“They were three hundred men, they were young and strong, and they died!” said the gleaner of Sapri in a famous Italian poem. But Italians aren’t talking about what the rural labourer said – they’re talking about what she’s wearing.
At a ceremony on Saturday in the southern province of Salerno, former Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte unveiled a brand new statue sculpted in tribute to an 1857 poem written by Luigi Mercantini. The sculpture, depicting the poem’s narrator, doesn’t quite look like how Italians were expecting. One photo in particular showing Conte and a group of other male dignitaries admiring the statue has gone viral in Italy, as the gleaner deftly covers her breasts with one hand and looks behind her at the sea, with the imagined sea breeze revealing the curvature of her bum to the assembled politicians.
Often studied in Italian schools, La Spigolatrice di Sapri tells the story of a woman who falls in love with Carlo Pisacane, a real historical figure who was one of Italy’s first socialist and anarchist thinkers. In the poem, she tells the story of Pisacane’s failed insurrection against the Kingdom of Naples, where he had hoped the local Neapolitans would join his 300 men in a revolution. Instead, they sided with the ruling Bourbons, and Pisacane was killed, along with all of his followers.
Rather than depict Pisacane, or the 300 men, the sculpture unveiled this weekend commemorating the fated arrival of revolutionaries at Sapri is instead depicted by the gleaner – someone who collects grain after it’s been harvested.
But Italians quickly noticed that she is perhaps not as fully clothed as a gleaner at the time realistically would have been, and that her bum can be seen clearly through her very thin dress. Laura Boldrini, an MP with the centre-left Democratic party, said the monument was "an offence to women and to the history it is supposed to celebrate".
For a contemporary idea of what a gleaner might have actually looked like, the most famous depictions are by French Realism artist Jean-François Millet, who painted The Gleaners the same year Pisacane died in a statement on rural poverty. They are northern French peasants as opposed to southern Italian ones, but they do look considerably different; they’ve got more clothes on and, understandably, look pretty worn out from all their hard work.
But there are fairly contemporary Italian examples too. Painter Francesco Gioli, who was born in 1846, painted a gleaner in the 1880s; a shaft of wheat in her arms, she is buttoned up with a scarf on her head and another scarf around her neck, with a skirt billowing over a visible petticoat.
The Sapri gleaner is evidently sporting a different wardrobe. Monica Cirinnà, a member of the Italian Senate, tweeted: “This statue of the Gleaner says nothing about the self-determination of the woman who chose not to go to work in order to stand up against the Bourbon oppressor." Instead, it was a "slap in the face to history and to women who are still only sexualised bodies."
The sculptor Emanuele Stifano said in a Facebook post that he is “shocked and disheartened” by the criticisms he has been reading. He clarified that “when I make a sculpture, I always tend to cover the human body as little as possible, regardless of gender” and that because she is facing the sea like she does in the poem, “I ‘took advantage’ of the sea breeze that hits it to give movement to the long skirt, highlighting the body.”
The point for Stifano was not that she looked like a 19th century woman, “but rather represent a feminine ideal, evoke her pride, the awakening of a conscience, all in a moment of great pathos.”
But many aren’t talking about her pride. As one Italian tweeted: “they were three hundred men, they were young and strong – and yet they only showed my bum.”