Messalina by Bernardelli, 1894.
Messalina painted by Henrique Bernardelli, etched by Eugene-Andre Champollion, published in The World's Columbian Exposition: Art and Architecture, 1894.
In this etching, we see the Empress leaning back on the cushions of a bed, her face and exposed breasts obscured by the shadows. Bernardelli's inspiration for the pose came from Pliny's account of her competition with a prostitute. He has depicted her on the edge of the bed, leaning back on the pillows, the moment after her victory. Messalina was a popular subject for artists to paint, because they could explore themes of sexual excess. Many artists used Messalina as a character to teach a moral, while others focused on her liberated sexuality.
Valeria Messalina (c.17-48) was a Roman Empress from the first century. It is very difficult to evaluate her role in history because much of what is written about her comes from accounts that were hostile to her line. Her reputation as an insatiable harlot was exaggerated by those wishing to discredit her descendant's place in the line of succession and has persisted through history in the writings of early Roman historians. Two stories in particular have shaped her portrayal as a notorious adulteress. One is an account of a sex competition from book ten of Pliny the Elder's Natural History. According to him, Messalina beat her opponent by having twenty-five different partners in twenty-four hours. The other story is from Juneval's sixth satire in which he records that Messalina would slip away at night to a brothel where she would work under the alias She-wolf. While these are not the only tales of her escapades they have proven a popular source material for visual artists.
Henrique Bernardelli (1857-1936) was born in Chile, but he moved to Brazil to take advantage of the growing art world there. He became a naturalized citizen in 1878 in order to be eligible to compete for the Premio de Viagem a Europa, which was awarded by the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts. Bernardelli lost the prize to the painter Rodolfo Amoedo. However, he saved up enough money to travel to Rome the following year. After that he participated in a number of exhibitions including the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893.
Eugene-Andre Champollion (1848-1901) was an active French etcher who contributed work to several important exhibitions throughout his career. Originally a student of architecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, he switched to etching in 1875. His first instructor was Leon Gaucherel, but he would also study with Edmond Hedouin and Felix Bracquemond. In 1876 he exhibited for the first time at the Salon. His debut was followed by his participation in several salons and world exhibitions. He won a number of distinctions for his work, including the gold medal at the Universal Exposition in 1889.
- Naomi Bean