A game of looking and being looked at...
Today we are back in Rome, and I want to talk to you about a painting called The Toilet of Bathsheba (also known as the Bath of Bathsheba) by Jacopo Zucchi.
This relatively unknown painting is housed in the Barberini Palace (Il Palazzo Barberini), a beautiful 17th century building which was originally built as the grand palace of the Barberini family (a family of the Italian nobility). Cardinal Maffeo Barberini actually became Pope Urban VIII in 1623, so they were a very important family in Rome.
Today, the palace houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica which is the main national collection of older paintings in Rome. It exhibits a permanent collection of art (including paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael), as well as temporary exhibitions. So it’s well worth the visit.
Fun fact: Keep a watchful eye out for bees! You’re going to see a lot of large bees dotted around the exterior and interior of the palace; that’s because bees where the symbol of the Barberini family; their coat of arms included three bees. The modern day equivalent of such an image would be an individualised business logo. Everyone at the time would have understood the meaning of the bees.
Alright, enough about the palace, let’s move onto the star of today’s blog.
The Toilet of Bathsheba is an oil on panel painting measuring 120cm by 144.7cm. At one stage it was attributed to Giorgio Vasari, the Italian historian, writer, painter and architect.
However, in 1925 it was then attributed to the Florentine painter Jacopo Zucchi, who actually started his training in Vasari’s studio. This attribution was based on stylistic comparisons to Zucchi’s other paintings. The rich colours, the dynamic poses of the figures, and the smooth, almost sculptural quality of the figures’ bodies are all stylistic elements common in Zucchi’s work.
This painting was executed in the 16th century sometime after 1573. This date was settled upon due to the undeniable similarity between the twisting pose of the woman to the far left, and a small bronze allegorical sculpture of Astronomy executed by Giambologna (now housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna) in 1573. Zucchi no doubt based this figure on that sculpture, and so this painting had to have been executed no earlier than 1573.
So what does this painting show? What is its narrative, its subject matter?
This painting depicts the biblical story of David and Bathsheba which is recounted in the Old Testament in the second book of Samuel, Chapter 11.
(For a full account of the story, always go straight to the primary source.)
In the story, Kind David one day notices and spies on the beautiful Bathsheba taking a bath from the roof of his palace. David is entranced by her beauty, and despite her being married to one of his generals (called Uriah) he summons her to his palace, they sleep together and she ends up pregnant. David therefore arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle so that he and Bathsheba can live happily ever after, but he is then punished for doing so with the death of his first son. His second son with Bathsheba was Solomon, who eventually became the next king, King Solomon.
This story became very popular in the Renaissance, it was painted again and again by different artists, and Bathsheba was often depicted with a servant or two.
This painting portrays the beginning of the narrative, the scene in which David spies on the bathing Bathsheba. You can see David in the top left corner, looking down on the scene from the roof of his palace, peeking out from two columns. You can see an enigmatic landscape in the backdrop. The balustrade of the palace actually acts as a barrier which separates David from the main scene; much like us, he is an observer, and not a participator of what’s going on in the foreground of the painting.
Bathsheba is the largest of all the figures. She is depicted closest to the picture plane, and she takes up the most space, thus denoting her as the most important subject of the painting; the protagonist, the object and the subject of David’s lustful gaze.
Bathsheba is shown completely nude, apart from a translucent veil and a slightly thicker fabric which snakes its way around her thighs.
These two pieces of fabric actually accentuate her nudity. You may think they have been painted to add a hint of modesty, but I think that on the contrary, they draw attention to the rest of Bathsheba’s exposed skin. After all, the thicker fabric drapes over the middle of her thighs, so it’s not even hiding anything major.
Zucchi’s delicate shading, which has been executed with light and shadow, makes her voluptuous body and her skin look very soft and fleshy.
Bathsheba is seated on a throne and surrounded by four servants, her ladies in waiting. There is a figure to her left who approaches with a tray of vessels; what might be perfume or oil vessels. Another figure to the right of Bathsheba hands her one of such vessels.
Her servants are very much clothed, and again, that serves as a way to accentuate Bathsheba’s nudity. Their clothes almost act like an antidote to Bathsheba’s nakedness, therefore making it stand out more.
Yet despite being clothed, there is still a hint of eroticism, of sensuality being evoked by these women, which really is one of the overriding themes in this painting. The figure on the left has her breasts exposed, and the belly button of the figure on the right shows through the material of her fabric.
Now you may notice that although her cheeks are nice and rosy, the skin hue of Bathsheba’s body is very pale, it almost looks grey. In my opinion, Zucchi is imbuing her body with the colour of marble, to evoke ancient classical sculptures of nude Greek and Roman goddesses, therefore enhancing a sense of beauty and perfection.
To the left of the painting, you will notice more nude women, some of whom are bathing. Zucchi is portraying a large public bath whose waters extend all the way to the walls of the palace. In the background, there is a fountain with a twisting Cupid-like figure for decoration, whose echoes the serpentine form of the woman to the left.
The Old Testament doesn’t say anything about Bathsheba being in the presence of other bathing women: it merely says: "he (being David) saw a woman (namely Bathsheba) washing herself." So this is Zucchi’s interpretation of the story.
And I think the presence of these nude bathing women is very deliberate; it is Zucchi’s way of enhancing a sense of eroticism, as well as echoing and accenting Bathsheba herself.
The woman semi-submerged in the water touches her breast, so she can almost be seen as enacting David’s fantasy before our eyes.
To her left, we have a woman who faces away from the viewer. All we see is her nude backside. She, in a sense, can be seen as completing the figure of Bathsheba herself, who only shows us the front of her body. The woman’s twisting and dynamic pose complements the curve of Bathsheba’s own figure. So they appear to complete each other, and they provide us, the viewer, with the likely look of Bathsheba’s rear, thus giving us a full sense of her figure from every angle.
Just to point out, this painting is Mannerist in style (also known as Late Renaissance); a style that came about around 1520, and which lasted until the end of the 16th century. And that can be seen in the twisting and serpentine pose of the figure to the left. This is an exaggerated and rather unnatural pose, which pushes the limits of the human body for dramatic effect, and that was partly what Mannerism was about.
There is a degree of movement in this painting which can be seen in the ripples of the water, the twisting and dynamic poses of the figures (the servant carrying the tray, for example, appears to be rushing forward). In addition, there is a fabric peeking out from the water, which suggests that it just happened to slip off one of the nude bathing women. Furthermore, the woman to the far left looks like she is whipping off the drapery which whirls around her.
There is a large fabric behind Bathsheba which must have served as a partial cover, and you will also notice a pair of slippers near Bathsheba’s feet. These two elements imply that she has just gotten undressed, or she is about to get re-dressed (it’s unclear which), but what I’m trying to get at is that this is not a static image.
And yet, there is a sense of timelessness in Bathsheba’s pose, and in the sculptural quality of her skin and body, which renders her the eternal object of looking, the eternal subject of David’s voyeuristic gaze.
Zucchi’s painting is full of really beautiful details. Look at the intricate hairstyles of the women. Notice Bathsheba’s jewellery and the delicate hairpieces. Look also at the sandals of her ladies in waiting, they are very elaborate.
In addition, notice all the hands of the figures; they have dainty figures poised in delicate positions, to enhance the gracefulness of these women.
There is a mirror in the bottom right corner of the painting which could be read as a symbol of vanity. You will also notice some flowers, which can be read as symbols of beauty; flowers often represented the transient and fleeting nature of beauty in Renaissance art.
There are also a few details which highlight the erotic undertones and the voyeurism present in this painting. Voyeurism, by the way, describes the pleasure and enjoyment gained from watching someone naked or in a sexual act.
There is a very small winged Cupid who forms the handle of another vessel visible just below Bathsheba’s knees, and he could be seen as a nod to the theme of love (cupid was after all the god of love). Additionally, at the feet of Bathsheba, there is a golden statue of a satyr which forms part of her throne. In antiquity, satyrs were mythological figures that embodied creatures of lust and excessive sexual energy that would lust after and rape woodland nymphs. In the Renaissance, they also came to symbolise vice. So this depiction of a satyr could be seen as a not so subtle nod to David, and is perhaps hinting at what is about to come next in the story.
So the theme of spying, of voyeurism, is really cleverly articulated.
What I personally love about this painting is how Zucchi plays with the viewer, and includes them in the theme of voyeurism.
David is gazing voyeuristically upon Bathsheba, making her the subject, and the object of his gaze. Yet at the same time, her body faces towards the picture plane, and she is meant for the delectation of the viewer. Her naked body is on full display for us to admire, which we do.
Then, you have two of Bathsheba’s servants who stare directly at us, the viewer. By acknowledging our presence so directly, they are challenging us and accusing us of also being guilty of voyeurism. The fact that Bathsheba does not seem aware of our gaze, makes us being caught out even more unsettling.
The gaze of the servant who is furthest in the background is particularly intense and almost sinister. Zucchi is really challenging the viewer with these sightlines.
I mean, I feel like I’ve just been caught red-handed!
The woman to her left carrying the tray is gazing at us in a more light-hearted and flirtatious manner, almost as if she is enjoying the attention.
You have to consider that at the time, such paintings were made primarily for the delight and entertainment of male humanists… So Zucchi is being quite playful in this aspect.
We, as the viewer, are made to feel like a voyeur, so we become part of the narrative.
So while David occupies only a very small part of the painting, the theme that he incites, namely voyeurism, is present all over the canvas. It even extends out of the confines of the painting, and enters our world, the world of the viewer.
For a full virtual tour on this painting, follow this link: https://youtu.be/_dO9oaB5nqk
- Bath of Bathsheba - Italy and Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Arthemis: Art-Law Centre, University of Geneva. Accessible via: https://plone.unige.ch/art-adr/cases-affaires/bath-of-bathsheba-2013-italy-and-wadsworth-atheneum-museum-of-art
- Emil Kren and Daniel Marx. The Toilet of Bathsheba. Web Gallery of Art. Accessible via: https://www.wga.hu/html_m/z/zucchi/jacopo/bathsheb.html
- H. Hirschy Cohen. "David and Bathsheba." Journal of Bible and Religion 33, no. 2 (1965): 142-48. Accessible via: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1459384.
- J. Cheryl Exum. Art as Biblical Commentary: Visual Criticism from Hagar the Wife of Abraham to Mary the Mother of Jesus. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.
- Sara M. Koenig. Bathsheba Survives, Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2018.