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The other day I showed my students this photograph of an ancient statue and asked them to tell me whether it depicts a male or a female. It was a trick question.


Scanned from Bonfante 2009. See end of post for citation, and click to enlarge.

The object is a two-meter, terracotta funerary statue from sixth-century Capestrano in Abruzzo (Italy). My students observed that the figure has very wide hips, full thighs and a relatively narrow waist. There is no trace of breasts on the broad chest, but neither is there the slightest trace of male genitals under the clinging perizoma or loincloth. In fact, there is a vertical groove reaching up from the crotch. The figure also wears a belt and a harness or baldric attached to rings in front and back. It holds a sword and an axe.

In the absence of other information, my students made the following excellent suggestions:

1. It’s a woman warrior.
2. It’s a third gender that we don’t have in our culture.
3. It’s a male warrior, but this culture had different ideas about how to show masculinity. Mainly through the wearing of really, really big hats.

Number 3 turns out to be the right answer, so far as anyone can tell, though scholars have indeed suggested that the figure is female or deliberately gender-bending. Arguments against this include the fact that fragments of a female figure were found nearby, with small but unambiguous breasts, like two tiny scoops of ice cream applied to her chest. Furthermore, other male figures from the region also seem to lack any trace of a bulge in their shorts.

The Italian sculptor was mimicking the Greek kouros statues of the sixth century, which display the male figure in glorious nudity. That was a bit over the top for the people in Abruzzo, who did not approve of waving their willies about quite so freely. In fact,  Greek men were unique in the Mediterranean of that period for strutting about stark naked in public (though only in the gymnasia and other athletic contexts). The nudity itself was a proclamation of masculinity, and became the standard in sculpture, even for funerary monuments. Everyone else around the Mediterranean pond began to imitate the beautiful Greek sculptural styles, but they kitted them out with the equivalent of fig leaves.

Most tellingly, the kouros statues, like the Capestrano warrior, boast huge, muscular thighs and buttocks.

The Anavyssos kouros from sixth-century Attica. The statue marked the grave of a young warrior who died in the front line of battle. Click for source.

It seems that the Italian sculptor shared the Greek aesthetic preference for a muscular lower body in the male (the opposite of our culture’s fixation on big chests and arms). The chest and abdomen are not undeveloped, but the real interest is in the hypertrophic rear, thighs and calves. Compare this image of Heracles from the Siphnian treasury at Delphi.


Source: Bonfante 2009.

By the Classical period, tastes had changed, and the sculptors moved to a more evenly proportioned body, with fine musculature all over, but not overdeveloped in any of its parts. I’m quite partial to the Archaic aesthetic myself–as seen in the bodies of cyclists, swimmers, and ballet dancers…

Masculinity can take many forms. But I’m still wondering about that third gender idea…

Larissa Bonfante, “Gender Benders,” in E. Herring and K. Lomas eds., Gender Identities in Italy in the First Millennium BCE (Archaeopress 2009)