The relief shows a woman lifting her skirt and clipping her pubic hair with a large pair of shears. There is an inscription on the carving which is now damaged
The carving was removed from its original position believed to be above one of the gates to the to the city by Cardinal Carlo Borromeo in the 1500s who wanted his eyes “only to gaze on the stars of Heaven”.
The relief is said to date from around 1185 and there are a number of theories about who the carving represents all of which are connected to Frederick Barbarossa who sacked the city in 1162.
This figure now in the Castello Sforzesco, Museum of Ancient Art in Milan.
Beatrice I, Countess of Burgundy wife of Frederick Barbarossa
This interpretation comes from the artist Francesco Pirovano …, Silvestri in 1822. He holds that it is a satirical depiction of the wife of Frederick Barbarossa who had razed Milan. There is a further piece of Milanese folklore about the empress Beatrice. During the seige of the city in 1158 the empress was captured by the Milanese and was humiliated by being paraded around the city on a donkey. When Barbarossa captured the city he took his revenge on the magistrates by forcing them to take a fig from a donkey’s anus using only their teeth.
The Eastern Empress Leobissa
Another story holds that the Porta got its name after the Milanese delegation to the Eastern Empress in Constantinople Leobissa was refused their requests for financial assistance following Frederick Barbarossa’s sack of Milan in 1162. The Milanese erected the marble bas-relief to spite the empress and affixed it to this Easternmost and thus Constantinople-facing gate as a further insult.
An exhibitionist who saved the city or defied an army
Canon Carlo Torre wrote another explantion of the figure which again includes Barbarossa… When Barbarossa was about to sack the city an unnamed woman standing on a balcony near the eastern gate performed the same gesture. Barbarrosa seeing this ordered his men to lay down their arms. The statue was carved to commemorate the woman and the “shaming” of Barbarossa. This motif is interesting as it parallels a much later story in the Irish Times where a woman averted violence between a warring group of men by showing her sex.
Unfortunately the inscription accompanying the sculpture, much consumed, there is a great help. On the stone you can read only “(…) EST PORT T (…) CTONSE”, difficult integration and translation.
Images of Lust Page 47