The 'ghosting' of incest and female relations in Harriet Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci.

Author:Fryd, Vivien Green

Harriet Hosmer (1830-1908) belonged to that group of expatriate American women sculptors in Rome whom Henry James dubbed "a white marmorean flock." (1) These artists, like their male counterparts, created idealized Neoclassical works that immortalized didactic narratives and moral concepts in stone. Hosmer diverged from her colleagues of both sexes, however, by specializing in studies of heroic women whose deprivation, victimization, captivity, and/or impending death ultimately rendered them sympathetic. (2) During her time in Rome, Hosmer produced several major works depicting such wronged historical or mythological females: Zenobia (1859, Fig. 1), the third-century queen of Palmyra captured by the Romans; Medusa (1854, Fig. 2), the woman of ravishing beauty turned into a monster by the jealous Athena; and Beatrice Cenci (1853-55, Fig. 9), a sixteenth-century Italian woman condemned to death by the Church for patricide, even though the father she killed had raped her. I focus primarily on the latter sculpture, derived in part from Percy Bysshe Shelley's verse play The Cenci (1819), which told the story of "national and universal interest," "incestuous passion," and "cruelty and violence." Beatrice Cenci, "after long and vain attempts to escape from what she considered a perpetual contamination both of body and mind," plotted with her stepmother, Lucretia, and her brother Giacomo to murder "their common tyrant"--Count Francesco Cenci. The Church accused, tortured, tried, and condemned all three, executing them in public on September 11, 1599. (3)

Viewed within the context of mid-nineteenth-century attitudes toward gender and sexuality, Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci reveals that the artist recognized ways in which texts about Beatrice Cenci "ghosted" her status as a victim of incestual rape. The sculpture's subject, patricide in retaliation for incest, as well as Cenci's heroism in light of her punishment, intersects with the artist's unconventional lifestyle and sexuality. These two subjects--intimate female relationships and patricide in retaliation for incestual rape--may seem to be separate strands. They form, however, a complex web, a nexus, that derives from society's containment and condemnation of sexuality, Hosmer's interest in unconventional behavior about normative sexuality, Cenci's radical striking back against patriarchal oppression in the form of her raping father, and the nineteenth-century women's movement, which centered on suffrage but also was concerned with altering the power relations between men and women. A "conspiracy of silence," as it were, infects both Hosmer's subject for the statue and her personal position; her covert handling of the incest theme is related to the covertness of her own identity and sexuality, and her nonnormative sexuality gave her a vantage point from which to consider another type of nonnormative sexuality: incest. Although some might not consider incest a form of sexuality, it is so for an incest survivor as well as the rapist, albeit perverse, illegal, and scarring for the victim.

Hosmer's sexuality and Cenci's murder of her father both imply a radical critique of patriarchal culture. Hosmer's life, the sculpture itself, and the literary sources for the sculpture all converge in the expression and repression of unconventional sexualities in the United States during the mid-nineteenth century. Hosmer is the object of patriarchal culture's disapproval, because of her lifestyle and sexuality, at the same time that she critiques that culture as an artist by choosing a model of problematic sexuality and retaliation for rape and incest.

In using the term "ghosting" to discuss incest, I borrow from Terry Castle, who asserts that same-sex female relationships have "been 'ghosted'--or made to seem invisible--by culture itself." It is a taboo, an "insidious and ascetical kind of denial" that results in "a silenced lesbian past." (4) I apply the term to Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci, through which the artist addressed another sexual taboo: incest. Clearly, consensual love between partners of the same or opposite sex is not the same kind of "love" that exists in a parent-child incestual relationship. "Love" in the latter case is complicated on many levels, reflecting the parent's control and power over the child, the child's lack of consent (or, especially on the part of a younger child, the adult's coercion of that consent), and the child's confusion, fear, shame, and self-hatred. The perpetrator's "love" is also complex, involving both narcissistic self-love and self-loathing. In arguing that Hosmer "ghosts" same-sex relationships in her life and incest in Beatrice Cenci, I am not equating these two sexualities; it is Hosmer's emotional and sexual life that, like the sexual violence at the heart of the story of Beatrice Cenci, is "ghosted."

I believe that Beatrice Cenci constitutes a "ghosted" incest narrative in a covert and sublimated form. Exposing and analyzing this subject will serve to reinsert into American discourse a subject that is "both [a] product and source of textual [and visual] anxiety, contradiction, or censorship" in American culture, (5) one that needed to be suppressed during a period dominated by the Victorian "conspiracy of silence" regarding sexuality. (In fact, the incest narrative did not fully and clearly enter American discourse until the 1970s.) (6) Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci reiterates the "structuring absence" of incest within nineteenth-century American culture to which other artists and writers adhered, both suppressing and expressing this taboo subject. (7)

As Michel Foucault observes in The History of Sexuality, "silence itself--the things one declines to say, or is forbidden to name ... is less the absolute limit of discourse ... than an element that functions alongside the things said." These many "silences," Foucault maintains, "are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses." (8) Foucault proposes that homosexuality, emerging in the 1880s, makes these silences palpable, creating a subject "marked," according to the art historian Richard Meyer, "by erasures and ellipses, by secrets and structuring absences." (9) These telling erasures and silences, which convey "both ignorance and knowledge" (10) and which are fed by social and moral discretion, have much to say within the context of incest. I prefer the term "ghosting" rather than "silence" with regard to Hosmer's statue because the latter signifies an absence or erasure, while the former implies a residue of meaning--a trace--and it is this trace that I want to explore. Whereas one dictionary definition of "silence" includes "absence of mention," "oblivion, "secrecy"--something that is covered over--"ghost" is defined as "a faint shadowy trace," one that can never be erased. "Ghosting" is thus the "simultaneity of revelation and concealment," of something visible and invisible, because as a trace it "exists as the material residue of events that have occurred in the past," marking not only "that which is present, but that which is absent but still detectable in absence," a signifier of "an absent presence." (11) I also suggest that other "traces"--in fact, "faint shadowy trace[s]"--in the statue relate to Hosmer's own nonnormative sexuality in which artist and subject (Beatrice) reject patriarchal authority.

Nothing in Hosmer's Beatrice Cenci indicates incest or patricide in retaliation for incest; this is an important ghosting. Hosmer could have clarified the statue's subject matter by rendering a different scene, one in which Beatrice is raped by her father (a version, perhaps, of Titian's Tarquin and Lucretia, Fig. 3), or one in which she murders her father (a version of Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith Slaying Holofernes, Fig. 4). She could also have created a group sculpture in which a large, looming, dominant male figure assaults a younger woman whose body and sexuality would be more visible than they are in the existing work. The absence of these clear iconographic and figurative precedents or motifs results in an ambiguous statue; aspects of its content are subliminal and vague. The same can be said about the subject of incest in nineteenth-century British and American texts, including Hosmer's statue.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Harriet Hosmer

Nathaniel Hawthorne turned Beatrice Cenci into the central figure of Miriam in The Marble Faun (1859), inspired by both Hosmer's statue, which predates this novel, and the Portrait of Beatrice Cenci, attributed to Guido Reni, in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. (12) Herman Melville earlier had used Beatrice Cenci as a leitmotif for brother-sister incest in Pierre, or The Ambiguities (1852). Whereas Hawthorne never clearly identifies the horrors of Cenci's biography (nor that of his character Miriam, who is haunted throughout the romance by a dubious and mysterious history), Melville specifically ponders "the two most horrible crimes (of one of which she is the object, and of the other the agent) possible to civilized humanity--incest and parricide." (13) Melville thus emphasizes the paradoxes of Beatrice Cenci's role as both victim and victimizer.

Although Melville names the two egregious acts contained in the Cenci tragedy, Hawthorne and Hosmer fail to name incest. In part, this is because they assume that the reader/viewer knows about it. Hawthorne pondered whether "it were possible for some spectator" to respond to Reni's Portrait of Beatrice Cenci "without knowing anything of its subject or history: for, no doubt, we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of it." (14) As Hawthorne recognized, many viewers of the Reni portrait would perceive the work as "the very saddest ... that ever was painted or conceived" because of their familiarity with the almost unspeakable narrative. (15) Presumably, the same was true of Hosmer's statue.



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