Balnea Vina Venus

Balnea Vina Venus 2005

Balnea Vina VenusWhat is it that makes a painting more or less erotic? The subject? The pose? The beauty of the sitter? Surely all three but there are other  important elements as well. The  “Tepidarium” by Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, painted in 1881, is made up of a number of elements that  would not of themselves be considered particularly erotic. In this case it is the mix which is perfect: the suffused light, the feeling of heat, the  blushing cheeks, the  undulating  curves of the body  lying on its side, the fan which looks set to fall, the strygil in the right hand, even the redness of the azalea lends something to the erotic charge.  With  his highly detailed pictures the Dutchman Alma-Tadema gave the British an accurately painted, but  richly atmospheric  vision of the ancient Mediterranean world – a world most cultured Englishmen would have been familiar with from their classical studies, but  may not have been able to conjure up visually.  Alma-Tadema, lover of  Italy past and present,  was  a  resident of foggy  London for most of his adult life.

When I saw Monica at the casting session I thought of her immediately for the Tepidarium . What is  more no one else could have interpreted  the role better than her, not just for her reddish hair, her profile and and her long legs – though all of them perfect, plenty of other women have these attributes, but for her  sensuality which the photo demands.

I asked her to bring some personal possession to add to the set. She brought her  dancing shoes – her passion is the tango. From this  starting point I dressed the rest of the set: the tango CD replaced the  feather fan; the telephone with its message “tango tonight!” on the display, the strygil. She also brought some crystals, seen next to the CD player, a small detail that Sir Lawrence would have appreciated – a nod towards her profession of masseuse. A profession that has to do with the subject of the painting – the thermal baths.

Monica's casting picture

The baths played a part in Roman daily life that we can hardly imagine today: a meeting place where both sexes of all classes, even slaves, could mix, talk politics , business and  even intrigue:  a cross between freemason’s hall and health club.  The evocative inscription “Balnea, Vina ,Venus” (baths, wine, Venus) has been found in many  a Roman ruin, so a  bottle of  chilled white Trebbiano wine has been set  by the bench.

Watch a behind the scenes video of  Balnea Vina Venus


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