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Sophonisba: The Development of an ‘Oriental’ femme fatale

Representations of feminine alterity have long been recognised as central to discourses of Orientalism. Shelly Haley’s 1989 study of Livy’s portrayal of the Carthaginian noblewoman Sophonisba highlights her role in inscribing difference between Roman male and North African female. Haley shows that Sophonisba forms a triptych of seductive North African female alterity with Dido, and Cleopatra. However, despite Haley’s work, of this threatening trio, Sophonisba is the least known today.

In this paper, I will show how representations of Sophonisba between antiquity and modernity make an unrecognised contribution to the development of the trope of the ‘Oriental’ seductress in the European literary imaginary. I will make the case that Sophonisba can be read as a cipher for developing discourses of Orientalism. I will focus on three key moments in this genealogy.

First, I turn to the representations of Sophonisba in the works of the fourteenth-century Italian poet Petrarch. After outlining the classical sources available to him, I will examine how the Sophonisba of Petrarch’s Africa and his Triumph of Love reflect Petrarch’s attitudes towards the Muslim East. In a 2001 article, Nancy Bisaha suggests that Petrarch’s rhetoric be viewed as a link between classical discourses of the clash between East and West and modern colonial discourses of Orientalism. Petrarch’s representations of North African femininity are an important thread running between ancient and modern Orientalisms, a thread, however, hitherto unexplored.

From there, I will move to discuss representations of Sophonisba on the early modern dramatic stage. In contrast with Petrarch’s Sophonisba as a dangerous femme fatale, the Sophonisba of the early modern stage comes into view as a tragic heroine. I will consider the reasons behind this by homing in on two key plays from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: Martson’s The Wonder of Women and Trissino’s Sofonisba. I will suggest, in dialogue with portrayals of the Carthaginian woman in visual arts, that the sympathetic recastings of Sophonisba are related to her deracination from her North African origins and her transformation into a generic ‘virtuous virgin’.

Finally, I will turn to Sophonisba in two examples of Italian colonial film: Giovanni Pascoli’s Cabiria (1914); and Carmine Gallone’s Scipione l’Africano (1937). I will show how these representations reflect developments in Italy’s colonial attitudes towards North Africa.

This paper ventures new approaches to Premodern Critical Race Studies by highlighting links between antiquity and early modernity.