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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 the gaping disparities between Giorgione’s and Campagnola’s women, most clearly manifested in the unusual fact that Campagnola’s woman has her back to us.

Following Emison’s example, I embrace the ambiguity of this print. Instead of defining her, I’d like to examine our urge to define her. To address this anxiety, I borrow theory from psychoanalytical visual analysis.

Turning first to the female form in Reclining Woman we notice several startling aspects. With her back towards us, face in profile and eyes softly closed, she has little interest in the viewer, or even voyeur, who can gaze at her nude body without knowing who she is. Indeed, the most visible aspect of the woman is her skin. She is fully nude with only a cloth draped loosely over one leg. Her nudity is crucial to our desire to place her character. Exposed and vulnerable, we observe her from behind, possibly without her knowledge. Perhaps because of this very vulnerability, we expect to read her and are surprised when we cannot. While little of her body is concealed, her narrative remains hidden. Though defenceless against our eyes, she is impervious to meaning.

This desire to penetrate to her interior is not a new phenomenon. When considering the role of skin in identity formation, French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu states: 'Since the Renaissance, Western thought has been obsessed with a particular epistemological conception, whereby the acquisition of knowledge is seen as a process of breaking through an outer shell to reach an inner core.'[4] Anzieu, a follower of Freud, coined the term ‘Skin Ego’ to explain skin’s role as a mediator and barrier between the interior and exterior.[5]

This theory ripens when applied to the art historical context of analyzing a visual shell in pursuit of underlying meaning. Art historian Bronwen Wilson applies Anzieu’s theory to art history when she considers the role that skin and clothing play in our self-presentation and interpretation of those around us.[6] The skin mediates the inside and the outside, forming a threshold for social and cognitive experience. Not only do scars, wrinkles, and unique marks make our skin identifiable from the outside, but skin is the tool we use to contain our inside, becoming both a psychological and material distinction between self and other.[7]

Following Wilson’s adaptation of Anzieu’s theory, it is significant that we are faced with so much flesh in Campagnola’s print. And, as Anzieu predicts, we experience frustration with this printed image because we attempt to use her skin as an entry point to her ego. Her nudity, which we initially read as a vulnerability and therefore a place to begin our search for her interiority, in the end, matches her posture - closed.

As Campagnola’s print displays an absence of identity, it likewise experiences a material absence. Few copies of it exist due to the stippling technique and delicate nature of paper. All engraved plates produce a limited amount of prints because the pressure of the printing press eventually wears them out. Uniquely, Campagnola forms his image not out of lines or cross-hatching, but from infinite dots. However, out of all marks to be made on an engraved plate, stippling is the most delicate, the first to be worn out by the printing press. Due to this limited capacity for reproduction, artists rarely employed the stippling technique. Campagnola, however, lay practicality aside for Reclining Woman and stippled the entire plate with hardly a solid line included. Campagnola’s counterintuitive decision heightens both our desire and inability to read his subject.

The very technique Campagnola uses to create this print only increases our frustration. Patricia Emison quotes A. H. Mayor when she describes the stipple marks as 'gnats on a summer evening.'[8] The print has a fuzzy quality to it, gentle on the eyes and welcoming to a lingering gaze. The woman’s delineation is neither sharp nor forceful but soft and nuanced. Our eyes are forced to follow the stipples towards her core, where the dots eventually fade out. Like her nudity, her rendering seems to be an invitation to decode her trope. In other words, Campagnola’s very style encourages our eyes, and therefore mind, to seek the interior of the woman.

However, the woman’s pictorial interior cannot be mistaken for her psychological interiority. Though the stipples invite us into the depiction her body, we are no closer to determining her subject. She is as fluid as the demarcation of her form; her identity is as unfocused as her stippling. Her skin, although permeable and grainy, is ultimately, as Anzieu suggests, a barrier. Undoubtedly a point of interaction between viewer and subject, the skin refuses answers, only solidifying our inherent exteriority. Indeed, the stippling ‘photoshops’ the woman by erasing any wrinkle, scar, or mark that might betray individual quirks.

Even more frustrating is that Campagnola’s identity-less woman demonstrates to the viewer that, though we will always be exterior, she herself is interior. Her hand reaches into the dark recesses of the cloth that drapes over her leg in what appears to be an autoerotic moment. Following Anzieu’s theory, 'by touching oneself…the subject experiences itself as both subject and object, the double sensation of the ego as both ‘I’ and ‘self.’'[9] Her gesture is an expression of ownness, a flaunting of the fact that she has an interiority we cannot access, forever blocked by the skin.

Campagnola’s print frustrates viewers because it simultaneously invites them in and closes them out. The woman’s posture and nudity signal vulnerability, while the stippled mark blurs edges and draws the viewer into her body. This teases the viewer, ultimately creating surprise and frustration when, despite the appearance of vulnerability and permeability, the reclining woman remains impenetrable.

[1] Patricia Emison, ‘Asleep in the Grass of Arcady: Giulio Campagnola's Dreamer,’ Renaissance Quarterly, 45, no. 2 (1992), p. 271.

[2] Emison, ‘Asleep in the Grass of Arcady', p. 271.

[3] Emison, ‘Asleep in the Grass of Arcady', pp. 271-292.

[4] Didier Anzieu, Skin Ego (New Haven, 1989), p.9.

[5] Anzieu, Skin Ego, pp. 3-4.

[6] Bronwen Wilson, The World in Venice: Print, the City, and Early Modern Identity (Toronto, 2005), pp. 127-132

[7] Anzieu, Skin Ego, p. 97.

[8] Emison, 'Asleep in the Grass of Arcady', p. 274.

[9] Wilson, The World in Venice, p. 130.

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