Lighter than Air: Desire Across Millennia

Roman fresco fragment. Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

NAPLES — In the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, there’s a tiny Roman fresco, about a foot square, of a semi-nude woman and man floating against an azure sky, one of many such fragments you’ll find there.

But this one jumped out at me for the symmetry of the design and the solidity of the painting. Although the lower right corner is broken off, taking with it the woman’s left foot, the upwardly spiraling composition is nearly complete: the intertwined, angled lower limbs that erupt into a riot of encircling robes, then consolidate into the arc of the woman’s torso and arm, with a twist of fabric at the top.

The color of the figures shimmers against the bejeweled blue sky; virtually monochromatic, it offers a minimal range of raw to burnt sienna (her pale complexion indicates purity, while he’s endowed with the bronzed skin of a warrior), and the pigmentation feels so dense that the figures come across almost as a bas-relief, an illusion augmented by the scalloped edges of the garments and the finely articulated musculature of the limbs.

The joyful abandon of the woman’s upthrown arm, the jaunty uptick of the man’s right knee and ankle, the pillowy softness of her flesh, the sweaty sinuousness his muscles, and the locked, blinkered gaze they share all bespeak a euphoric eroticism. Because the man’s left foot is cut off at the toe by the painting’s frame, we can’t be certain whether the couple is meant to be planted on terra firma or floating on air. Nevertheless, the welling of emotion they generate and the ecstatic buoyancy of their connection seem designed to upend the law of gravity.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, “Mirth” (c. 1819-23), brush and black and grey ink with traces of red chalk and scraping, 237 x 148 mm. The Hispanic Society of America, New York. The work was recently featured as part of the Courtauld Gallery’s “Goya: The Witches and Old Women Album” exhibition (photo © and courtesy the Courtauld Gallery) (click to enlarge)

While looking at this painting fragment, my mind kept returning to “Mirth,” the most well-known drawing of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes’ Witches and Old Women album (ca. 1819–1823). There are uncanny similarities between the two artworks, done 1800 years apart: the upper sections of the figures create similarly stacked, swelling forms, while the lower halves terminate in triangular constellations of feet. And, like the Roman lovers, they’re magically afloat.

But there are also inversions — in the Goya, the man is above the woman (whose kicking right foot is an eerie match for the Roman warrior’s) and while he appears to be looking at her, she seems to have trained a sidelong glance on us. Most significantly, the couple in Goya’s drawing, though apparently as ecstatic as the pair of Roman lovers, are in advanced old age, their toothless mouths twisted into unsettlingly grotesque, weirdly innocent grins.

The man in the Goya is wearing a monk’s cowl and robe, imparting the sense that his bond with the woman is a form of forbidden love. Still, there seems to be no guilt or surreptitiousness tainting their relationship; for them, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Another way of looking at the image is as a paean to platonic love, a condition necessitated by the couples’ age and social positions, but an idealistic take doesn’t fit the historical circumstances.

The sheets of the so-called Witches and Old Women album were done toward the end of Goya’s life, when he was pushing 80 and had already seen the world go to hell in a hand-basket. The visions he conjured in his paintings, drawings and prints constitute an indelible record of the failure of the Enlightenment, which had invested most of its intellectual capital in the Apollonian ideals of Ancient Rome.

But those ideals were the flip side of a Dionysian urge toward madness and savagery, expressed in gladiatorial games and a virulent pursuit of empire. What’s remarkable about the Roman fresco and the Goya drawing is the resolution they manage to achieve between the warring impulses at work in their respective cultures.

The fresco is beautifully sublimated in its careful geometry, and exquisitely carnal in its depiction of flesh. Goya’s drawing, with its light-filled pools of brushed ink wash, feels completely non-judgmental, a testament of tolerance and acceptance from someone who knew firsthand the idiocy of kings, wars and inquisitors. His monk and old woman, united in midair, radiate both joy and folly; they’ve found their shred of happiness and, despite the opprobrium that is likely heading their way, are unabashed about latching onto it.

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