Saturday, August 1, 2009

Everyone has forgotten Semiramis

Last night to a splendid performance of Rossini's rackety grand opera Semiramide in the Venetian Theater at Caramoor: four hours of warble. Very satisfying. But everyone had to study the program because no one seems to remember who Semiramis is - or, to be sure, was - sometime between the 22nd and eighth centuries b.c.e.

Semiramis used to be as famous as, well, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba and Herodias and Empress Wu, and the myths have much in common. (Also Zenobia, who is also nearly forgotten.) (On the other hand, Ishtar and Hatshepsut have entered the popular consciousness.)

The Semiramis legend, alas, has faded from the popular consciousness, perhaps because Gina Lollabrigida (who had the ideal maternal quality) never made a major Technicolor picture of it. Last March, in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, generally ignored in a long gallery of late Renaissance bric-a-brac, I saw seven huge tapestries depicting the queen’s life and career. We see her (as far as I recall), a foundling of unknown (perhaps divine) birth, nursed by doves; noticed (while leading an attack on Bactra) by King Ninus, eponym of Nineveh, who falls in love at first sight; sacrificing to Baal upon her husband’s sudden death and her succession to his contested throne; building the Walls of Babylon; leading her armies to conquer Egypt and India; hunting tigers in the Pamirs (or wherever); and at last, her power broken by the appearance of her long-lost son, Ninias, the true heir, taking flight with the doves and vanishing among the clouds. It’s a glorious load of gilt-edged bushwah (the real Shamu-ramat was simply queen regent of hyper-masculine Assyria for three years), and it’s a pity her story is forgotten, when once she held her own with such semi-mythical exotics as the Queen of Sheba, Cleopatra, King Arthur, Alexander, Agamemnon and Roland.

On the web, where one encounters the usual nonsense, a Biblical mystic identifies Semiramis as the wife of Nimrud (builder of the Tower of Babel) and the “inventor of polytheism” – that needed to be invented? Dante and Herodotus are cited among sources on Wikipedia. Her era is variously identified as 22nd and 8th centuries B.C.E. (Top that!)

She is also said to have:
1) been born to a goddess and a mortal – the goddess, ashamed, slew the mortal and abandoned the baby, hence raised by doves and shepherds – typical heroic birth trope, cf. Hercules, Jesus
2) she was a major tomboy, winning men’s hearts by her skill at hunt and war as well as beauty,
cf. Hippolyta, Brunhilda, Zenobia, the Ranee of Jhansi
3) first husband, a satrap of Nineveh, allowed her to lead a campaign against Bactra, which won King Ninus’ notice; the husband committed suicide – cf. The King’s Henchman, David and Bathsheba
4) Ninus was so impressed by her counsel (she founded Babylon in this version, as well as building the walls and the hanging gardens – both among the Seven Wonders) that he made her Queen Regent for a day; she promptly had him executed and took power, deceiving the troops by appearing in man’s attire as her son – cf. Hatshepsut, Catherine the Great, Irene of Byzantium, Empress Wu of China – all real rulers by the way
5) She then conquered Syria, Egypt and Ethiopia, but not India
6) She is said to have had a different lover every night – fearing they would take her power, she had them murdered in the morning. Ergo Dante put her in the lechers’ circle. This trope appears in tales (and operas) about Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Queen Marguerite of France, several Roman empresses, Queen Tamar of Georgia, Herodias, etc. etc. I think it is all about men’s terrof of insatiable female lust which they may not be man enough to satisfy. The woman wiser or braver than a man is always either asexually prudish or lustful beyond all reason (the myth of Catherine the Great and the horse, e.g.) – she can’t be normal, because men can’t stand the idea of brave, brainy women being normal.
7) The incest motif comes from all sorts of places, notably the subconscious – but cf. Jocasta, Lucrezia Borgia, Cybele and Atys, Ishtar and Tammuz.
8) At last, after three years (historical), or 15 (operatic) or 42, her son showed up and had her put to death. (Cf. Athaliah) Or she was rescued at the last moment, cornered on top of the Tower of Babel, by a flock of doves, her old friends, who carried her off. Imagine trying to stage that with a Sutherland or Caballé – or Meade. Well – I once saw Sutherland fly off in a winged chariot in Esclarmonde, come to think of it.

Wouldn't that story have made a great trash flick for Gina Lollobrigida? Or Angela Lansbury in her blonde bombshell bitch days? I see George Sanders as Assur, Tyrone Power as Ninus, Sal Mineo as Arsaces/Ninias. Can we get Cukor to direct?

P.S. After a visit to Boston for the Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese show at the MFA, I wandered the regular galleries of that place (it's been thirty years since I was there last - I think), and found a Guercino of Semiramis Cutting Her Hair while Receiving the News of the Revolt of Babylon. According to the wall caption (bless Boston for its wall captions!), she put down her scissors and refused to complete her toilette until she had ridden her army to the offending city and suppressed the revolt.

That was a new tale to me (and, I presume, you).

Reminds me of the tale of Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia (elder daughter of Philip II of Spain and Elisabeth de Valois, Verdi lovers take note), who reigned in Brussels for 35 years and once swore not to change her underlinen until the Protestant northern Netherlands were reconquered by the Catholic south (her bailiwick). Of course they never were conquered. One wonders what Isabella, and her maids, had to endure in consequence. Across the gallery from the Guercino were several works created for Isabella by Rubens, her court painter, including one of a series of warlike women on whom she might model herself, in this case, notably, Queen Tamyris vengefully tossing the head of King Cyrus into a basin of blood.

Another story I know nothing at all about.

1 comment:

KateGladstone said...

What Queen Isabel abd her maids had to endure has left its mark on the English language: