In 1552 the exceptional event happened in Napoli: two ladies, Isabella de Carazzi and Diambra de Pettinella engaged in a duel in the presence of Marquis Del Vast. The duel was held in behalf of a young gentleman named Fabio de Zeresola. Women fighting over a man provoked by love was quite exciting event because just the reversed thing – fighting over a woman was exceptional men's routine deal. The event so shocked the Neapolitans that it was a subject of talks for a long time. This romantic story about dueling young ladies fallen in love with one man inspired the Spanish artist Jose (Jusepe) de Ribera during his being in Italy in 1636 to create his masterpiece "Duel of women" which is one of the most exciting paintings in the gallery "Prado" in Madrid.
The duel scene is represented by the artist in the magnificent classical Baroque style. All personages are broken into two distinctly different groups. On the foreground there are two struggling ladies armed with swords and shields in the battle to death. We see the culmination of the duel. One of the ladies just got a bleeding wound in her neck and she found herself on the ground. The other lady holds up the sword, which she just inflicted the injury with and which she intends to use again to deal the finishing blow. The lying lady weakened by the wound seems letting her sword go of her hand - it is just partly visible which might mean she wouldn’t be able to use it anymore. Nonetheless, she keeps holding her shield in front of her, hoping to parry her rival’s next inevitable blow. The fallen lady attracts the deep sympathy; she is feminine and beautiful. Her rival who watching the wounded opponent in cold blood looks less feminine and more massive. Yet unlike the numerous battle paintings this duel doesn’t look too fierce despite blood trickling from the wound
The two figures are portrayed brightly, more sculpturally rather than in painting manner. Soft and round silhouettes bring a touch of eroticism. The combination of femininity, fury and passion is embodied in the painting. The women’s clothing reminisce ancient Roman women clothing, so the pair certainly reminds the classical Amazons.
The composition on the canvas is perfectly balanced. The right lady looks bigger, which should represent her superiority in the battle. The dominating figure of the potential victor is balanced by a gloomy man standing at the left just behind the toppled lady underlying her femininity. He is attentively watching the fight like a second not showing any intentions to stop the killing. The man is dressed in toga and cuirass; this is probably Marquis Del Vasto himself. At last, at the far end there is an audience - the group of people (with an old man and armed soldiers among them) separated from the combat scene by a wood wall, which reminds a fence bordering the bullfight ring. The "fans" are drawn by darker paints; the shady background landscape has made by brush strokes.
As a matter of fact, this is not a regular duel because duels were conducted privately, at least in front of seconds. This combat looks more like a gladiatrix fight, although gladiators fought without seconds. Like the other Jose Ribera’s paintings, this one contains some mystery: why the Marquis agreed to be a second and why he and the other people (including the old wise man) are calmly watching two young ladies killing each other although the reason of this duel is strictly personal. Besides, it’s not clear what the armed people are doing there.
In fact, Ribera considered dilemma of gender in his works, a couple of years before this painting he created the paradoxical canvas "Bearded woman" where a "woman" is shown along with her husband and her child, with a breast out for her child to take. But the "mom" looks exactly like a normal bearded man except a big bare breast out. Actually, masculine women are common subjects in the Spanish culture, particularly in Cervantes; but not the women in "Duel of women". The "paradox artist" found here the extraordinary nature and exciting eroticism of female combat that in his times was more an imagination rather than a reality.
Perhaps, Ribera intended to emphasize the contrast between bright and young ladies in the flower of their years and ordinary gray people. The paradox here is that in a moment the beautiful blossomed life might be terminated whereas the mob will remain forever.
This great painting is about eternal femininity; about perpetual struggle for love and life; about grandeur, imperfection and fragility of the human life.