By the late nineteenth century, archaeological discoveries, widely circulated publications of art and artifact, and expanded travel through Italy, the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa brought an increasing interest in the Byzantine era, and tales of its iconic rulers were captured in nearly mythologized, often lurid, biographies. Empress of Byzantium from 527-548, Theodora was one of the most powerful women in the empire's history. By and large, it was the ancient scholar Procopius who recorded Theodora’s life in three texts: the History of the Wars of Justinian, De Aedificiis, and Anekdota (or The Secret History). Theodora’s fame began as an actress (a profession associated with prostitution at the time) and she was celebrated for her nude performances and for hosting sensational parties after the day’s theatrics. After adopting the beliefs of Monophysitism (an ancient form of Christianity purporting that Jesus was wholly divine), she gave up her former life, and became a wool-spinner living near the emperor Justinian’s palace in Constantinople (now Istanbul). Despite her humble beginnings, Theodora drew Justinian’s attention, eventually becoming his mistress and then his wife, and was considered an intellectual and political equal to her husband. Theodora drove many of the groundbreaking decisions of the Empire, and was recognized as a great reformer in expanding the legal rights of women. Together with Justinian, she advanced the physical makeup of the empire, expanding a network of aqueducts, bridges, roads, and building churches—the most magnificent of which is the Hagia Sophia.
Theodora is frequently represented in ancient artwork, most notably in the elaborate mosaics still visible in the Basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy, which likely inspired de Sanctis' designs at the upper left of the present work (fig. 1). Following this tradition, the Empress was a popular choice of subject among de Sanctis’ contemporaries, and she was frequently portrayed by artists such as Benjamin-Constant (see previous lot), imposingly enthroned or aloof in regal repose (fig. 2). De Sanctis’ depiction of the sleeping, nude Theodora accompanied by male musicians and Justinian (or perhaps one of her reported lovers) sensualizes the Empress, suggesting the artist’s understanding of the more sensationalized elements of her history. In so doing, de Sanctis’ composition follows late nineteenth century popular culture’s interests in Byzantine history, exemplified by playwright Victorien Sardou’s 1884 play Théodora, which portrayed the era as one of regal decadence and seductive power. On grand stage-sets recreating a Byzantine palace, Sardou’s Empress Théodora was famously played nearly 900 times by Sarah Bernhardt, who commanded the stage with custom-made costumes of bleu de ciel satin, elaborately embroidered and bejeweled, slipping out of the palace for clandestine affairs (fig. 3). The image of Theodora perpetuated by Sardou, and echoed by de Sanctis, would become firmly ensconced in the public imagination of the era. Just as in the theatrical production, de Sanctis’ work heightened elements of narrative drama, with many but not all of its details historically accurate: the circular disc supporting Theodora’s bed, its portrait relief based on coin designs produced by Justinian; the floor pattern, which resembles that of the Basilica of San Vitale; and the enameled cabinet in the background, the most anachronistic object within the composition, as it is a based on a version of a thirteenth century Limoges enamel reliquary (here enlarged to serve as a cabinet but in reality a handheld, devotional object), depicting the beheading of Thomas Becket (below) and his burial (above).
Viewing the work in Venice, some critics struggled to follow the work’s narrative. But their inability to find historical precedent suggested how innovative and bold de Sanctis’ interpretation truly was. The academic debate of its accuracy had little influence on the work’s welcome reception, and within days of the Venice exhibition’s opening, Teodora found a buyer. The identity of this collector remains elusive but, intriguingly, Isma’il Pasha (1830-1895), once Khedive of Egypt and Sudan, is named as one of the more distinguished visitors to the exhibition in the days preceding the painting’s sale. While illustrations of Teodora were widely published after the exhibition closed and it remained synonymous with the artist throughout his career, the painting has been lost for well over a century. It has never been published in color and is exhibited today for only the second time in its recorded history.
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