When do we draw the line? Rethinking historical misogynist hero worship

Two events have converged in my mind to get me thinking about the way I approach men of note who have perpetrated acts of violence against women. The first is an art exhibition currently showing near me featuring clay models made by the Baroque Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini, which I was initially thrilled to go see. The second is the recent tragedy in South Africa, in which Olympian Oscar Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

Sadly, it’s easy to think of a slew of other cases that are similar to Pistorius’, involving a male celebrity perpetuating an act of violence against a women. Chris Brown, Jovan Belcher, and Ben Roethlisberger come to mind immediately. In most of these cases (unless the victim is a celebrity herself) the coverage centers around the perpetrator and not about the woman who has been attacked or killed. My response is always the same when these instances occur; horror, and a boycott of whatever the male celebrity is involved in. I won’t see Roman Polanski movies, and I’m certainly not buying Chris Brown’s albums.

What does this have to do with Bernini? He’s a long dead visual artist and architect, and his work was instrumental in leading me to study art history. In college I jokingly referred to him as my dead Italian boyfriend. I’ve listed him amongst my favorite artists since then, and display books on his work in my home. 

He also perpetrated a horrific act of violence against a woman. Conforming to the stereotype of the passionate Roman artist, Bernini was having an affair with the wife of one of his assistants. Her name was Costanza Bonarelli, and she was also engaged in an affair with Bernini’s brother. When Bernini found out, he attacked his brother, who was forced to leave Rome. He also sent a servant to Costanza’s home to slash her face with a razor. As punishment, Bernini was fined, but Pope Urban VIII pardoned him and pressured him to marry. Costanza, however, was sentenced to prison for adultery and fornication.

Bernini is well known for his sculptures of women, including a bust of Costanza, but this aspect of his career is little discussed. In attempting to google the incident for this essay, I could find no mention of the attack. References to the affair stated that Bernini insulted Costanza’s husband and was forced to marry as a result. It’s easy to write off Bernini’s behavior as a product of his time, but considering the nature of his work it’s surprising that so few readings of his imagery contain discussion of his attitude towards women. Sarah McPhee has attempted to do for Costanza what sites like Feministing do for women like Reeva Steenkamp, and written a biography about her, but while I was researching Bernini for my own work I never came across any literature that used this incident as more than an anecdote to illustrate Bernini’s passionate nature.

Bernini is a product of his time, but sadly that time doesn’t really seem so different than our own. He was in a position of power, and he got away with attacking a woman. The same thing happens today, and the treatment of Costanza seems similar to the victim-blaming mentality that’s still prevalent now. Thinking of all of this, I’ve had to reevaluate the way that I think about this figure who has been such an influence on me. I can’t give Bernini a pass any more than I can give my money to see a new film by Roman Polanski.

So I wonder, how far back to we go before we can stop holding historical heroes accountable for their actions against women? When does it become far enough removed? Does it ever? I think I’m still going to see that exhibition of Bernini’s clay models–he’s been dead for a few hundred years, so at least I’m not lining. But I’ll never look at his work the same way again, or laugh off his treatment of his “muse” the way I once did.

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