At first glance, this polished bone sculpture appears to be a charming representation of the goddess Venus or some other such lovely young woman modestly clutching her hands over her breast. The composition is not uncommon, and can be linked back to the Venus Pudica prototype of the famed goddess covering her breasts and genitalia. However, upon further inspection, we are startled to discover that her sex is left exposed and that this young woman is not a woman and yet not a man either. Here, we have a depiction of a hermaphrodite.
Although rare, sculpted images of hermaphrodites are well known in Classical art, including the famous Sleeping Hermaphrodite in the Louvre. Surely part of the delight of such work is the reaction that the artist is able to invoke within the viewer. In the large marble Sleeping Hermaphrodite, we are confronted by the image of a sleeping woman, that is until one walks around the work to discover the truth.
In the Roman world, hermaphrodites were considered a paradoxical embodiment of sexual duality, of both male and female. In fact, the life of one hermaphrodite, Flavorinus, who rose to fame as an orator is quite well documented. Remarkably, this work still bears a few traces of the original pink polychrome that once covered the piece, most notably on the navel and neck. Surely the sculptor of this work intended to shock and surprise us, and succeeded in this intention. This fabulous sculpture is a reminder of the mysteries and wonders of life that were as intriguing to the ancient Romans are they are to us today.