The Marquis de Sade, Caligula and an hermaphrodite

desade cover

Cover page of Apollinaire’s edition. Source: Public domain.

As mentioned in a previous post, researching the story of a medieval hermaphrodite monk led me – more or less directly – to the strange world of 18th c. erotica, and specifically the Count of Mirabeau. I also learned in this context that the prison of Vincennes for some time housed three famous libertins – Diderot, Mirabeau and de Sade. All three penned some erotic literature, although of very different nature. Diderot allegedly wrote Les bijoux indiscrets in 1748 simply to prove that it was trivial to write such a novel; Mirabeau’s claim to pornographic fame is somewhat called into question, in my view, by the constant need of a Greek dictionary; as for de Sade, in contrast, no such doubts exist – his 120 Days of Sodom and Juliette novels are (in)famous enough.

What is more interesting in the context of this blog is that both Diderot and Mirabeau also wrote on hermaphrodites; Diderot famously edited the Encyclopédie which contained several important articles on hermaphrodites or rather the inexistence of hermaphrodites while his own works display a much more complex position; Mirabeau, in turn, quoted the ‚hermaphrodte monk‘ in a chapter of his Eroticon biblion dealing with female homoeroticism – thus using the hermaphrodite as a chiffre for tribadism.

What about de Sade, then? I was curious, but as I really did not want to read the 120 Days, or the 4000-odd pages of the Juliette and Justine novels (it takes a hardcore scholar to do that, methinks), I took resort to some quick-and-dirty research strategies, mainly searching Google books and with various search strings.

While this certainly does not substitute a proper research, it did bring to light the passage quoted below. In one of the Juliette stories (Juliette à Florence), the heroine visits Florence, where she is shown a very peculiar art collection in the Tribuna of the Uffizi (a must-do for tourist now and then). In the passage quoted below, she is shown three ancient marble sculptures; all three are ‚explained‘ by the guide by sexual practices or desires. Together with a collection of daggers, the sculptures serve as a kind of material proofs for the depravity of humankind.  Two of the three sculptures mentioned in the passage quoted below can be identified with objects of art that indeed were and still are at the Uffici, the Medici Venus (still today in the Tribuna) and the Hermaphrodite which has a room of its own since the mid-nineteenth century (have a look here). The third one of Caligula and his sister I assume to be de Sade’s invention.

Unsurprisingly, it is all about sex and violence. The statue of Venus is said to arouse ‚the sweetest feelings‘  (la plus douce émotion), a very chaste formula to de Sade’s standards, and the guide refers to some Greek who desired the statute – a motif which I think is common, best known perhaps from Pliny’s account of the Aphrodite of Knidos (Natural history, 36.21; see Havelock 1995, 10). Pliny may also be the ultimate source for the guide’s comment on the Hermaphrodite; according to Juliette’s guide, the Roman libertins celebrated orgies with them, and the way the guide praised the statue’s erotic attractivity, it is clear that this is to be understood as referring to anal intercourse. Caligula, finally, is said to be shown caressing his sisters; indeed, the emperor already in antiquity was defamed as having an incestous relation with one or more of his sisters. Finally, the daggers are presented as evidence forthe Italian love for cruelty and treason.

What are we to make of all that? The rather boring exegesis seems to follow a scholastic model, namely a catalogue of vices; in classical terms, fornication, sodomy, incest and murder are presented here, of course not as vices but rather as virtues. As for the hermaphrodite, de Sade is not entirely wrong to interpret the Roman statues as presenting the hermaphrodite body as an object of sexual desire. What is interesting, however, is that unlike Mirabeau (who associated the hermaphrodite with female homoeroticism), de Sade introduces the hermaphrodite as a figure representing male homosexuality.

Nous passâmes ensuite à des objets plus gais ; la chambre dite « la tribune » nous offrit la fameuse Vénus de Médicis, placée au fond de cette pièce. Il est impossible, en voyant ce superbe morceau, de se défendre de la plus douce émotion. Un Grec, dit-on, s’enflamma pour une statue… […]

Mes yeux se portèrent, de là, sur l’Hermaphrodite : vous savez que les Romains, tous passionnés pour ce genre de monstres, les admettaient de préférence dans leurs libertines orgies ; celui-là, sans doute, est un de ceux dont la réputation lubrique fut la mieux établie ; il est fâcheux que l’artiste, en lui croisant les jambes, n’ait pas voulu laisser voir ce qui caractérisait le double sexe ; on la voit couchée sur un lit, exposant le plus beau cul du monde.

Tout près est un groupe de Caligula, caressant sa sœur ; ces maîtres orgueilleux de l’univers, loin de cacher leurs vices, les faisaient éterniser par les arts.

Nous vîmes ensuite la plus belle et la plus singulière collection de poignards : quelques-uns étaient empoisonnés ; aucun peuple n’a raffiné le meurtre comme les Italiens ; il est donc tout simple de voir chez eux tout ce qui peut servir à cette action de la manière la plus cruelle et la plus traître.



Marquis de Sade, Juliette à Florence, in L’oeuvre du Marquis de Sade, ed. G. Apollinaire, Paris 1909, 113-118, here at 116-117. []

Pliny the Elder, Natural history in ten Volumes: with an English translation by B. O. Foster [et al.] (Loeb Classical library 330, 352, 353, 370, 371, 392, 393, 418, 394 & 419), 10 vols., Cambridge, Mass. and London 1959–67. []

Secondary literature

Christine Mitchell Havelock, The Aphrodite of Knidos and Her Successors: A Historical Review of the Female Nude in Greek Art, Ann Arbor 1995. []

Suggested citation: Christof Rolker, The Marquis de Sade, Caligula and an hermaphrodite, in Männlich-weiblich-zwischen, 14/05/2016, Lizenz: CC BY-SA 4.0 []. Letzter Aufruf: 30/04/2017.

Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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Christof Rolker

Prof. Dr. Christof Rolker, Historiker an der Universität Bamberg.

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