Las damas Romanas (Roman maidens) by the Filipino painter Juan Luna y Novicio (1857-1899) was an unlocated work for over a century ever since it was painted. Documentation was scant: Las Damas Romanas was but a title in the 1957 biography of Luna by Carlos E. Da Silva; it was but a faded black and white photograph from the file of the pre-war art dealer and historian Alfonso T. Ongpin, reproduced by Santiago Pilar in the standard work on the artist (1980). Las Damas Romanas, an early work, enlarges our knowledge and appreciation of Luna who is unfortunately remembered for his largest work Spoliarium (1884) that may well be his most important painting historically, but is not necessarily the best aesthetically.
To appreciate the dark and gory Spoliarium that now dominates the Hall of the Masters in the National Gallery in Manila, one has to remember that aside from being an artist, Juan Luna is also considered a hero and patriot of the Philippines. Spoliarium won the first gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of Fine Arts in 1884, a triumph that made Luna and his contemporary, Felix Resurrection Hidalgo, who won a silver medal, the first "international artists" of the Philippines. Luna painted a scene from ancient Roman history, the corpse of a gladiator being discarded in a room under the Coliseum. So powerful was this image it was used by Filipino propagandists as an allegory of the abuses of Spain in the colonial Philippines. It takes a bit of imagination and a heavy dose of textbook history for young Filipinos to see oppression and the Philippines in a painting best understood alongside the recent films like "Gladiator". One can read many meanings into a painting, sometimes, even meanings unintended by the artist. For example, in 1983, Spoliarium was seen to be quite prophetic. Benigno S. Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac of the Manila International Airport and one in a series of photographs showing soldiers dragging the corpse into a military van has been said to mirror the main element in Luna's 1884 canvas.
Las Damas Romanas is likewise drawn from ancient Roman history, but is more cheerful. Two ladies lie on the wide steps of a dwelling, one of them holding the reins of two frisky pet dogs, restraining them from scaring away frolicking doves. In the background behind them appears to be a shelf with assorted artifacts, to their left is a small shrine with a triangular pediment with incense smoke rising from a burner in front of it. Should Las Damas Romanas be seen at face value? Is it but a typical domestic scene in ancient Rome or does it have deeper, hidden meanings?
There are three main pictorial elements here: women, dogs, and doves. Dogs were part of Roman life and were basically used: for hunting, as guardians of home or property, and in this case as women's companions. These slim and elegant dogs were pets, although they had to be kept on a leash. An inscription said to have been found in the ruins of Pompeii reads "cave canis." This is a warning still used today---"Beware of Dog". Doves were often given erotic connotations; in the Philippines, to refer to a woman as kalapatingmababaanglipad (low-flying dove) means she is of ill-repute. So is this an allegory of restrained lust or merely a way for Luna to execute many details copied from trips to Naples, Pompeii, Venice and Florence? It has even been suggested that the dark-haired woman on the right is Luna's wife, Paz Pardo de Tavera, who he shot and killed in Paris in 1892 at the height of a jealous rage. That would have fitted the theme of love and lust but unfortunately, Luna was not married when he painted Las Damas Romanas in Rome in 1882. He had not even met his future wife at the time. That multiple meanings, different interpretations can be found in one painting always adds to its interest.
Las Damas Romanas was painted while Luna was a student of the Spanish Academy in Rome. It is a work completed between his prize-winning works "Death of Cleopatra" that won a silver medal in the Madrid Exposition of 1881 and the Spoliarium that garnered the first gold medal in the Madrid Exposition of 1884. It is not well known that Luna spent six years in Rome from 1878-1884. He enrolled in the school of painting in the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando) in Madrid in 1877 and there took courses in color and composition and began a study of ancient art. One of his professors, Alejo Vera, went to Rome in 1878 to fulfill some commissions and he took Luna along as an apprentice.
Two years after arriving in what Luna described as "the capital of the Caesars", his teacher returned to Madrid and Luna stayed another four years to complete his studies. Many students of the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid were allowed to gain credit for their stay in Rome. The course of study usually took three years: the first year was spent copying Greek and Roman sculpture to learn anatomy, they studied and copied classical architecture to learn ideal proportion, and finally they copied old master paintings; the second year they did work on the human figure; and by the third year they utilized all the skills learned by practice, travel, and observation into one large historical painting drawn from either religious, classical, or historical texts. Hence the 1881 "Death of Cleopatra" acquired by the Spanish government could be seen as his graduation work. Recognizing his talent, Luna was then awarded a four-year grant by the Ayuntamiento de Manila to continue his studies in Rome. The grant was also a commission to do one painting for the Ayuntamiento but the grateful Luna gave them three, one of these, Pacto de Sangre (Blood Compact) is still extant and hangs in the seat of government, Malacanang Palace in Manila.
Las Damas Romanas is one of a number of drawings, watercolors, and oils by Luna that have surfaced in the past quarter of a century. As an important example of his early work, Las Damas Romanas helps us understand his training as an academic painter and enriches our knowledge of his life and work.
by Ambeth R Ocampo,
Chariman, National Historical Institute,
Christie's is grateful for this catalogue entry.