- Roman Charity: Queer Lactations in Early Modern Visual Culture by Jutta Gisela Sperling
At first glance, a book with such a title may appear too specialized, too erudite, perhaps, to appeal to a broad readership. But the subtitle tantalizes: queer lactations? This long, serious but readable study of depictions of (mostly) daughter-father breastfeeding scenes provides not only an important chapter in the history of allegorical artistic representation but also a rich, speculative, and meticulously researched series of visual, anthropological, medical, literary, legal, and religious readings of the cultural meanings of an ancient anecdote about a daughter helping either her mother or her father to survive after being condemned to death by imprisonment and starvation.
The anecdotes, Sperling tells us, come from Valerius Maximus’s Memorable Sayings and Doings (31 CE). Valerius recounts the story of a daughter breastfeeding her mother, who is languishing in a Roman prison. This first tale seems to serve as an example of filial reciprocity: a daughter “repays” her mother’s gift of nourishment with her own. This exemplary act of piety impels the state to release the mother. The second story, of Pero saving her father, Cimon, from a similar death sentence, appears ekphrastically in Valerius’s text, a visual spectacle witnessed rather than read. The transposition into the domain of the visual serves, for Sperling, as the first indication of the ambivalent, indeed queer, erotics of this supposed scene of “Roman charity.”
The book is divided into two parts. The first, “Images,” traces the history of visual depictions of the scene in Europe and the transformations, including Christian allegorization, that the image undergoes. The second, “Texts and Contexts,” explores literary adaptations of the anecdote, medical applications of adult breastfeeding, the social meanings of charity as allegorized through adult lactation, and, finally, legal discourse about father-daughter relations and principles of patriarchal inheritance. The astonishing breadth of materials consulted and the wide range of disciplines deployed to interpret these materials make it clear that this book is far more than a chapter in the history of Western painting from the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century. It is also a gorgeous example of a multidisciplinary art historical study complete with beautiful color and black-and-white reproductions.
For an interdisciplinary readership particularly interested in histories of sexuality and gender, the discoveries—and the interpretations—in this book are compelling, all the more so in that they offer up a wealth of materials for further study and exploration. For example, Sperling argues that the ambiguities of this act of breastfeeding, which are, even in the eyes of contemporaries, contrary to nature, change semiotic valence depending on the political and historical contexts in which they are circulating and are capable of transmitting both straight, patriarchal messages and subversive [End Page 506] ones at one and the same time. Is the daughter offering her breast to her father an abject representation of paternal/patriarchal absolute priority or the sign of a subversive feminine assertion of daughterly agency? The image, Sperling argues, conjures unease, both then and now. It is queer, evoking incestuous couplings—although, as she notes, in non-Christian traditions, such as Islam, adult breastfeeding was often thought to reroute forbidden eros by establishing kinship relations between feeder and fed—and it reverses parental hierarchies, even as it emblematizes exemplary filial sacrifice. It is, as she notes, a “riddle about kinship” that reveals the “fictive nature of normative patriarchal kinship” and that, at times, expresses a desire to “obliquate [a word corresponding to the modern-day verb “to queer”] the straight line of patriarchal inheritance” (15).
Sperling also notes that, whereas the same-sex and opposite-sex anecdotes about this familial lactation appear originally simultaneously, in their histories of transmission they tend to separate, with one or the other image making its appearance as illustrative of charity and filial devotion. In the Middle Ages, it is almost exclusively the daughter-mother story that predominates, whereas during the rise of the absolutist state and the institutionalization of charitable...