Art History, Baroque, Painters

Porcia by Elisabetta Sirani

Porcia wounding her thigh by Elisabetta Sirani refers to the history of Porcia Catonis, a Roman woman famous for being the wife of one of Julius Caesar’s assassins.

Elisabetta Sirani was an Italian painter of Baroque period and she was the most famous woman artist in early modern Bologna and established an academy for other women artists.

Who was Porcia Catonis?

Porcia Catonis was a Roman woman that lived in the 1st century BC. She’s known for being the second wife of Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous of Julius Caesar’s assassins, he was her cousin and after divorcing his wife he marriedPorcia. She loved Brutus deeply and was devoted to him.

She was a woman with a refine education for her time, addicted to philosophy. Plutarch describes her as a beauty and as woman with a full of an understanding of courage.

One of the famous moments of her life is the trial she made of herself. She didn’t want to inquire in Brutus’ secrets without being sure that she would be able to keep them secret even if she was imprisoned and tortured. Some historians believe she may have known about the plot, and may have even been involved in the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar.

According to Plutarch in order to prove herself, she inflicted a wound upon her own thigh with a knife to see if she could endure pain. As a result of the wound she suffered chills, fever and violent pain. When she recovered she told him:

“You, my husband, though you trusted my spirit that it would not betray you, nevertheless were distrustful of my body, and your feeling was but human. But I found that my body also can keep silence… Therefore, fear not, but tell me all you are concealing from me, for neither fire, nor lashes, nor goads will force me to divulge a word; I was not born to that extent a woman. Hence, if you still distrust me, it is better for me to die than to live; otherwise let no one think me longer the daughter of Cato or your wife.”

She is also famous by her suicide, according with many historians and writers she committed suicide in 42 BC, reputedly by swallowing hot coals, yet modern historians find it implausible. One popular speculation said that she took her life by burning charcoal in an unventilated room and thus succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The painting

Elisabetta_Sirani_-_Portia_wounding_her_thigh
Porcia wounding her thigh by Elisabetta Sirani (1664)

Very often this painting is understood from a feminine perspective. It consists of a dark background and Porcia is wielding a knife above her thigh that is already bleeding. Many feminist scholars see in it an image of a strong woman.

However, some modern scholars say that maybe the message of the painting is not feminist. They argue that the need to self-mutilate in order to prove her strength of will and thus gain the trust of her husband is dubious as a feminist action.

Some art historians see in it a sadomasochistic sexuality for the exposed thigh, loosened robe and the knife; in 17th century it was common to find disturbing, sexual, dark and violent images. It’s not a surprise that Sirani chose a closed atmosphere to set her Porcia, also we can see in it the influence of her teacher Guido Reni.

Curiosities:

  • Porcia appears in two plays of William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (she makes two appearences as the wife of Brutus) and The Merchant of Venice (is briefly mentioned in regards of the character named Portia).
  • Elisabetta Sirani appeared in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party.

References:

 

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