Ersy Contogouris

Université du Québec à Montréal

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On most evenings after dinner, Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples, famously treated his guests to a performance of Attitudes, wherein Emma Hart (later Hamilton) donned classical garb and adopted poses that brought to mind mythological, religious, and literary figures from classical statuary, grand master works, and paintings found on ancient vases and on the recently excavated walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum. What is perhaps less well known is that in the afternoons, Sir William paid young boys to splash in the shallow waters for the benefit of his guests assembled at his seaside villa in Posillipo. Goethe, whose laudatory account of Emma’s Attitudes is often quoted, also described these latter displays:

The day before yesterday I visited Sir William Hamilton in his Posillipo villa. There is really no more glorious place in the whole world. After lunch, a dozen boys went swimming in the sea. It was beautiful to watch the groups they made and the postures they took during the games. Sir William pays them to give him this pleasure every afternoon.1

Both during the day and at night, Sir William thus continually stimulated his guests’ erotic gaze with spectacles that can arguably be labelled as camp. My contention is that these formed part of a continuum of experiences in the lives of Sir William and his circle, a continuum that included the sublimated judgements of universal and timeless beauty expounded by the champions of the developing Neoclassical aesthetic, the homoerotic and pederastic scenes discovered on walls and vases at Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the erotic poses and dancing performed by prostitutes in high-class London brothels.

Grand Tourists had long considered Naples as too far south to be visited, too poor, too dangerous, and lacking edifying classical sites. But by the second half of the eighteenth century, this had changed, due, in great part, to the ongoing excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Sir William’s home was a hub of activity, welcoming European aristocrats, diplomats, Grand Tourists, artists, poets, essayists, French exiles from the Revolution, and all those interested in the archaeological explorations that were feeding the development of Neoclassicism. And Emma was at the centre of that activity. In her Attitudes, she presented a collage of characters that she appropriated from high culture and that she combined with the lewd poses that she had learnt to perform during the time she worked at Miss Kelly’s, an upper-class London brothel. Her spectators, many of whom patronized Miss Kelly’s and other similar establishments, would have recognized both sources.

Emma performed her Attitudes with overblown emotionality and theatricality. An etching made after a drawing by Pietro Antonio Novelli shows her extreme gestures and facial expressions.

Novelli Hamilton image
Francesco Novelli (1767-1835), after Pietro Antonio Novelli (1729-1804), The Attitudes of Lady Hamilton, 1791. Etching, 20.4 x 32.5 cm. London, Victoria and Albert Museum.

This exaggeration and general over-the-topness were met with rapturous applause,2 although they were also criticized by some, such as Horace Walpole, who noted that it ran contrary to the restraint usually associated with classical statuary. In spite of this departure, Emma’s Attitudes were used to disseminate Neoclassicism throughout Europe, thanks, in part, to the hugely popular set of twelve etchings after drawings by Friedrich Rehberg. Rehberg’s Neoclassical pedigree is impressive. He went to Rome in 1777 and trained with Anton Raphael Mengs. There he also made plaster casts in the Académie de France, where he befriended Jacques-Louis David. To etch the plates, he hired Tommaso Piroli, who had executed the previous year the prints for John Flaxman’s two Homeric series, which display the same linear purity and simplicity characteristic of the Neoclassical aesthetic.

Rehberg’s images are the best known and most reproduced visual representations of Emma’s Attitudes. He manufactured a version of Emma’s performances that watered down their campiness in order to comply with and promote the Neoclassical values of permanence and universality.

Piroli after Rehberg
Tommaso Piroli (c. 1752-1824), after Friedrich Rehberg (1758-1835), Drawings Faithfully Copied at Naples…, 1794. Plate III, IV, and V. Etching, 26.9 x 20.8 cm. Cambridge, MA, Houghton Library.

He did this in several ways. He broke the continuity between the poses: plates III, IV, and V show Emma sitting, standing, and then reclining, and coiffed differently from one pose to the next. Her face bears little expressiveness. The format of the series, a bound volume, forces the spectator to turn the pages between the attitudes, enhancing discontinuity (whereas Novelli’s drawing represents what we imagine as successive attitudes on the same page). Rehberg’s hermetic enclosure of each print within a frame Contogouris3Contogouris4communicates a frozen, static impression, as does the very dry line that he uses. What we have here is an evacuation of the Attitudes’ campiness and exuberance that had been at the heart of Emma’s performances in favour of a fixed version of Neoclassicism that communicated ideals of universal and timeless and beauty, or, to quote Winckelmann, “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”

A similar sublimation is at work in the performances of splashing boys. Goethe’s stated appreciation not for the campiness of the spectacle but for the aesthetic experience it provided couches a specific set of circumstances. Naples had a reputation as a place where boys were available to tourists for hire. The economic hardship of so many Neapolitan families likely made many young boys vulnerable to prostitution. Moreover, the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum had brought to light a particularly large number of homoerotic and pederastic scenes on walls and vases, as well as phallica and other erotica. In his examination of the importance of this imagery in the development of Neoclassicism, Whitney Davis has shown that “the modern sensus communis, same-sex or not, [had] long agreed that pederastically determined objects were…and remained beautiful images of (beautiful) masculinity.”3 Davis argues that with Winckelmann, the foundational judgement of artistic beauty was homoerotic and in fact specifically pederastic. At the core of western art history – and as an optimal offering in Sir William’s house of delectation – pederastic desire was similarly sublimated into judgements of universal beauty and “non-sensuous (rational and moral) approbation and admiration.”4 The aesthetic veneer was so convincing that it rendered the spectacle permissible even for women to witness,5 but this had been done through an evacuation of the queerness and campiness of the spectacle.

Recognizing the camp dimension of these performances alerts us to the issues of desire, gender, sexuality, and class at the root of Neoclassicism; and although this dimension has been evacuated in favour of the Neoclassical conceit of a supposedly purely aesthetic appreciation of timeless and universal beauty, instances of campiness re- emerge in the works of later artists associated with the classical tradition. Such is the case in the following century, when the Neapolitan fisherboys became a trope of nineteenth- century sculpture. In these works by classically trained sculptors such as François Rude, Francisque-Joseph Duret, and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, what Fred Licht has called “the equivocation between high ideal and raw sexuality”6 reflects an assimilation of the aesthetics / erotics of Sir William’s circle.

Rude Neapolitan fishing boys
François Rude (1784-1855), Jeune pêcheur napolitain jouant avec une tortue, 1833. Marble, 82 x 88 x 48 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.Francisque-Joseph Duret (1804-1865), Jeune pêcheur dansant la tarentelle. Souvenir de Naples, 1833. Bronze, 158 x 67 x 58 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75), Jeune pêcheur à la coquille, also known as Le Pêcheur napolitain, 1856-58. Plaster, 91 x 47.4 x 54.9 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.

The boys are naked, or nearly so, but for the traditional Neapolitan fisherman’s bonnet on their heads. Resembling Ganymede’s Phrygian cap, it associates the fisherboys with Zeus’s young paramour and thus sanctions same-sex, and here specifically pederastic, desire.7 These works are not incidental to the sculptors’ oeuvres: each was produced at a foundational moment in their respective careers and helped establish their reputations.8 The sculpting of a Neapolitan fisherboy seemed to have become a rite of passage for nineteenth-century classically trained sculptors.

Gloeden Land of Fire
Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), Land of Fire, c. 1895. Albumen silver print from glass negative, 30 x 40 cm. Private collection.

The intersection of classicism and camp can be found again in the photographs of Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose use of classical props legitimatized the erotic representation of the (often ephebic) male body. Although characterized by Roland Barthes as kitsch rather than camp,9 photographs such as von Gloeden’s c. 1895 Land of Fire of a terrace in Posillipo hark back to Sir William’s splashing boys and testify to the thread of camp that had been repressed in the late eighteenth century and that survived nevertheless within the classical tradition.


1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey [1816-17], Harmondsworth, 1982 (1996), p. 353.
2 According to the Comtesse de Boigne, for instance, they drew “passionate applause.” Éléonore-Adèle d’Osmond, Comtesse de Boigne (1781-1866), Récits d’une tante: Mémoires de la Comtesse de Boigne, née d’Osmond, 5 vols., Paris, 1921-23, vol. 1, p. 107.
3 Whitney Davis, “Homoerotic Art Collection from 1750 to 1920,” Art History 24.2 (2001), ed. Michael Camille and Adrian Rifkin, issue on “Other Object of Desire: Collectors and Collecting Queerly,” p. 251.
4 Ibid, p. 252.
5 Éisabeth Vigée-Le Brun recounts seeing these boys on display when she stayed in Posillipo with the Hamiltons. See her Souvenirs [1835-37], Paris, 2009, p. 177.
6 Fred Licht, in David Finn and Fred Licht, Canova, New York, 1983, p. 186.
7 John Goodman, “Paris with Ganymede: A Critical Supplement to Damisch’s Judgement,” Oxford Art Journal, 28.2 (2005): 227-244. Identified, after 1789, with the French Revolution, the Phrygian bonnet might also have signalled a form of liberation from restrictive social and cultural mores. Neil Hertz, “Medusa’s Head: Male Hysteria under Political Pressure,” Representations, 4 (1983): 27-54.
8 Rude’s fisherboy became one of the most successful sculptures of the nineteenth century. Duret received the Legion of Honour when he showed his at the Salon. And Carpeaux presented his Pêcheur napolitain – a strategic homage to the earlier sculptors – as his envoi de Rome, the second-year project at the Academy.
9 Roland Barthes, Taormina, Naples, 1978.

List of images

  • Francesco Novelli (1767-1835), after Pietro Antonio Novelli (1729-1804), The Attitudes of LadyHamilton, 1791. Etching, 20.4 x 32.5 cm. London, Victoria and Albert Museum.
  • Tommaso Piroli (c. 1752-1824), after Friedrich Rehberg (1758-1835), Drawings Faithfully Copied atNaples…, 1794. Plate III, IV, and V. Etching, 26.9 x 20.8 cm. Cambridge, MA, Houghton Library.
  • François Rude (1784-1855), Jeune pêcheur napolitain jouant avec une tortue, 1833. Marble, 82 x 88x 48 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.
  • Francisque-Joseph Duret (1804-1865), Jeune pêcheur dansant la tarentelle. Souvenir de Naples,1833. Bronze, 158 x 67 x 58 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.
  • Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75), Jeune pêcheur à la coquille, also known as Le Pêcheur napolitain,1856-58. Plaster, 91 x 47.4 x 54.9 cm. Paris, musée du Louvre.
  • Wilhelm von Gloeden (1856-1931), Land of Fire, c. 1895. Albumen silver print from glass negative,30 x 40 cm. Private collection.