originality, without invention. Her “Puck” was Sir Joshua Reynolds’ picture, cut in marble, and with much of the spirit lost in translation … She had no right … to take a subject demanding so much knowledge, skill, and cleanness of imagination as this, without long training, and arduous labor, and ample preparation. What has Miss Hosmer done to prove her right to attack such a subject as this? Surely, nothing.

(As an aside, I’m sure that it will come as no surprise to anyone that there is almost nothing in common between Joshua Reynold’s Puck and that of Hosmer — the immense popularity of the latter being responsible for funding a portion of the artist’s time in Rome. Calling Hosmer’s bat-winged and putto-esque infant nothing but a paler twin to Reynold’s devilish pixie has little to no merit.)

While Zenobia was regarded by and large as a triumph, this derision was far from an isolated reaction. Anonymous articles published after the Great London Exposition alleged that Zenobia was not made by Hosmer at all, but by her workmen, or perhaps her male mentor in Rome. Hosmer, not one to back down, successfully sued for libel, and corrections were printed. Later, it came to light that the writer of these anonymous accusations was in fact one of her male rivals, jealous of the commissions she was receiving after her successful showing.

This is why the community that Charlotte Cushman established near the Spanish Steps was so wonderful. Women like Harriet Hosmer rocketed upwards because they chose to change their circumstance, and surround themselves with other people that would allow them to breathe freely, to create freely on their own terms. Rome in this period demonstrated itself to be a remarkable place that allowed for at least a handful of remarkable women to flourish. I look forward to sharing more of them with you in the coming months.

Further reading on Harriet Hosmer:

Claire Cunningham is the Managing Editor of In Medias Res. She lives in Rome.



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Claire Burgess

Claire Cunningham is a former Managing Editor of In Medias Res. She has a BA in Art History from UC Berkeley and an MA in English Literature from the Università Ca' Foscari.


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