The female nudes in Roman mosaics exalt beauty, carnality and eroticism, while male bodies reflect determination, strength and power. This is one of the conclusions of research being carried out at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid (UC3M) that analyzed the cultural construction and ideological implications of these artistic representations in which female predominate as compared to those of males.
Leda and the Swan, mosaic from Astigi preserved in the Municipal Museum of Ecija./ Luz Neira/ UC3M
A study, conducted by researchers at at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid (UC3M), notes that the female nude in Roman mosaics celebrates the beauty, carnality and eroticism, while the male body reflects determination, strength and power.
Other research on the representations that appear in Roman mosaics analyzed clothing as an iconographic element that was fundamental in identifying the characters and determining their status, but this new focus centers on the opposite theme: the absence of any type of clothing. “The construction of the bodies is neither natural nor casual, as we are sometimes led to believe, but rather it is the result of relationships based on power; they were well established in society and were promoted by those who wielded that power”, explains UC3M Ancient History professor, Luz Neira.
The analysis of the representations of nudes goes beyond the study of the work of art, investigating the very significant ideological implications for the reconstruction of the history of the elite during the Roman Empire, and the level of its influence on posterity. This is what is being examined in the essays, written by approximately ten specialists, which are gathered in the recently published book “Desnudo y cultura: la construcción del cuerpo en los mosaicos romanos” (The Nude and Culture: the construction of the body in Roman Mosaics), coordinated and edited by Professor Luz Neira.
“Judging from the nude images in the mosaics, what is generally exalted is the beauty, the carnality and the eroticism of the female figure, through a subtle combination of different representations of the bust and abdomen, or the back and buttocks, which reflect care for the body and its availability; in contrast, the nudes depicting male bodies, equally complete but muscular, show determination, strength and power,” states the researcher..
The female nude celebrates the beauty, carnality and eroticism, while the male body reflects determination, strength and power
More female than male nudes
The deeply asymmetric treatment of male and female bodies is evident and, therefore, constitutes a reflection of relationships based on power, according to the researchers. “The female figures predominate in the mosaic scenes, although some male representations have also been documented,” the professor comments. In this case, the main male figures tend to be gods, heroes and mythological beings, or else wrestlers and athletes.
Contrary to what one might expect, these images were not limited to the most private areas of the homes. In fact, they have been documented in different receiving rooms of dwellings and in bathing areas, both public and private, where the impact of these images, sometimes covered by water, must have been very evocative, the researchers comment. One very revealing example is a representation of Ariadne or the Nereid that shows a nude female figure lying on a marine animal, with one arm behind her head in a position and with a gesture that has been interpreted as “availability to the other.”
“The nudes chosen to decorate the flooring of domestic spaces are the result of the choices made by the most privileged members of the elite and they reflect their mentality, which leads us to consider that looking at them might awaken a series of feelings, reactions and attitudes,” notes Luz Neira.
“As is pointed out in the book, the reflected image is a tool for evocation, a symbol of everything that we see without really seeing and, at the same time, what we would like to see but do not see. Because the reflected image is, excuse the repetition, a reflection of the brain, the subconscious, the language of emotions,” she concludes.
Luz Neira. Desnudo y Cultura: "La construcción del cuerpo en los mosaicos romanos" (coordinación y edición). Creaciones Vincent Gabrielle (CVG), Madrid, 2013.