The Intrigue of Absence: The Subjectless Subject in Giulio Campagnola’s ‘Reclining Woman’

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

Few things are more frustrating than the unidentifiable subject, especially for those of us trained to analyze and categorize the images we see. What is to be done with an image that resists categorization and displays a complete absence of identity?

Giulio Campagnola’s Reclining Woman, c. 1510-1515 is one such example of a piece that has successfully evaded the epistemological grasp of art historians for centuries. Stripped of iconography, clothing and narrative, we cannot firmly identify this print using typical art historical methodology. No unique objects or traits enable us to understand what narrative the subject belongs to, or who Campagnola was trying to capture. The landscape surrounding our recliner suggests a pastoral Arcadian scene, leading some to believe she is a nymph and others, Venus.[1] Following another common line of analysis, many write Reclining Woman off as a copy of Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus in an effort to give Campagnola’s print a subject.[2] Compounding the mysterious content of the piece, Campagnola’s stippling technique, in which an image is constructed out of infinite dots, only adds to our frustration.

Giulio Campagnola, Reclining Woman, 1510-1515, engraving, 121 x 182 mm, London, British Museum (Image: British Museum)

In her essay ‘Asleep in the Grass of Arcady: Giulio Campagnola's Dreamer,’ Patricia Emison radically dismantles previous attempts to identify the subject and boldly welcomes the reclining woman’s anonymity.[3] She demonstrates how the depicted woman lacks both the iconography of Venus and the typical characteristics of a nymph. Further, a quick revisit to Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus shows