BMCR 2021.04.17

Fedra: iconografia del tormento amoroso al femminile

, Fedra: iconografia del tormento amoroso al femminile. Archaeologica, 175. Roma: Giorgio Bretschneider Editore, 2016. Pp. 191. ISBN 9788876892967 $77.31 (pb).

The numerous links between Phaedra and other mythic heroes indicate the complexity of Marco Giuman’s study. Using literary and iconographic sources, the author describes the painful revenge of the Athenian queen upon her beloved stepson. As stated in the Preface, the aim of the study was to reconstruct the symbolism of erotic torment (tormento amoroso) and feminine agony from both iconological and anthropological perspectives (p. IX). While Giuman’s translations of the relevant literary sources and his psychological portrayal of Phaedra’s character are meticulous, his study falls short in a few ways. The study lacks consistent methodology and fails to mention key studies that shed light on the symbolism surrounding this mythological figure. Additionally, the book has a misleading title in that a thorough iconographic analysis occurs only at the end of the book and is written by someone else, although some of this analysis does repeat statements made earlier in the book. An introductory chapter clarifying the scope of the study, its methods, and its place within current academic trends would have helped establish the reader’s expectations from the beginning.

Chapter One identifies Phaedra’s counterparts in the myth as well as the themes that unite them in literary sources. After discussing aspects of Phaedra’s matrilineal genealogy (her mother Pasiphae also loved in an abominable way), the author contextualizes the character within the roles of Athenian women in the Classical period using the well-defined appropriate female sophrosyne expected for Athenian women in contrast to mythical Cretan women and their forbidden desires.

Chapter Two is devoted to the complexities behind Hippolytus’ genus Amazonium and his anti-sexual disposition (p. 26). His sanctuary in Troizen is examined in the light of Pausanias’ description and in connection with the rituals celebrated there by women before matrimony. Next, Giuman searches for the symbolic significance of Phaedra spying on Hippolytus from behind a myrtle. Here, the author discusses the unethical undertones that the act of spying (aposkopein) had in ancient Greece, as well as the negative value of the myrtle in this scene, a shrub with erotic connotations closely associated with Aphrodite, but also linked with Dionysos in underworld aspects. In the latter case, the myrtle “ci propone delle connotazioni di manifesto ambito funerario e dal costante valore negativo, quasi sempre legate a una morte per uccisione” (p. 37, my emphasis). Giuman makes his point by discussing the use of myrtle in funerary crowns and the homonymic connection between the plant and the names of Amazons such as Myrto, Myrine, Myrsine. However, he does not explain how this negative association of the myrtle was “almost always related to a death by murdering” (my translation).

The next chapter focuses upon Euripides’, Ovid’s and Seneca’s portrayal of Hippolytus and Phaedra, interprets the series of behaviors that led these mythic figures to adulterous romance, and describes the incestuous nature of this relationship. Although Giuman engages solidly with the literary sources, his iconographic analysis of the figures on two marble sarcophagi dated to the second quarter of the third century AD (one of them mistakenly categorized as neo-Attic, p. 42) is less persuasive. Here, Giuman pays special attention to the altered moods of the queen encouraged by Eros and the role of the nurse depicted next to Hippolytus in the unfolding of the catastrophic events (pl. II, b). He then delves further into the subject of rejected love and its symptoms, which ultimately turned Phaedra into a victim of a delirious eromania, comparable to those manic love episodes recounted by Sappho or Ibycus (p. 53).

The discussion in Chapter Four is organized around two topics. Firstly, Giuman examines women’s family relationships within the domestic sphere, including the spatial limits within which they were allowed to move. Secondly, the author discusses the correspondence of Phaedra’s death in literary and visual sources. In the first part, Giuman makes an extensive analysis of the spatial exo/endon dichotomy of women’s domestic space, showing how the house establishes the limit that determines both social and family relationships. By contrast, the outer space where Hippolytus moves has a spatial dimension that contradicts the idea of an organized community (p. 72). Acknowledging the problem with the scant visual material from Classical Greece to illustrate this aspect, the author then analyses some representations of Phaedra and Hippolytus in Roman art which illustrate these gendered divisions of space. Particular attention is paid to the spaces where Eros is present or absent: Phaedra is sitting in pain at home surrounded by maids and Erotes, whereas Hippolytus hunts freely in the forest; the two spatial representations are clearly divided by a column. Giuman’s analysis is solid, but there is no mention of Pascale Linant de Bellefonds’ study published three years earlier, which specializes in the motif of Phaedra on Roman sarcophagi and which would have certainly strengthened his discussion on the matter.[1]

Since in the Euripidean version, Phaedra hangs herself with a rope, the second part of this chapter explores the visual correspondences to this motif. Here, Giuman considers a group of frescoes from the Villa of Munatia Procula in Tor Marancia dated to the second or third century AD, which depicts a Nekyia with tragic heroines among which there is a depiction of Phaedra holding a rope in her right hand, most likely the noose that led to her suicide. Considering that these frescoes have had little scholalrly attention to date, it is striking that Giuman does not mention one highly-relevant publication that provides an insight to the figure of Phedra in the context of other female heroines.[2] Next, Giuman analyses the representation of Phaedra in Polygnotos’ famed fifth-century BC Nekyia at Delphi as described by Pausanias (10.29.3), where he explains the depiction of Phaedra sitting on a swing and grasping the rope with both hands as an indication of her suicide by hanging. Although Giuman acknowledges the possibility that this interpretation could have been suggested to Pausanias by a local guide (as advocated by other scholars), he suggests that the swing alongside the act of ‘swinging’ is a metaphorical allusion equivalent to the rocking of a hanged body. In his words: “There must exist a direct symbolic connection between the swing and [the act of] hanging” (p. 84, my translation). Finally, he concludes that this bond can only be explained from a ritual perspective, thus introducing the subject to which he will return in his final chapter.

In the next chapter (Chapter Five), Giuman focuses on Cretan women to define the figure of Phaedra in the light of her mother Pasiphae and the other women in her family. Due to the lack of visual representations of Pasiphae in art (p. 87), the author analyzes Phaedra’s portrayal as described in the literary sources, quoting Bacchylides (fr. 26) to show that all the elements that led Pasiphae to commit adultery were already established in the early decades of the fifth century BC. In particular, the idea of a passion that is insane (pothon) is a motif that is also present in Euripides’ Cretans and in the first Hippolytus, while later authors shift Pasiphae from a woman with a tendency to indulgence and betrayal (Apollod. 3, 15, 1) to the almost ridiculous and frivolous portrayal by Ovid (AA 1, 289-326).

In the final chapter, Giuman resumes his discussion about Polygnotos’ depiction of Phaedra in Chapter Four. Here, he discusses the symbolism of the swing, which he examines in connection to the rituals celebrated during the Athenian festival called Aiora, where girls swung on ropes. The author pays particular attention to the rituals that marked the girls’ entrance into the sphere of Eros, meaning their transition to fertility (p. 104-105). In this regard, Giuman sees a clear connection between the premarital and virginal stage of the ritual and the swing, where Athenian girls honored the ‘erratic’ Erigone in her long pilgrimage looking for her father. On a meta-symbolic level, Giuman says that they experienced Erigone’s exile from society, which in her case led to matrimony, something desired by the girls. However, he does not resolve the problem with Polygnotos’ portrayal of Phaedra in the swing. Since she was, in fact, married, the connection between her portrayal in the swing and any kind of initiation rite is not established, thus leaving the question open. Negatively charged with an incestuous character and a dreadful fortune (not to mention her obsession with Hippolytus, a socially alienated figure), Phaedra’s character therefore embodies the inverted values of Athenian women. In this regard, the author concludes that Phaedra cannot be understood as an initiatory figure for the young girls participating in the rituals of the Aiora. Only at the very end, Giuman suggests that the only possibility for Phaedra is to return to her maiden (parthenos) status, but he does not engage fully with this idea, and thus misses an opportunity to remark on other similar studies in an original way.[3]

The book ends with an iconographic analysis by Federica Doria, which due to the virtually complete absence of the figure of Phaedra in Attic vase painting, discusses examples depicted on two South Italian vases (Lucanian and Apulian), and in Roman art. In her analysis, however, she examines some of the same monuments and topics already explored by Giuman in the previous chapters (e.g., Phaedra, the swing and its depictions on Attic vases, and the Aiora on pp. 121-130; the role of Eros on pp. 137-138; Hippolytus’ marginal disposition, on pp. 144-146). These repetitive discussions leave the reader expecting scrutiny of the iconographic elements that would be truly representative of the so-called ‘tormento amoroso’, regardless of its conceptual elusiveness. Doria’s analysis, nevertheless, offers useful references to Phaedra’s iconographic record accompanied with an enlightening discussion and updated bibliography.

After having read the book, the reviewer wishes that Giuman’s opening chapter had been more precise about the study’s aim, methodology, and its place within current scholarship. The same applies to his final chapter, where a conclusion wrapping up the main contents of his study would have given the book a good closure. These weaknesses, however, do not undermine the main contribution of Giuman’s study: a reexamination of the Greek and Roman literary sources for the figure of Phaedra. I assert that the ‘iconography’ part of the study, should have been removed from the book’s title to avoid readers’ disappointment.

Finally, the text of all chapters is well-written and engaging with only a few typos. All the ancient literary sources quoted by the author are followed by translations, with detailed footnotes and an extensive bibliography and indexes at the end. Although black and white, all the plates have high-quality drawings and photographs. Scholars and graduate students interested in the literary treatment of tragic female characters will find the book engaging and informative.


[1] Pascale Linant de Bellefonds 2013. ‘Le ‘motif de Phèdre’ sur les sarcophages romains. Comment l’image crée la vertu’, in M. Gallinier and F. Baratte (eds.), Iconographie funéraire romaine et société. Corpus antique, approches nouvelles. Histoire de l’art 3: 65-79. Presses Universitaires de Perpignan.

[2] This study was published by Maria Elisa Micheli in 2010 (‘Donne Controcorrente: il caso de Tor Marancia’, AION Quaderni, pp. 333-345. In 2017, one year after Giuman’s book, Bettina Bergmann published ‘The Lineup: Passion, Transgression, and Mythical Women in Roman Painting’ (EuGeStA 7: 199-246). In discussing the paintings from the Villa Munatia Procula she mentions the possibility that the female group represents a lost tradition of pictorial galleries depicting tragic heroines which began as early as the fifth century BC. (Note, the drawing in Giuman’s book on pl. XI does not have Phaedra’s name as observed in the original painting).

[3] For example, it would have been interesting for Giuman to reexamine Phaedra’s change of personality from wicked to good in light of the work by Froma Zeitlin 1996 (Playing the Other: Gender and Society in Classical Greek Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Ch. 6, esp. pp. 219-224).