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Work Sleeping Hermaphroditos

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Sleeping hermaphrodite

© 2011 Musée du Louvre / Thierry Ollivier

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BC)

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

The ambivalence and voluptuous curves of this figure of Hermaphroditos, who lies asleep on a mattress sculpted by Bernini, are still a source of fascination today. His body merged with that of the nymph Salmacis, whose advances he had rejected, Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, is represented as a bisexed figure. The original that inspired this figure would have dated from the 2nd century BC, reflecting the late Hellenistic taste for the theatrical.

The modern history of the statue

Discovered in Rome near the Baths of Diocletian in 1608, this statue was one of the most admired masterpieces of the Borghese Collection in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1619, Cardinal Scipione Borghese commissioned the Baroque Italian sculptor Bernini to carve the mattress on which the ancient marble now lies. In the same year, David Larique worked on the restoration of the figure of Hermaphroditos. The work came to the Louvre after it had been bought, together with the rest of the Borghese Collection, by Napoleon I from his brother-in-law, Prince Camillo Borghese. Although the figure of Hermaphroditos in the Louvre is the best known, three other versions of the ancient statue have sometimes been compared with it: that of Velletri (also in the Louvre), that in the Uffizi in Florence, and a third version in the Villa Borghese in Rome.

The story of Hermaphroditos

There is nothing improper in this work, but it still intrigues the viewer. Hermaphroditos, son of Hermes and Aphrodite, had rejected the advances of the nymph Salmacis. Unable to resign herself to this rejection, Salmacis persuaded Zeus to merge their two bodies forever, hence the strange union producing one bisexed being with male sexual organs and the voluptuous curves of a woman. Stretched out in erotic abandon on the mattress provided by Bernini, the figure sleeps. Yet Hermaphroditos has only fallen half asleep: the twisting pose of the body and the tension apparent down to the slightly raised left foot are indicative of a dream state.

An embodiment of Hellenistic taste

This work is a Roman copy that was probably inspired by a Greek original of the 2nd century BC. Pliny the Elder cites a Hermaphroditus Nobilis by Polykles (Natural History, XXXIV, 80), but since he does not describe it, one hesitates to compare it with this sleeping Hermaphroditos. The subject reflects the taste for languid nudes, surprise effects, and theatricality, all of which were prized in the late Hellenistic period. The work is designed to be viewed in two stages. First impressions are of a gracious and sensuous body that leads one to think that the figure is a female nude in the Hellenistic tradition; this effect is heightened here by the sinuousness of the pose. The other side of the statue then brings a surprise, revealing the figure's androgynous nature by means of the crudest realism. This effect of contrast and ambiguity, indeed this taste for the strange that plays with the viewer's emotions, is the result of the theatricality of some Hellenistic art. This utopian combination of two sexes is sometimes interpreted as a half-playful, half-erotic creation, designed to illustrate Platonic and more general philosophical reflections on love.


Bernini Scultore. La Nascita del Barocco in Casa Borghese, 1998, p. 124-133, n 9
M. Visona, "Stefano Speranza : uno scultore fra Albani e Bernini", Paragone 46, 1995, p. 85-93
K. Kalveram, Die Antikensammlung des Kardinals Scipione Borghese, 1995, p. 231-233, n 134
R. Roani-Villani, "Precisazioni sull' Ermafrodito del Louvre e su alcune scultore appartenute al cardinal Del Monte", Paragone 44, 1993, p. 37-51
Fr. Haskell & N. Penny, Pour l'Amour de l'art antique : la statuaire gréco-romaine et le goût européen 1500-1900, Paris, 1988, p. 253-255, n 118, fig. (ed. anglaise, Taste and the antique : the lure of classical sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven, 1981)
M. Delcourt, Hermaphrodites : Recherches sur l'être double promoteur de la fertilité dans le monde classique, Bruxelles, 1966, p. 34


Technical description

  • Sleeping hermaphrodite

  • Greek marble

    L. 1.69 m; D. 0.89 m

  • 1807

    Inventaire MR 220 ( n° usuel Ma 231 )

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

    Sully wing
    Ground floor
    Salle des Caryatides
    Room 348

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