Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida

(Valencia, 1863 – Cercedilla, Madrid, 1923)

Messalina in the Arms of a Gladiator


oil on canvas

53.5 x 80.5 cm

Inv. no. P00889

BBVA Collection Spain

Sorolla created this work during the time he spent in Rome thanks to a scholarship when he became an active member of the city’s art scene. In fact, Rome was the home to many of the most outstanding Spanish painters of the time, and Sorolla established a close relationship with many of them, thus acquainting himself with the prevailing artistic concerns and assimilating them into his own personal language.

This oil on canvas shows the artist’s taste for the female nude during this period and reveals the influence of Mariano Fortuny (1838-1874) and Ignacio Pinazo (1849-1916), which Sorolla interpreted in a personal manner and with a dexterity suggestive of his technical mastery. The work is also imbued with the fin-de-siècle aesthetic of the Modernista movement characteristic of Sorolla’s painting in this period, visible in the ornamental spirit permeating the piece.

The scene, set in the era of the Roman emperor Claudius (1st century AD, before year 48), represents his wife Messalina in the attitude of a Bacchante next to a victorious gladiator. The place is probably the Circus Maximus—the oldest stadium in Rome—as we can see the Aventino at the back through the opening framed by the base of a Tuscan column.

Worth mentioning is the compositional analysis of the whole, with an interesting study of perspective through a diagonal arrangement that gives it dynamic energy. The centre of the composition is occupied by Messalina, half nude on a rug that is very similar to others featured in other paintings from that period, offering a flower garland to the gladiator, who is wearing a laurel wreath on his head, indicative of a recent victory. Particularly remarkable is the contrasting complexion of the two characters, and also of the colours in the surrounding fabrics and flowers, all of it rendered with consummate technical mastery to establish points of light that help to add greater depth.

We ought to point out how Sorolla uses the mythological context to create one of the most erotically charge pieces in his production, taking advantage of a classical subject matter sanctioned by the Academy. The contrast between the sensuous beauty of Messalina, the Emperor’s wife and an example of licentiousness, and the strength of the gladiator offered the artist a theme with a marked naturalist interest, while allowing for the depiction of a Roman setting expected of an artist studying in Italy with a scholarship.