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The heavy musculature of these female figures creates a gender ambiguity that may have implied moral degeneracy to a 19th-century audience. The contorted central body offers a parody of the graceful contraposto of classical statues, while the other cropped or truncated figures lounge about licentiously. Dante describes the thieves being bitten by snakes, creatures that Lavater associates with ‘cunning and treachery’. Here, however, the snakes appear to emanate from the women’s genitals, suggesting that their criminal activity has given birth to an aberration.

March 2011