What 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.
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.