A Harebrained History of the Wig

Luigi Amara

In tragic desperation, he brutally tore out
the hair of his wig. 
Carlos Díaz Dufoo (hijo)

An Otherworldly Prologue

If I had to decide on an object to describe the meaning of life on Earth, a postcard to send to Mars about our most dearly held obsessions, my first choice would be the wig. Mammalian yet artificial, an insignia of power and, at the same time, complicit in a malleable, remote, but enduring notion of beauty; reflected in the false head of hair—apparently en route to a life of its own—are our excesses and fears, the deployment of the body for purposes of seduction, plus the psychological traumas of that simulacrum of autumn known as baldness.

For all that it reveals of our propensity for duplicity and simulation, for the way in which it crystalizes—in a tangled mesh that somehow seems to be both ready to pounce and caress—the deviation and concerted exuberance of that world within the world we have agreed to call “second nature”—but could also be termed “theater”—for all those reasons, I would choose the wig as our sidereal representative, as a cosmic calling card. I like to imagine the wig that crosses the indifference of space and, after many years, arrives in another galaxy; I like to imagine the amazement of that extraterrestrial being holding in its hands, in its perhaps smooth, horrified extremities, that light, crouching mat of hair that, while perhaps indecipherable, speaks of a hirsute, stylized world where nothing is what it seems, and the rarefication of this effect, possibly due to the unsilenceable demands of desire—in the end, a primary need—is still convincing.

More than an illustrated and, it has to be said, slightly disjointed history of the mania for hairpieces—a sort of reflexive mosaic or tapestry of a topic one might call outmoded—this is a personal book, an intimate, possibly overly insistent gallery surrounding a single object. Rather than a horizontal museum, a motley collection of recurrent weaknesses and fetishes, and making light of the risk of the monomania and anachronism involved, I opted for a journey into the interior of one of those recurrences, a descent down the plait of associations and perplexities in which I see myself reflected when I meditate on the wig, when I allow myself to become entangled in its incitements, in its improbable density, while converting it into an object of thought. And when you come down to it, if Baudelaire discovered there is a whole world in a head of hair, why not go one step further and tell the story of the world in terms of the wig, in terms of the hair that stands alone, detached from the shaggy hide, and thus the body; in terms of the head of hair elevated to a talisman, a small but vast cosmos.

Although this is, in some way, an autobiographical book, its germ is not, as far as I know—one should not pass up the opportunity of a nod to the psychoanalyst—to be found in any shameful paraphilia or a more or less controlled, more or less domesticated propensity for transvestitism. Neither did it have its origin—although this must in some way have been involved—in reading the epigram by Carlos Díaz Dufoo (hijo) I have used here as a sort of epigraph, an authentic one-line novel in which these pages may be nothing more than a rather bulky footnote, an offcut, possibly as unwarranted as it is redundant. I suspect this book in fact began when hair was still styled, in those not so distant times when one’s locks could be a symbol of rebellion. One evening I realized that if we find liberating characteristics in long, loose hair, or a certain stridency in dying it green and molding à la barbed wire, the wig introduces an unexpected distortion, an error that makes incursions into the province of disguise: beyond fashion and the codes of cosmetics, the wig embodies the paradox of a portable, detachable freedom, of a, one could say, two-faced rebellion—festive and extraordinary due to its carnivalesque aura—no less destabilizing for being removable.

Alongside its antecedents—only in appearance frivolous—in the old French salons, I noted that the wig was more suited to the profligacy of licentious nights than freedom as a revolutionary value and, attracted by its artifice, the fascination of its deceptive superficiality, I began to wonder if the symbolic importance of the guillotine during the French Revolution might be that it did away in one stroke with the reign of wigs; that, under the somewhat drastic pretext of decapitation, it put an end to those outlandish crests that could scarcely dissimulate their condition as crowns, and which, for a couple of centuries, dominated social life, just as they had done in ancient Egypt.

On that day, I fell under the spell of the wig, and cherished the hope of writing a book that, in addition to leading me to examine the customs of a variety of different eras, would oblige me to reflect on a strange presence, generally disdained as superfluous, and unconditionally expelled from the realm of the thinkable. A language in itself, a complement of the mask made from the very material of our own sebaceous glands, an identity toy, the wig—despite the fact that the first known one dates from 3000 b.c., and that at certain moments in history it spread like a hydra whose heads correspond to those of the population who gladly donned it—is usually marginalized by “serious” research projects, even those dealing with the alterations to which the body is subjected, those that investigate the boundaries between the organic and the synthetic, the carnal and the prosthetic, with what is original to the human species and what is added.

If one of the key questions of modernity was related to the validity of the conception of the mind as a blank sheet, an unmarked surface without predispositions or impressions, it is hardly surprising that, in relation to one of the principal problems of thought, the host of philosophers of those elegant, optimistic times—all under the effects of the fever for false hair, the distinction of capillary laurels dusted with white powder—did not extend their research to the body itself—the other, now scandalous, half of the dualism—and, in spite of the exaggerated evidence resting on their heads, should agree on its neutrality, on its condition of a mere datum, as if the body could be on the margins of the inscriptions of power, and free from symbolic imprints, the configurations of language, and even collective ailments.

As there is now practically no doubt that we live in the age of the cyborg, in a time open to ambiguity and the reinvention of the human in which technology constantly violates the frontiers between the biological and the artificial, between nature and culture, the personal and the other, I thought I perceived in the wig, in that network of hair and ritual practices committed to making an impression, a perhaps archaic, perhaps embryonic, but ultimately valiant and suggestive, antecedent to ways of overcoming the limitations of the body, and to altering the possibilities of identity. Just as in the fleeting frame of a wig party—the contemporary, if somewhat diminished version of the old Roman celebrations, where social roles were exchanged, and women often covered themselves in the skins of wild beasts—the face, dislocated by a hairpiece, becomes something other, something we hide behind when representing ourselves to the world, but through which we simultaneously project ourselves. So, perhaps, the primitive custom of wearing wigs in its time led to a reconsideration of the body as an unquestioned inheritance, and paved the way for the induced metamorphosis, for that subversion of the given, of what presents itself as inalterable, in sexual politics or what we accept as human.

Maybe all this sounds a little out of this world, but that conjectured gift to Mars with which I opened these pages, that coquettish mass of hair travelling to the edges of the Milky Way in search of a radical other with which to confront us, is possibly one of the first symbols of our mutation as a species. A glimmer—no matter how passing or easily disassembled—of the power to have an influence over ourselves, to change the course of clearly unalterable things, of all that presents itself as fate, as a touchstone leaving room only for resignation, and not, for example, creativity or expressive intervention.

While I contemplate the imaginary flight of the wig through the firmament, watch how its trail plows the starry night to one side of its celestial twin—the hairy constellation of Coma Berenices—I cannot help but think that this age-old accessory, this uncertain article so often accused of falsity, ridiculousness, and unfairness, this rarefication of our primate charms, was a rudimentary link in the long process of extending human life beyond its limits, beyond its apparently fixed, stable, sacrosanct forms. Even before the first glimpses of the “intelligent” wig—an apparatus already under patent, combining an instrument for navigation, a terminal for instant medical analyses, a bundle of threadlike sensors, and a portable communications interface—the old-fashioned, brazen wig, which at its zenith was made from a quantity of hair no human head could ever produce unaided, had already set humanity on the road to its self-transformation, had already questioned, from the only possible position—from the zone of appearance, dismissed as dispensable and futile, in which effects reign—the location of essentialist notions of identity, gender, and the body.

A Theory of Disguise

A recurrent accessory of deception, a password for passing unnoticed, the wig is a ruse capable of throwing even the person wearing it off track. Hair, which can put itself on the side of either beauty or concealment, is the most malleable part of the body and, on the wheel of fortune of its mutations, not only compromises our appearance, but also the very notion of who we are. According to anthropological theory, the human face lost its hair over the millennia, so enabling it to be read. Once muscle activity became a source of signals—an authentic language—it was only to be expected that hair—in the form of attachable hairpieces and wigs, understood as cloaks or cowls—would return to the face with the intention of causing confusion.

To make Wakefield’s case of “marital delinquency” less whimsical, Nathaniel Hawthorne imagines him in a wig store. Wakefield still doesn’t know if his resolve not to return home is a short-lived act of waywardness or a twenty-year period of voluntary exile, but he takes the precaution of changing his appearance: he dresses in the discreet second-hand clothing of a Jew, and buys a reddish head of hair that in many cities would have attracted attention, but in the patchwork of colors that is London has the effect of producing invisibility. (Around the same time, Edgar Allan Poe was positing the daring theory that the best way to make something disappear was to leave it where anyone can see it.) Even though he has only moved a few yards from his wife—unsure whether or not to accept that she is a widow—thanks to what could be thought a superficial transformation, instead of living in the shadows, the self-exiled Wakefield transforms himself into another individual. Not even on the afternoon when, in the urban bustle, the stream of humanity forces the couple into proximity, and even a perilous momentary contact, is the spell of his anonymity broken.

As Hawthorne notes, it is likely that in the long joke of living in the margins, vanity plays an important part—the morbid, possibly pathological curiosity to see how the world will fare without him. In time, nevertheless, the cloaked body will eventually take on the mask, and it is not unthinkable that, on waking, in the instant of shock at seeing himself without his wig, Wakefield would believe he had surprised an imposter.

Constructed in part before the mirror of others, chiseled each day with the points of intersection of how they see us, cosmetic changes are also part of the image we form of ourselves, erasing on our own faces the frontiers of the proper and improper. If clothes and hairstyles, in addition to expressing our personalities, allow us to approach what we suspect or imagine ourselves to be, then fitting a wig or doing our makeup, more than the artifices of simulation or duplicity, are aspects of an everyday ritual of restitution.

During the secret, melancholic saturnalias when he drank himself under the bedside table, Wakefield altered his appearance in order to disappear, but also with the arduous commitment to reinventing himself. Once busy, egoistic London had confirmed that—however eccentric his plan—he’d become nobody, he was able to evolve as naturally as a ghost. What had started as a tangential game ultimately brought about his inner conversion, to the point where, for a long time, he had no idea how to reverse the process. His odyssey around the corner took as long as that of Ulysses, “the man of many twists and turns,” the peerless imposter. Wakefield also returned home twenty years later, like someone coming back from a parallel world, casting off his disguise. But before converting himself back into Wakefield, thanks to the alteration of one of the most striking—and, significantly, the one he could most easily live without—parts of his body, he discovered that not only the form of the face can be manipulated, but also the personality.

When the fatwa was pronounced against Salman Rushdie, with its associated threat of death, the recommendation of the London Metropolitan Police seemed inspired by the detective brains of Wakefield and Poe: covering the face would attract immediate attention, so the best thing was to leave it uncovered, and trust in the powers of the wig, just as highwaymen and such generals of military campaigns as Hannibal Barca had done in bygone days. Instead of hiding in a bunker, he would be able to walk merrily through the streets as if the harassment for insulting the name of God belonged to a past era. The police, on the side of the economy of disguise—it’s enough to alter the most decisive features to become unrecognizable—didn’t take into account that rather than disguising a man, their mission consisted of wiping out all trace of a figurehead, an unexpected symbol.

They also insisted he adopt an alias; so at least he could sign checks without endangering his life. The sorcery of words was more powerful than the capillary mystification; Rushdie—a thoroughbred writer, even in hiding—not only changed his name, but took on his new identity with the will of a fictitious character. When it came to writing about those blasphemous years as Joseph Anton—a perhaps rather obvious tribute to his favorite authors, Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov—Rushdie chose to use the third person singular, as if he were really narrating the story of another man, someone who is not, was not, him.

“The wig was made and arrived in a brown cardboard box looking like a small sleeping animal” Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, A Memoir (2012).

Despite the fact that there is no wig capable of concealing an emblem or distracting fanaticism, the failure of Rushdie’s wig can perhaps be put down to his own disbelief. Instead of seeing the disguise as the first stage of metamorphosis, he made the common mistake of thinking of it as a veil, a screen. Already over forty, his forehead had set out to extend its dominions into new hemispheres, and the interference of a certain inconsistent, juvenile pride cannot be discounted. When he opened the box containing the wig—made to replicate the texture of his own hair and match his complexion—he thought he saw a small, sleeping animal. How could he become someone else if he was afraid of looking like Daniel Boone?

On a trial walk along Loane Street, laughter wasn’t long in coming. The last straw was when someone shouted: “Look, there’s that bastard Rushdie in a wig!”

It’s said that Menephron was one of the freest of men since, having on no occasion come across water calm enough to give him even a brief glimpse of his features, he never saw the reflection of his face. Wakefield, who looked at himself every day in the mirror to live up to his disguise, knew the freedom of one who has temporarily renounced his face, that spurious freedom of the person who, still attached to the world, can no longer participate in it. During the period when he bifurcated into Joseph Anton, Rushdie had firsthand experience of what he had so often achieved in his writing, but he never succeeded in inventing a new face for himself. At the price of his freedom, he etched his features onto the other into whom he should have changed, conferred that other with his stubborn, usual appearance—which, it would seem, he was unwilling to give up. During his terrible years in hiding, while the fanatical threat still hung over him, there were two men with the same face: the face of a wanted man.

Casanova, Wigs and Masks

The notion of hair as a vital force, or baldness as an indication of abundant androgens, cedes before the elusive, operatic print of Casanova wearing a wig. In the very middle of that old dispute dividing the male gender—about which women believe they always have the last word—the libertine tiptoes along like a sly, dissolute Moses, having put a center parting in the choppy waters of the discussion.

With a refinement evocative of a masked ball—aided by a mise-en-scène that invites both the stolen kiss and slapstick comedy—and light, despite carrying on his shoulders the saturation of Rococo, Casanova, swathed in a cape reminiscent of death—and only afterwards love—bursts into the room and adjourns the debate. His scarlet splendor, his elegance mottled with errors—who can present himself as a lover without vacillation and babbling?—his prosaic opportunism, and his gallant persistence, which neither excludes weeping, nor fears seeming ridiculous, would all be little help in winning over women if they were not part of an intricate pantomime, a slow, pre-arranged dance in which, over and above the sincerity or otherwise of the feelings, what is decisive is the mask, the theatricality of the seduction.

If the idea of apocryphal hair as an aphrodisiac now seems unlikely, it is because we forget the charm of eighteenth-century imposture. Changing identity at every carnival period, passing for someone else—a candid aristocrat or devilish priest—or, better still, allowing others to be carried away by the tide of doubt and the spell, is already putting one foot on the slope, on the inclined plane of transgression.

In any reevaluation of Casanova, it is impossible to overemphasize the fact that he belonged to an acting family, and felt at ease among con artists. Although his claims to nobility were pulled from his lace-edged sleeve, that does not make them less valid, or mean he was intimidated by the perspective that he might not be able to fill the role. After all, however more differentiated society was at that time, it was also more permissive and welcoming, and favored internal mobility, meteoric ascents and plummeting falls into ruin, successive waves of glory and scandal. In the highly stratified, but porous edifice of the Baroque, a person without a homeland or ancestry could very well find an entrance into salons and boudoirs—even reach the throne—based on his self-esteem and appearance, while another, despite titles and high position, fell into the abyss of dishonor, or ended up in prison. Fortune was perhaps at its most fickle, and it was necessary to adapt one’s character to so much ephemerality and inconsistency.

If everything in love is ambience and propitious occasion, a conspiratorial alignment of favorable elements (beginning with the stagnant, intimate Venice, a city that regularly presents lovers with the first, most difficult of steps: availability and ambiguity), in the theatrical logic of Giacomo Casanova one not only has to create very different characters, but do so with equal care and unscrupulousness, like someone who skillfully deals with obstacles and ambushes in a sporting spirit. It’s not that one has to disguise oneself as a monk in order to worm one’s way into a damsel’s bedroom; for a time one is the monk. But Casanova’s dedication—his vocation?—suspends disbelief, so there will be no great difficulty in reinventing himself later—with all the appropriate paraphernalia—as a soldier or violinist, a lawyer or doctor, a cabalist or gambler, and, finally, as a relic of a long-buried era, in the languid, pitiful role of one who resigns himself, once over the hill of euphoria and diversion, to simple memory and writing.

Eighteenth-century barber-wigmaker boutique.

If masks propitiate entanglement, they also lead to an acceptance of internal tensions. Changeable and interstitial, the sham Chevalier de Seingalt is a talented foreigner; since his notion of adventure embraces both skepticism and setbacks, he has shed the pathos of gravity, allowing him to slip through the palaces and dungeons, bedrooms and theater boxes of Europe, with the volatility and passion of one who understands that the comedy has to be played out to the end. The opposite of a trophy-collecting Don Juan with his compendium of deeply disturbing falsities, Casanova arranges things so that he gives himself body and soul to each and every one of his innumerable conquests. He is much more than an itinerant actor: he is a full-time thespian with a talent for farce and improvisation who knows, as so few do, how to make the mask into a festive likeness of the soul.

He would frequently go about masked, even when the carnival period was not at hand. In contrast to the ordinary facial disguises—made up of false hair, velvet, and ingenuity—that opened the doors to palaces, women’s legs, and the arms of the Pope himself, the Venetian variety allowed him to flee from the character of the moment, in order to commit acts of villainy and rowdiness, to take his revenge on a rival with a thrashing (in ancient Rome, Nero wore wigs to beat up strangers and so enjoy, at his ease, the pleasure of the arbitrary). If a masked presence contains something of an emissary of death, the simple gesture of wearing a face-covering makes the visage into a skull and the skin a bone. Layered like a set of Russian dolls, beneath that first mask—that we agree to call persona—there is only another mask, and another, all worn—if it is not a redundancy to say so—with versatile nihilism.

With his trickster’s skill and his genius for kitsch special effects, Casanova postulates that if one wants to prosper in the theater of the world, if one wants to arouse the opposite sex, the void must be disguised. True, he never repents anything, and recalls his long string of deceit with a wealth of detail and astonishing delight; but this is not cynicism: circumstances force him to make each role his own, to play the game through. Life is not a dream, it is theater, and there is never enough time to rehearse.

Casanova at the age of thirty in Switzerland. The condom joins the party.

It is no surprise that, for someone who doesn’t consider the possibility of lulls in the performance, of a backstage behind the artifice, the naked body is a superstition, a cast-off without charm, fertile ground for venereal disease and parasites. The lack of cosmetics and clothing is not only an ephemeral, sometimes uncomfortable, and degrading bodily condition, but also reduces that body to anatomy, an inelegant collection of organs determined to decorously fulfill their functions. For Venus’s intrepid lackey, the body present in the act of falling in love—perhaps the phrase most resistant to interpretation, but so often repeated in The Story of My Life—is that slightly abstract and imaginary body, glimpsed beneath a skirt, or about to overflow a neckline.

The wig, a crucial element of his wardrobe—one might say of his psychology—fell on his head very early on, when he was still a child, and had to have his louse-ridden scalp shaven. After that, his appearance passed through more phases than the moon, and from the tonsure to flowing tresses, from outlandish coiffures to pigtails, via multiple models of wig, his grooming of his locks would be so ostentatious and fantastical that, on a certain occasion, a priest censured him, saying that “the Devil had caught him by the hair.”

One of his most fervent readers, the author Miklós Szentkuthy—lover of unreality and the orgy, who dreamed of bringing together his complete works under the amusingly bare-faced title of Self-Portraits with a Mask—liked to don a white wig, with long tubular curls over the ears and a hairy frontal mound, in order to dress up as Casanova, so far did he share the Venetian delight in licentiousness, mannerism, and its strange metaphysics.

For Szentkuthy, as with any hangover Baroque figure who fits Casanovan props to his body, the mass of hair doesn’t work the miracle of converting him into a gallant, but shows that the wig alone, while leaving the features open to view, is a kind of mask, a toy of the ego, that both facilitates a characterization and assists in overcoming inhibitions. The face can still give us away, but the new appearance, bordering on the frontiers of what is illicit and eccentric, induces unusual forms of behavior, creates an atmosphere in which sensuality lets down its hair and gives itself up to misconduct. Rather than a mechanism of concealment, the wig is a mental mask, a password to metamorphosis, an invisible, paradoxical veil that excites us to reinvent ourselves, to recover from a snub, and try again.

Freed from the uncomfortable load of morality, Casanova wasn’t the sort to give lectures. But from among the many things that can be inferred from his memoir, I have picked out the following, referring to the utility of the wig in the realm of Cupid: with the identity scrambled and deprived of its weightiness by a touch of fantasy, by that facial hiatus that takes us—however slightly—out of ourselves, in a state propitious to committing acts of madness, it is only necessary to add the well-known formulas of love—the arsenal of phrases, stiff as a board, but slicked with the brilliantine of the day—to complete the conquest.

The She-Wolf of the Night: Messalina

Messalina was reclining, waiting for her husband, the Emperor Claudius, to fall asleep so she could escape from the marriage bed to the lupanar. Concealed beneath a cloak, she would pass through the streets of Rome until she reached the red-light district of Suburra on the outskirts of the city. During this journey, a fiery wig completed her transformation: she left behind the empress, the omnipotent matron with thick black hair, to become the Meretrix Augusta, as Juvenal’s spiteful poem describes her. Everyone in the brothel knows her as Licisca, a Greek word meaning “she-wolf cub,” used to name female canines. There, in a steamy room, her eyes embellished with antinomy, lips exaggeratedly vermillion, she would uncover her breasts, dusted in gold and, of course, copper.

Valeria Messalina—the adolescent empress in wolf’s clothing, the barbarian who invoked disorder in the bosom of civilization—did not use wigs as a disguise but as a symbol: for her they were a propitiatory rite. In Rome, where apparel was regulated, prostitutes were obliged to dye their hair or wear a blond wig as a distinctive mark; Messalina’s wigs were, apparently, reddish, with a hint of saffron, a sign that she didn’t earn her living by selling her body, but rather bought her freedom by its sale on the matting of the brothel floor.

On the occasions when, returning to the Palatine Hill, “tired of men but not satiated yet,” she found she had forgotten her transformative mane, it was invariably returned to her—still reeking of the lupanar and sex—as everyone was aware that without it, without the wig that enabled her to let her hair down, the duplicitous, unstable Messalina, the versatile empress of the dark piercing gaze, the bored child consort in the center of the world, would feel incomplete, in some way divided in two.

Her ambition and lust were so astonishing that she entered the dictionary as a noun referring to a dominant, dissolute woman. Otherwise, she had two great passions: gardening and the senator Gaius Silius, “the most beautiful of Roman youths” according to Tacitus. These two passions coincided in her final hours. Naturally, she didn’t love Claudius; the self-proclaimed god was much older than her, had a stammer and a hunchback, and was a focus of antagonism. Once she had given him children and, more importantly, a legitimate candidate for the throne (Britannicus, whom Nero later had poisoned), Messalina gave herself up to infidelity. She was very young, provocative, worshiped the god Priapus—to whom she made constant offerings of myrtle wreaths—and was as beautiful as the softness of her name would suggest.

It is supposed that she was a nymphomaniac, “equally capricious in her passions and dislikes,” and nineteenth-century physiognomists did not hesitate to place her in the shameful category of the “criminal female.” There are any number of suggestions—some written in unparalleled hexameters—that she slept with literally every man in Rome. By the year 45 b.c., all roads led to her cubicle, the small space reserved for her in the brothel. Gladiators and nobles, guards and conspirators, soldiers and consuls, anyone could satisfy their dreams of grandeur in the arms of the bitch-empress, whose image was reproduced on coins and as statues throughout civilization, always with chaste coiffures that contained her hair and were the emblem of her honor. Half the world knew that on the reverse of the coin Messalina was wearing a wig and, victim to continual arousal (rigida volva), renounced the marmoreal role her position bound her to, and laughed at her duties as a matron, casting off the dress and mantle (stolla and palla) that marked her as a sacrosanct citizen. According to some, she made frequent use of threats and tortuous intrigues to obtain the favors of those who resisted her for fear of reprisal. She was always the last to leave the lupanar.

Yet if there was a period when it was impossible to pronounce her name without raising scandal, this was not due to her wigs or uncontrolled sexuality. In those times, the word “adultery” could be a way of referring to political astuteness, and it should not be forgotten that her antecedents on the throne (the Julias, Livias, and Agrippinas) acted no differently, making the marriage bed one of the natural seats of intrigue. As Pascal Quignard points out—and before him Heinrich Stadelmann—Messalina’s true immorality was to have fallen madly in love with Silius, an unpardonable fault in a woman of her rank, not so much because she was already married, as because that emotion located her in the delicate position of servitude.

María Félix in the role of Messalina. The film was directed by Carmine Gallone in 1951.

Whilst a she-wolf by night, while organizing championships of amatory stamina with the prostitutes, and leading a double life thanks to the enchantment of her wig, she had no impact on the most sacred area of Roman life, the future of an imperial dynasty. But love, that upset the apple cart. Or such was the view of Tacitus (Annals, XI, 28), who in the face of the prudish interpretations of the criminal rage her shameless marriage to Silius triggered in Claudius, wrote: “While Messalina industriously hid her adultery in the cloaca of the prince there was dishonor of the truth, but no danger.”

The peril lay in her love, in what it might awaken beyond her wig games: in giving herself up to another man to the absurd point of marrying him, compromising the lineage and the empire. After the wedding, the Bacchanal of the autumn grape harvest was celebrated and Messalina—drunk, her hair loose (crine fluxo), and one breast bared to play the role of Ariadne—heard news of the approaching vengeance. The shrewd empress, supreme in the arts of deception and disguise, had managed to persuade Claudius that the marriage was a sham and had, incredibly, gained his consent for it. But many others understood the new marriage as a slap in the face of the empire, and convinced Claudius to immediately have her executed, not allowing her the chance to wind him round her little finger once again.

Death came to her in her favorite place: the house of pleasure in the Gardens of Lucullus. According to some versions, she wrote another letter to Claudius. On discovering that his executioners were approaching, she attempted to commit suicide with her pen (stilus), but did not succeed in the effort. A guard plunged his sword into her breast. Very soon afterward, the order was given to destroy every single statue of her. She was scarcely twenty-three.

In spite of the fact that it is not to be found in the pages of Tacitus or Pliny the Elder, nor in Juvenal or Cassius Dio, it is not difficult to imagine the scene in which Claudius goes to Suburra and, in disguise, making an effort to dissimulate his limp, without once opening his mouth so as not to reveal his stammer, joins the line in the brothel to lie with the peerless Licisca, the beautiful, slender stranger with whom he slept every night.

translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

Image Legend

Image One: “The Chimeric Gift” (2011) © Luigi Amara.

Image Two: The Boutique of a Barber-Wigmaker (1771), from the Encyclopédie edited by Diderot and D’Alembert.

Image Three: “Casanova and the Condom” (1872), from an edition of Casanova’s autobiography published in Brussels.

Image Four: María Félix in the role of Messalina (1951). Still photo from the set, taken by Carmine Gallone.