Roman Charity  

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Maria lactans

Roman Charity (or Carità Romana) is the story of a daughter, Pero, who secretly breastfeeds her father, Cimon, after he is incarcerated and sentenced to death by starvation. She is found out by a jailer, but her act of selflessness impresses officials and wins her father's release.

The story is recorded in Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings by the ancient Roman historian Valerius Maximus, and was presented as a great act of filial piety and Roman honor. In about AD 1362 the story was retold by the famous writer Giovanni Boccaccio.

Primarily, the story tells of a conflict. An existing taboo (implied incest and adult breastfeeding of a woman's milk) or saving a life by breaking the taboo. In this aspect there is no erotic focus to the story.

Valerius Maximus tells two stories, not one only. There's first a long elaborated story with a woman breastfeeding her mother, which is followed by a very short story with a woman breastfeeding her father. The second father-daughter story in fact consists of one sentence only. 1500 years later Boccaccio retells the (first) mother-daughter story only and doesn't mention the father-daughter story. Nevertheless nearly all "caritas romana" oil paintings and drawings show the father-daughter story only. This fact changes the original background into an erotical direction and we can very clearly see the (erotical) fascination of the adult suckling situation for the artists, who created all the paintings.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many famous European artists depicted the scene. Hundreds or possibly thousands of paintings were created, which tell the story. Most outstandingly, Peter Paul Rubens[1] had several versions. Baroque artist Caravaggio also featured the deed (among others) in his work from 1606, The Seven Works of Mercy. Neoclassical depictions tended to be more subdued.

In Jan Vermeer's famous painting The Music Lesson, in the back can be seen a painting of the Roman Charity, consistent with his habit of putting paintings within paintings.

For contemporary (20th Century) fictional account of Roman Charity, see John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath (1939), Chapter 30, where Rosasharn nurses a sick and starving man in the corner of a barn.

See also

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