Ovid’s ironic gaze: Voyeurism, rape, and male desire in cavalli’s la calisto

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Pieter Paul Rubens’s 1613 painting of Jupiter and Callisto provides us with an intriguing glimpse of a prelude to a rape (see Figure 8.1). Inspired by the tale told in book 2 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the painting captures the moment in which Jupiter, having assumed the outward appearance of his sister Diana, advances on the nymph Callisto.1 The picture is as appealing as it is disturbing. On the one hand it is deceptively innocent. Jupiter leans almost protectively over the object of his desire, tenderly lifting Callisto’s chin and gazing into her eyes, seemingly with no further ambition than to steal a kiss. Their nudity, of course, invites the viewer to imagine a more vigorous encounter, as do other details in the painting. Note, for instance, Jupiter’s physical dominance of Callisto, the unmistakable strength in his left arm and highly developed musculature in his back, not to mention her seemingly futile efforts to hold onto the diaphanous white cloth with her left hand and reach behind to grasp her quiver with her right. At the same time, the glimpse of the full left breast peeking out beneath Jupiter’s purple drapery-far more voluptuous than Callisto’s presumably more natural female endowments-disrupts our expectations of sexual violence, at least from a heteronormative point of view. In Rubens’s rendering, Jupiter goes beyond mere transvestism: he has succeeded as only a god might in turning himself into a woman, to be sure, but one who is somewhat too strong and insufficiently pale to qualify as an early modern beauty. Moreover, the viewer might well be left wondering about the parts remaining under the royal robes. Does Jupiter’s body mirror Callisto’s own feminine form in all the details? Is this a prelude to actual intercourse, or is the whole notion of rape-that is to say penetration-all but impossible if the perpetrator has a body that so closely simulates that of a woman?.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEroticism in Early Modern Music
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)9781317141730
ISBN (Print)9781472443335
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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