Beyoncé, Titian and Me: Pleasure, Drunkenness and Power in the Italian Renaissance Nude

This is adapted from a lecture I gave at the book launch of The Italian Renaissance Nude. Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 26 June 2018.

Carters Apeshit

Still from The Carters, Apeshit. (Beyoncé and Jay-Z in front of the Mona Lisa, Louvre)

As a middle-aged, white, art historian from Leeds, I don’t get compared to Beyoncé as often as I’d like. However, against the odds, I’m going to argue today there’s a common element between my new book and the video by The Carters’ set in the Louvre. If you haven’t seen it, I would urge you to do so immediately.  Using a wide selection of shots of some of the museum’s most famous artworks, this video has been convincingly interpreted as a meditation on what financial and cultural success can mean; how it gives access to spaces shut off for centuries from people of colour; and how these spaces – the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum, the Prado, the National Gallery of Scotland – reflect and enact social differentiation in a way that is often silent but all encompassing. What it seems the Carters are doing, in other words, is making visible the exclusions of traditional art history, disrupting a narrative that has claims to be objective and, which hides the way that much of the art in these gallery spaces was created to justify and maintain social, sexual and racial inequality.

My interest in the Italian Renaissance, the period and place where modern notions of art arguably originated, has always been to think about how the relationship between certain types of visual representation and social hierarchy started, to try and work out what art does to the people who look at it, commission it, or simply live with it around. There has to be a good reason for people to spend so much money on stuff that doesn’t overtly DO much. I’m acutely aware that galleries full of old master paintings can be uncomfortable places for some people, and that there is sometimes a certain awkwardness about “what to doin front of the kind of art works I study; viewers often, understandably spend more time reading labels than they do looking at the art works themselves. There’s an air of aristocracy hanging around art history – it’s not actually true anymore, if you look at my department at Edinburgh university, for example, I like to think of us as a gloriously ramshackle collection of misfits – but there’s certainly a type of privilege in being able to enter a gallery space comfortably, and I fully acknowledge I benefit from that privilege.

School Group and TItian NG

Richard Stemp teaching a school group about Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, National Gallery, London (Photo: Neil Libbert/PR)

Nudes are particularly problematic. We don’t normally, after all, see naked bodies in real life outside of very specifically defined contexts such as a swimming pool changing room, for example.  Seeing naked people in unfamiliar contexts tends to be surprising, funny or even disturbing. Yet we take schoolchildren to these galleries to look at nudes and tell them off for giggling – we are teaching them ways of viewing art that were introduced in the Renaissance, but showing images that would have been out of bounds for Renaissance children and, indeed, for many renaissance women.

Masaccio Adam and Eve

Masaccio, The Expulsion from Paradise. Fresco, c. 1425. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

One of the things it is important to understand about the revival of the antique, classical nude in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is that antique culture and Renaissance culture have very different attitudes to nakedness. In Greek antiquity, athletes, for example, would compete naked. Aristocratic men would attend symposia naked. The nude body was associated with cultural privilege. Christian culture, however, had a very dim view of nakedness. After all, as the Bible tells us, Adam and Eve only realized they were naked after eating the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. This realization directly led to them being expelled from Paradise, and condemned humanity to bearing the burden of original sin. It was Eve who first took the apple, and Eve and her descendants’ bodies that had to suffer through menstruation and childbirth for that moment of weakness. Men’s nakedness was often related to poverty in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but it wasn’t necessarily always associated with shame in real life -some occupations indeed involved men stripping down to their underwear in relatively public spaces.

Women’s bodies, in contrast, were generally kept covered from collarbone to ankle in public, and even in marriage it seems that women rarely took off their voluminous undershirt, or camicia. As the Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena explained in 1427, “What you are permitted to touch, you are not permitted to see . . . Woman . . . it is better to die than to let yourself be seen [naked].”  Similarly in a book about Rules for Married Life(1450–81): “Certainly, when a wife needs to see her husband’s shameful parts, for some illness or for another necessity, it is not a sin; in fact, it is a charity. But when they do it for brute delight, it is a sin; because . . . some things are permitted to do, but not permitted to see. You, woman, never agree to allow yourself to be seen naked by your husband; because he is sinning, and so are you.”

Why, then, was it ok to create so many images of naked women in the early sixteenth century?

Because we’re in the National Gallery of Scotland and the two big Titian paintings of Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto are on display again, I thought we could look together at these images now so you can perhaps go up to the gallery and look at them again. I should also say that these aren’t in the book, because my chronological end point is about 1530. I was largely interested in the origins of the nude and by this date it was firmly established in artistic practice. However, my last chapter does deal with the context for how images of mythological nudes start to become so popular.

Titian, Diana and Actaeon
So both these panels show stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a hugely popular text in the Renaissance. They both concern the virgin goddess of hunting, Diana. In this one, we see the hunter Actaeon mistakenly stumble across the spot where Diana is bathing with her nymphs. He holds up his hands in alarm, seemingly aware of his fate: Diana transforms him into a stag, and he is eaten by his own hunting hound

Titian, Diana and Callisto
Here, Callisto is being held down by other nymphs while Diana looks on. When everyone else was getting undressed to bathe, Callisto kept her clothes on, so the hunter-goddess had her stripped, revealing her plump pregnant belly.  A few months earlier, Callisto had been seduced by Zeus, the king of the Gods, who had persuaded the nymph to give up her virginity by taking on the female form of Diana. Outraged by Callisto’s status, the real Diana banished her from her entourage. After the nymph gave birth to her son, she was turned her into a bear by Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera.

Around 1615, the Spanish painter Luis Tristan noted that the paintings of nudes that the former king Philip II had commissioned from Titian had been placed in a guardroom as the new monarch Philip III was worried about his “modesty and great virtue”. The next king, Philip IV, put the paintings on show again in private rooms in the Alcazar Palace but jealously guarded them from unsuitable eyes. A contemporary observer notes that “each time the queen enters this apartments, she has all the paintings containing nudity covered before everyone arrives”. It’s reminiscent of the fig leaf specially commissioned by the Victoria and Albert Museum for the plaster-cast statue of Michelangelo’s David around 1857 after the Queen Victoria complained that she was scandalized by the statue’s nudity. Artistic nudes were always played a problematic role in Christian Europe.

Between 1554 and 1562, King Philip II received 6 works from Titian, a group now commonly called the poesie,or poems. These were the most famous acquisitions of a vast collection. In letters to the king Titian said one of the aims of these paintings was to show female nudes from a variety of viewpoints, so they could be admired from in front and behind. We know from Titian’s letters that these images were intended to be hung in a camerino, or little chamber, probably only for use by a select few intimates of the Spanish king, though exactly how they are displayed is lost to us. It might be that even at this time, they were covered with curtains – certainly the curtain in the Diana and Actaeon image, pulled back to reveal the naked goddess and nymphs, suggests this possibility. Philip had a reputation as a highly religious monarch. In 1543, on his marriage to Maria Manuela, Princess of Portugal, he was enjoined by his father to avoid excessive sexual indulgence: “you must be very careful when you are with your wife. And because this is somewhat difficult, the remedy is to keep away from her as much as you can.”  However, by the time Philip was commissioning these paintings from Titian, it was virtually obligatory for European rulers to have rooms for relaxation covered in nudes. They seemed to function as a form of aristocratic male bonding – and the moral discomfort attached to looking at nudes was very much part of the reasons for their popularity.


“Leave admiration until we’re drunk…”

Hall of PsycheThe first significant decoration of this type was in the villa now known as the Villa Farnesina in Rome. The Hall of Psyche by Rapahel and his workshop was commissioned by the builder of the villa, the wealthy Sienese merchant, Agostino Chigi. Chigi was renowned both for his excessive riches and for being able to hold a really great party. In letters by the young Federico Gonzaga, later to be Marchioness of Mantua, he describes how  Chigi plied his diners with “wonderful wines and excellent melons and fruit of different sorts. Then after lunch there were morris dances, music playing and singing . . . And whilst we started dinner they put on a representation of a pastoral recited by some Sienese boys and girls, that they said very well and it was beautiful stuff.” Admiring and assessing the quality of the artwork—classical antiquities, tapestries, as well as wall paintings—was part and parcel of the role of Chigi’s guests. So in another letter of 1511, Federico admired the “rich decorations of various things, but the marble was the best of all, so beautiful and of various colours.” For some guests the need for admiration could even go too far—“Don’t dare think that my stomach feeds on painting, / Noble though it may be: come on, get on with it. / Leave admiration until we’re drunk,” enjoined the humanist Filippo Beroaldo in 1512, echoing a feeling that many of us have had at gallery openings since.

Executed mainly by Raphael’s workshop in 1518-19, the Loggia of Psyche presents the viewer with a story of love triumphing over adversity. The mortal girl Psyche and the god, Cupid, fall in love. His mother, Venus, tries to thwart the relationship by giving Psyche a series of seemingly impossible tasks. The girl, aided by the gods, wins out in the end and the pair are married—their wedding feast is depicted on a pair of fictive tapestries in the ceiling of the loggia.

Raphael marriage feat

The Hall of Psyche is a playful space. Originally leading on to the garden through open arches of the room, there is a deliberately ambiguous delineation between inside and outside. The paintings on the ceiling are structured as if the viewer is looking through them to the sky, framed by a lattice of leaves, fruit and vegetables. In the spaces of this verdant pergola we glimpse the largely naked figures playing out the story. Birds, painted as if flying around the vault, complete the illusion – a tapestry that is a painting that is on a ceiling that is not really there, framed by greenery that includes avowedly sexual vegetables, the Loggia of Psyche is full of visual wonder and delight,  a profane answer to Michelangelo’s much more serious and portentous Sistine chapel ceiling, completed just six years previously.

Raphael wkshop, garlands farnesina
Given the fame of his parties, it is not entirely surprising that Chigi’s room should be so influential – it was seen by many of the princes, dukes and ambassadors who made their way to Rome in the early sixteenth century. This loggia started a “wave of mythological decoration” that was to spread across Europe. It certainly profoundly affected Federico Gonzaga, who was to have a room in his own suburban villa decorated by Raphael’s pupil, Giulio Romano, based on exactly the same subject, and proclaiming itself in the inscription as a temple of honest leisure”. Federico’s uncle, Duke Alfonso d’Este of Ferrara, also got in on the act  with the decoration of his alabaster chamberfor rest and relaxation in his palace at Ferrara with paintings largely by Titian.

Titian, AndriansThese rooms are all associated with what in academic terms we call elite sociability, but we could more prosaically call partying.  In fact, one of the most famous paintings of the Renaissance, Titian’s Bacchanal of the Andrians is at least partly a hymn to alcoholic intoxication.  This image was based on a description of a painting from the ancient Greek writer Philostratus the Elder’s Imagines, a book that celebrates the pleasures of talking about paintings with friends, of puzzling over meanings, of recognizing references, of becoming absorbed in the interpretation of artworks.  Philostratus describes how the painting of the Andrianswas a tribute to the pleasures of drunkenness. The wine god, Bacchus, had given the island of Andros a river of pure wine that made the inhabitants drunk: “the men, crowned with ivy and bryony, are singing to their wives and children, some dancing on either bank, some reclining . . . this river makes men rich and powerful in the assembly, and helpful to their friends, and beautiful and, instead of short, four cubits tall.” Viewers of the painting should hear the singing of the inebriated revellers, Philostratus urges. Titian makes sound visible here by including musical Titian, Andrians detailnotation on a slip of paper near the center of the painting. This refers to a drinking song by the Ferrarese court musician Adriaen Willaert that was most likely performed in this space. The words on the sheet are: “Who drinks and doesn’t drink again, He knows not what drinking is.”

The drinking here does not lead to chaos, but to beauty. The educated viewer would have recognized that this image quotes several antiquities well known in Northern Italy. The lying nude echoes a relief on a bacchic sarcophagus; the woman dancing in her white robe, gazing into the eyes of her partner, is based on an antique torso formerly in the collection of the Venetian cardinal Domenic Grimani; the urinating boy is a frequent motif on classical sarcophagi; and the naked male figure to some art historians the Dying Gaul, a sculpture recently discovered in Rome that also entered the Grimani collection in 1523. How pleasing for the viewer to be able to mentally tick off the visual associations while possibly enjoying some wine himself.

In June 1518, Federico Gonzaga visited his uncle Alfonso in Ferrara. After a night passed in pleasant conversation, Alfonso took him and his companion Mario Equicola to “show us paintings and every other thing appertaining to pleasure.”  Like Chigi’s Room of Psyche, Alfonso’s camerino proclaimed itself a space for license, for relaxation. It created a world within a world where men weighted down with worries could distract themselves for a while. And what multifold pleasures these paintings provided (and provide) for their viewers: physical pleasure in the seductive allure of their subject matter; intellectual pleasure in recognizing their citing of dizzying numbers of classical texts and images; sensory pleasure in their evocation of the sound of music, the taste of wine, the smell of a fresh country breeze; the pleasure of conversation with friends puzzling over these “beautiful riddles.”

The Erotics of Power

What also joined the ruling male elite of this period, however, was an emphasis on what’s been called the “erotics of power”. A kind of performative sexuality finds its way into discussions of visual art, and particularly into discussions about nudes. In letters that may otherwise be concerned with court machinations, or the unpredictable Italian political scene, the words of literary and political figures change tenor as they cement their friendships by talking of erotic encounters with paintings and sculptures. Bawdy discussions of sexual exploits had long played an important role in confirming male friendship networks.Artworks could elevate this discussion to a higher level, whilst maintaining an emphasis on male potency. Hoping to curry favour with the French King, Francis II, in 1518, Francesco sent his ambassador to present him with Lorenzo Costa’s Standing Nude with Cornucopia. In an accompanying letter Francesco explains that “I know very well that this painting is going before a great and good judge of the beauty of bodies—especially women’s—and for this reason I send you it still more gladly.” The painting reportedly pleased the king so much that he “could not satisfy himself by looking at it” and asked if it was “a portrait from life of one of the Marchioness’ maids.”

Tizian_063It is no coincidence that erotic room decoration became the norm for elite men at the very same moment as the fashion for prominent and elaborate codpieces. Titian’s Portrait of Federico Gonzaga of 1529, for example, shows the duke sporting a prominent red codpiece that pokes out of the opening of his doublet. This portrait is one of many of this period that emphasizes the sitter’s virility through drawing attention to his genitalia. This performative virility and ability to dominate women sexually was directly related to the male potency required to rule over ones subjects, or to conquer and subdue new dominions. This metaphor was evoked in the book of portraits of beautiful Italian women that the king of France, Charles VIII, famously kept as a memorial of his invasion of the Italian peninsular. In other words, as he “raped” Italian cities, he also conquered their women. So these images of nudes can be closely related to the violent warfare of this era.

Being a “good judge of the beauty of bodies” was an important part of this new type of sociable viewing. A bold eroticism is thus placed within the framework of artistic theory, legitimating a desiring gaze. For example, in 1542, the scurrilous poet Pietro Aretino wrote to Guidobaldo della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, about two paintings by Vasari aftera design by Michelangelo. The painting of Leda is made in a way that shows “the soft flesh, the comely limbs, and the lissom body; and so sweet, smooth and delicious in attitude and with such grace, naked in all its parts, that one cannot look at it without feeling jealous of the swan.” Similarly Lodovico Dolce writes to Alessandro Contarini in a celebrated letter of 1554 that Titian’s Venus and Adonis (you’ll remember the most famous version of this painting was made for Philip II like Diana and Callisto) was the most perfect painting by any antique or modern artist. Venus has “a beauty not just extraordinary, but divine.” After commenting on the soft indentation made by the cushion on the goddess’s buttocks, Dolce explains that no man would be able to avoid “a warming, a softening, stirring of the blood in his veins . . . if a marble statue could by the stimuli of its beauty so penetrate to the marrow of a young man, that he stained himself, then, what must she do who is of flesh, who is beauty personified and appears to be breathing?” Comparing the painting favorably to Praxiteles’s semen-stained Venus, he declares that Titian is able to ape nature and antiquity and improve on the seductive power of both. In other words, the painter was able to create an image of a woman that was more beautiful, more alluring than the real thing.

Titian, Venus and Adonis

Masculinity’s big buttons

The popularity of the mythological nude, was, then at least partly its role in the formation of male elite communities. Precisely because the subject could be seen as risqué and was certainly contentious throughout the period, these letters implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) confirmed the writer and recipient were members of the same social circles. These men volubly asserted their virility through appreciating the beauty of living women, but also saw the importance of the “beauty of the mind of the maker’ when they looked at beautiful paintings; this stopped their gaze from being merely prurient.

This ability to articulate controlled sensuous reactions to artworks should be seen as part of a broader trend to control the body and its natural “appetites” in much of the literature of the period. The historian Norbert Elias in his Civilising Processrevealed a new emphasis on “outward bodily propriety” in the early sixteenth century, which he links to the increased importance of conduct books, such as Erasmus’s De civilitate morum puerilium (1530) or Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier. As Elias notes, the body became closely linked to marking out social class, so, for example, making sure there was no visible snot on the nostrils was important for a gentleman who should not wipe his nose on his clothes “like a peasant or a sausage maker.” Elias’s argument, which has been hugely influential and remains convincing, is that the new humanist and merchant elites used this emphasis on bodily propriety – these newly raised “thresholds of embarrassment and shame”—to confirm their higher social role in the face of the lower classes, the urban plebs, and the rural peasants.

The power to control the body’s natural appetites—for sex, for food, for alcohol—is key to ideas about elite masculinity in this period. The more sexually potent a man, the more controlled he had to be, and the assertive and public self-control of libidinous urges was writ large through the decoration of social spaces with sexual themes, often involving the rape of beautiful mortal women by Olympian deities. Explicitly, these images were visual, physical, and intellectual pleasures, a form of relaxation, a distraction from matters of state. These alluring naked bodies allowed elite men to enjoy their “honest leisure.” Implicitly they also avowed the ability of these men to assert and justify their dominance not just sexually over women, but over the dominions that they controlled or hoped to conquer. The mythological nude became a perfect indicator of elite status precisely because the naked body was potentially dangerous, provoking the viewer to lascivious and sinful thoughts and activities. The body stimulated but mastered by the superior power of the mind reassured audiences of the virile potency of leadership. It’s exactly the kind of power play that we saw when Donald Trump mockingly told Kim Jong Un about his “much bigger & more powerful” nuclear button.

As we come back to messy and fractious current political realities, it’s worth remembering that the creation of the heroic nude by artists from the 1490s to 1520s was set against the backdrop of the Italian peninsula’s constant invasion by foreign powers, which involved the frequent sack of cities, directly affecting thousands of civilians. The beautiful burnished bodies created by Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, and others were viewed by a population that had witnessed dismemberment, rape, and mass murder, their own bodies subject to repeated bouts of plague, smallpox. and other infectious diseases.  The political and religious elite was experiencing a series of crises– the Catholic church was in need of urgent reform, as it started to lose swathes of Northern Europe from its fold; dynasties like the Sforza, Medici, and Borgia were rising and falling in dizzying turns of the wheel of fortune. In the face of such chaos, the emergence of the perfected male nude asserted the timeless superiority of the white male body as reflecting the pinnacle of God’s creation in stark contrast to a fragmented, difficult, messy reality. Female nudes in this predominantly male discourse reminded men that the women of their imagination could exceed their real-life equivalents in desirability, allowing men to own naturalistic images of naked women to reflect and fuel their erotic fantasies. The nude in its classic formulation is fundamentally a comforting and conservative form, suggesting the possibility of possessing (in one way or another) a perfected body not prone to aging, disease, or death.

The paintings by Titian in the gallery upstairs contain within the glorification of the nude intimations of fragility. Through his accidental raising of the curtain, Actaeon is killed by his own dogs. Callisto is seduced and pays a terrible price. By understanding that the nude is not triumphant or inevitable or somehow “true” as a representation, we can perhaps start to open it up to those who are excluded from the triumphal narrative of the progress of western civilisation, and think about how these paintings now and then serve to replicate and enshrine assumptions about how culture works, and to whom it belongs. So although Beyoncé may have slightly more cultural reach than my book on the Italian Renaissance Nude, I hope we are heading in more or less same direction.

Jill and the Carters


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Blade Runner 2049 and the Renaissance Nude

Joi advert blade-runner I am, perhaps, the only person to see Blade Runner 2049 who was constantly reminded of book 3 of Baldassare Castiglione’s Courtier. It wasn’t the replicants that did it, but the artificially intelligent hologram super-girl, Joi (Ana de Armas), who the hero, Office K (Ryan Gosling) keeps in a device in his pocket and when he needs her beams her into existence. She changes outfit and hairstyle at his whim, makes dinner, raises his mood. K clearly loves her and wants to protect her and the memories she carries, despite it being clear in the film that she is only one version of many potential AI women that can be bought and moulded to shape. A commercial brings this home, as it presents a projection of Joi, standing naked with the tagline “everything you want to hear”. The fact that Joi can also meld with a real woman in order to have sex with K, despite her not having a corporeal existence, is the icing on the cake. It’s clear in the film that K is not driven by lust for any woman, but by loving desire for the creature he created. As many others have pointed out, the attitude to women in this film is inconsistent, to say the least.

Pontormo Pygmalion and the Statue

Bronzino, Pygmalion and the Statue, 1529-30. Florence, Uffizi.

So why the Courtier? Book 3 is the section where the interlocutors work together to create the perfect court lady in their imaginations, one who is worthy of their love. One of the characters, Giuliano de’ Medici,  likens himself to Pygmalion, the mythical sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved that then comes alive. Giuliano too, wants to fashion a woman “to his own liking” that he then will “take for his own.” It’s no coincidence that this text was written just as Italian artists were increasingly painting female nudes for the delectation of their male patrons. The Courtier insists that a knowledge of art allows the courtier to judge female beauty more accurately.  Castiglione’s text is just the most famous of many printed volumes of this period dedicated to describing the perfect woman in detail, an orgy of textual ogling of every part of a beautiful woman’s body from the top of her head to the soles of her feet, including her breasts and what was typically referred to as the “secret parts.” I talk more about these texts and the female nudes that formed part of this culture in chapter 4 of my forthcoming book.

Lorenzo di Credi nude

Lorenzo di Credi, Naked woman posing as Venus Pudica, 1490s? Florence, Uffizi.

The evidence suggests that a several renaissance female nudes were painted to suggest links with real-life women – so facial features that may be recognisable to contemporaries, but bodies that are taken from classical sculpture. Some paintings, like so-called Venus by Lorenzo di Credi I show here, can even be linked with portrait drawings – secure evidence that real women’s faces were used for these images of naked women, typically now identified as the goddess Venus. Given taboos about female nakedness in the period, these images allowed a man to gaze at his beloved, with a body dreamed up by the artist’s imagination, always available for his delectation, and free from the shame of her actually posing naked for him. In fact, as an often-repeated story showed, the painting could often be better than the original woman. The ancient Greek painter Apelles was asked to paint the naked portrait of Campaspe, the beautiful courtesan of King Alexander the Great to record her “wondrous form.” Whilst doing so, the painter fell in love with her. Accordingly, Alexander gave Apelles Campaspe as a present in exchange for his artwork. The winner here of course is Alexander, as he gets to keep the painting which was more beautiful than the original. 

So, men falling in love with women that are the product of the male imagination has very deep roots, going at least back to classical antiquity. As the ‘nature of women” became increasingly investigated during the Renaissance, these stories were particularly popular amongst the (male) chattering classes in the sixteenth century, and both reflected and shaped a wider visual culture. As for women? As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it was their task to try to modify their bodies to meet the demands of their increasingly exacting audience  – a process that remains familiar to many women today.



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How to Get Breasts like Apples: Beauty Tips for the Early Modern Woman

Rubens, Prado Judgment of Paris

Peter Paul Rubens, Judgment of Paris. 1638-9. Madrid, Prado.

On 27 February 1639 King Philip IV of Spain received a letter from his brother Ferdinand about Rubens’ Judgement of Paris (above). The story of the Judgment of Paris was often represented in early modern texts and images. It’s the one where three Olympian goddesses  – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – compete to be judged the most beautiful by a mortal man, Paris.  Ferdinand explained to Philip that ‘The Venus that one finds in the middle of the group is a portrait strongly resembling [the artist’s] own wife, who is without doubt the prettiest woman here.’

I’ve written elsewhere about female life modeling in the Renaissance and Baroque. Rubens seems to have taken his young wife, Hélène Fourment, as inspiration on many occasions. The interest here, though, is the way that Ferdinand blurs the line between a beautiful artistic representation and a real-life beautiful woman. Setting himself up as Paris, the arbiter of beauty, he is judging the real Hélène.

The significance of this letter is not that it is unique, but quite the opposite. It reflects a widespread shift in the way that female beauty is discussed from around the early sixteenth century onwards. As the female nude became increasingly popular in art, art theory proffered a way to talk about the beauty of real female bodies. Previously judged largely from the chest upwards, a raft of early sixteenth century texts started to give men the vocabulary and motivation to make judging the beauty of real female bodies a topic of conversation. Bodies are discussed in terms of “proportion”, compared to classical sculptural prototypes (normally the Venus Pudica); for the first time ideal qualities for women’s thighs, bottoms and genitalia are explicitly discussed.  Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (first published 1528), for example, asserts that those who know about the visual arts are better able to appraise the beauty of real women: “those who love contemplating a woman’s beauty but can’t paint would be much happier if they could, because they they’d understand beauty more perfectly”. What was the effect of all this male chat on women?

Getting the “look”

Illustration of the naked Angelica from 1553 Venetian edition of Orlando Furioso

The naked Angelica from the 1553 Venetian edition of Orlando Furious

In my last post I mentioned Giovanni Marinello’s On the Adornments of Women of 1562, and this book is one of the first of its kind. It is explicitly aimed at helping women to keep their husbands from being unfaithful, driven to another woman by their wives’ “bodily defects”. Marinello illustrates the kind of body that women should strive for by using examples from popular literature. In other words, he urges women to aim to make their bodies look like imaginary beautiful women, to compete with the images evoked in men’s mind by literary descriptions. Marinello particularly favoured Ludovico Ariosto’s descriptions of naked beauties in his hugely popular verse epic Orlando Furioso (first published in an incomplete form in 1516, and to become an international bestseller). So women should make their breasts look like those of Ariosto’s Bianca, a character tied to a rock naked to be eaten by a sea monster but saved in the nick of time (though not before being ogled by the rescuing hero). Ariosto described her breasts as ‘Two unripe apples, as if made of ivory’ – so Marinello accordingly gives tips on how to attain ‘small, round, firm and similar to two round and beautiful apples’.

The recipes here include applying a paste of cumin on a cloth dampened with vinegar and binding the breasts with it for three days; anointing the breasts with rock alum mixed with rose oil; bathing them with a rosewater, vinegar, camphor and calamine mixture then strapping them in “little bags”. Further remedies for large, drooping and overly soft breasts follow. This is a small section of a book that considers every aspect of female beauty, from hair removal, to making the entire body or individual limbs thinner or fatter, for hair treatments, wrinkle-removal creams and perfumes.

Marinello’s book was translated into several European languages, and spawned many emulations and interpretations. The line between beauty and health was very narrow (as it is today), and many recipes that seem, on the surface, to be cosmetic could be justified by the argument that outer beauty is a sign of a proper balance of humours and thus a representation of inner health.  So in the French doctor Louis Guyon’s Mirror of Beauty and of Bodily Health, of 1643, he describes how to treat “external maladies” including herpes, gangrene and cancer, which if cured “greatly aid beauty and bodily health”, whilst elsewhere he considers how to make the body thinner if it is “too fat” or fatter if “too thin” (what we now call “dieting” for aesthetic reasons as well as health is much less modern than is often assumed). In a later edition, Guyon minutely lists the ideal appearance of different parts of a woman’s body and explains that it is important also to judge the relative ugliness and beauty of the parts of the body that are normally hidden beneath clothes – to “imitate Paris, who to better judge the three goddesses, wanted to see them complete naked”.

Beauty and other wifely duties

Keeping yourself looking good for your husband increasingly became a necessary part of household management. Tips for cosmetics were often given alongside ones for cookery, minor ailments and household management. In Hannah Woolley’s Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery for example, (first published in 1675), recipes for beautification are put in the context of other necessary female household qualities, such as preserving the well-being of her family through providing medicine for common ailments and healthy food daily. Amongst these (which include hair dyes, anti-wrinkle ointments and tips for getting rid of pimples), there is advice in the 1684 edition on how to maintain a desired figure – ‘To make the Body fat and comely’ – including milk, sugar, butter and almond oil. The frontispiece illustration of the first edition shows women doing their three necessary household tasks: boiling up preserves, cooking in a kitchen and applying waters on the face while looking in a mirror.

One of the fascinations here is how familiar and persistent many ideas about female beauty have been, ideas that are still easily recognizable today: valuing women primarily for the way they look; promoting dissatisfaction with the physicality of female readers in the guise of helpful advice; holding up unrealistic, fundamentally fictional models of beauty for women to strive for; and making wives responsible for their husbands’ adultery because they have “let themselves go”.

This all sounds quite one-sided so far, even depressing. As I research further into this topic and look at a broader range of sources, I hope to find evidence that there was another side to this type of female adornment, that practices of cosmetics and body beautification could be pleasurable – empowering even – as a domain of female knowledge and a topic for informal advice-giving and conversation between women. I will, hopefully, report back once I’ve looked at more sources. Whatever the future findings, I want to reinforce here that the study of historical cosmetics and body modification, still very much in its infancy, helps us to investigate the ideologies underpinning female beauty advice and how attitudes toward maintaining and enhancing bodily beauty has affected women’s everyday lives for centuries.


Some further reading:

I discuss many instances of how a new artistic vocabulary came to be used to discuss real female beauty, in chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, The Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale  University Press, 2018). A forthcoming article that elaborates on texts and issues raised here: “Emulating Venus: Beautifying the Body in Early Modern Europe” in Myrto Hatzaki ed., The Venus Paradox (George A. Leventis Gallery, forthcoming 2017). I’ll add links to info when they are published!

If you are interested in fashioning the body and cosmetics use in the Early Modern period, there’s more here:

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More body hair removal tips for the Renaissance woman

ornamenti delle donneI couldn’t resist sharing these thoughts on body hair removal from a  Venetian 1562 advice book for women that I stumbled across yesterday (apparently written by a “Greek Queen”, but really by the male physician, Giovanni Marinello). You would have thought that having to deal with scabies, leprosy and “the itch” would have taken up most of the beauty routine of renaissance women – but apparently unsightly hairs also posed a problem. In its assertion that hair removal is healthy and natural, that body hair in women is “excessive” and smelly, alongside the threat that husbands will search elsewhere for gratification if a woman remains  undepilated, it may seem creepily familiar to modern readers.

Many are the weaknesses, lovely women, that can spoil your beautiful appearance by attacking the skin from outside:  some things break or lacerate the skin, like scabies, the itch, leprosy and other similar maladies.  Other things unfortunately diminish your charms, making your skin fetid and stinking. One of these things is body hair, and the other is excessive sweat, or other filthy and corrupt superfluities. Body hair, if you do not have scabies or a similar disease, has to be removed (because it is a sign of surpluses in our nutrition, just as sweat is) after your bath, or whilst you are bathing. And all our efforts are to gratify you and make sure that you are loved and caressed by your husbands, who won’t stick to their promise of chastity because of your bodily defects, and will go behind your back to other women; however teaching you how to remove body hair, we will start with the way to make baths, which will not only preserve your beauty, but keep you healthy and comfortable.

For the context of renaissance body hair removal practices, see my earlier post.

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Call for Papers, RSA 2014: Skin, Fur and Hairs: Animality and Tactility in Renaissance Europe

Titian, Woman in a Fur Coat.1535. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Titian, Woman in a Fur Coat.1535. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

For Renaissance Europeans, animal fur was a desirable but complex material.  It was a high status commodity, lining (or appearing to line) fine garments.  Yet it was also an animal skin, as worn by Adam and Eve after the Fall.  The lack or presence of fur, some fifteenth-century humanists claimed, was a key marker of difference between animals and humans. Fur was at once civilised and wild.

The ability to depict the textures and tactility of fur, such as that covering Castiglione in his portrait by Raphael, or in Dürer’s 1500 self portrait, was a sign of painterly skill, lavished not just on garments but also the ‘living’ fur of animals gently stroked or inviting the viewer’s touch.  Fur in its correct context could be appealing, but was firmly animal. There was little room for human body hair in the renaissance aesthetic – hair on men was largely restricted to the genital area, and women’s bodies were typically depicted completely hairless.

In this session we would like to interrogate renaissance attitudes to skin, fur and hairiness, examining the beauty ideal applied to both human and animal, and placing aesthetic preferences within a broader discourse of humanity versus animality.

We welcome proposals from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives. Questions could include:

  • Perceptions of hairiness as indicating the boundaries of humanity, including consideration of “wildmen”, and “hairy girls”.
  • Gender and hairiness; hair removal practices and notions of femininity; beards and masculinity.
  • Owner identity expressed through the animals they owned and chose to be portrayed alongside.
  • Aesthetics and companion animals; animal breeding for desirable coats; softness, fluffiness and affective bonds.
  • Fur wearing and its social and aesthetic implications.

Each proposed paper must include: paper title; abstract (150-word maximum); keywords; and a brief curriculum vitae (300-word maximum). Please get your proposal to Dr Jill Burke ( and Dr Sarah Cockram ( by 24th May 2013.

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How to see people naked in Renaissance Italy

How to see naked men
Seeing naked or near-naked men in the Renaissance does not seem to have been very difficult. I should point out that looking at naked people is not, necessarily, erotic. Indeed, the word for naked, nudo, in Italian had pejorative connotations, as suggested by the definition of “nudo” in John Florio’s 1611 English/Italian dictionary: nude, naked, bare, discovered; also poore, beggarly, and deprived of.

Piero della Francesca, detail from The Burial of the Holy Wood, Legend of the True Cross series. Fresco, 1452-66. Cappella Maggiore, San Francesco, Arezzo.

You can see here the potential problems of accidental genital display!

Near nakedness in Italian renaissance cities was rather more common than you might suppose. Poor people sometimes couldn’t afford many clothes, and the clothes they had were worn and tattered. This could pose a problem of accidental genital display. In fact, several Italian states passed sumptuary laws specifically disallowing the public display of genitals. Thus in Lucca, in 1342, it is forbidden for people over 14 to be seen publicly naked. Similarly, in 1375 in Aquila, short doublets are banned because they allow the genitals to remain uncovered.

Men fishing in the Arno in their underwear

Men fishing in the Arno in their underwear

Some occupations also  required workers to be near-naked. Sometimes for comfort – labourers may have stripped to their underwear in the hot Italian summers, and swimming and fishing were also activities that were done naked or near-naked, as in this detail from the chain map of Florence.

Other jobs, such as dying and curing leather, involved some workers standing naked in vats of urine as part of the process.

A tanner in a vat of urine (from the tanners' guild picture at the Correr Museum, Venice)

A tanner in a vat of urine (from the Tanners’ Guild picture at the Correr Museum, Venice)

Certainly in northern europe, these workers would walk near naked to and from work – in an age where clothing was relatively expensive, and washing was time-consuming, it would be foolish to risk dowsing a set of clothes in wet and smelly substances.

So although male genitals were certainly taboo, it seems they were sometimes seen – and near-naked men dressed in just their underwear was likely to have been a relatively common sight in the renaissance city.

How to see naked women
Female public nakedness or near-nakedness was much more unusual, and much more connected to transgression and public shame. There is some evidence in some cities that prostitutes, for example, would bear their breasts publicly. According to Michele Savonarola, in Ferrara, prostitutes were allowed to keep their breasts partially or totally uncovered in order to tempt men from the greater sin of sodomy.  The Ponte delle Tette in Venice also seems to have been a location where prostitutes would show off their breasts to passing trade.

April - time for racing naked prostitutes in renaissance Ferrara.

April – time for racing prostitutes in Renaissance Ferrara.

There were also races in Ferrara and Rome where prostitutes would run through the city naked. This would take place at carnival time in Rome and on the Palio di San Giorgio in April in Ferrara and be closely related to marking the marginal positions of these groups. There was also  a ritual humiliation of adulterous women in Ferrara called the scopa where they were made to run naked through the city; in 1356 in Florence legislation was passed to punish female servants who broke sumptuary laws with being flogged naked through the city. (For these practices in Ferrara, see Deanna Shemek’s Ladies Errant)

It’s not surprising then, that for aristocratic women, nakedness was something to be avoided at all costs. Castiglione’s Courtier includes a comment on “affected refinement” about a lady who was thinking of something that always makes me shudder when it comes to mind and always oppresses my heart. And this is that on the Day of Judgement all our bodies must rise and appear naked before the tribunal of Christ, and I cannot tell you the distress I feel  at the thought that my body will have to appear naked as well.

This may be light-hearted; less so  was a diplomatic incident of 1463 during marriage negotiations between the Gonzaga and Sforza families. The Sforza demanded to the see the potential bride – Dorotea Gonzaga  – naked, in case she had a hunchback. The Gonzaga resisted as they argued it wasn’t “honest” to show 14 year old girl naked to a man – even to doctors, in private –  but they would let her be examined with her dress on. The Sforza doctors, however, insisted that they needed to see her backbone naked and her chest in front. The marriage was called off.

Did people have sex naked?
Italian Fresco Painting of  (ca. 1320) by Memmo di Filipuccio
Not necessarily it seems. Although married couples are often depicted naked in bed, aside from their head coverings, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they would see each other naked during sex, or at other times. In fact, the evidence suggests that this was thought to be rather perverse and transgressive.

Giovanni Pontano, in his treatise On the Prince of 1493 illustrates King Dionysius’ anxiety through explaining that he never had intercourse with either of his two wives “unless they had been stripped naked beforehand”. This is clearly deemed a bit odd and unnecessary. Moralists of the time were absolutely determined that married people should not witness each other naked. Francesco Barbaro in his De Re Uxoria of 1416 suggests that wives should never be seen naked, and also be silent: “it is expedient that not only the arms, but indeed the discourses of a woman should be hidden; for the speech women is not less to be feared than the nakedness of the body”.

Perhaps even more telling about the suspicions about gazing at a naked body are the words of Cherubino da Siena in his Rules for  Married Life (1450-1481): “Certainly, when a wife needs to see her husband’s shameful parts, for some illness or for another necessity, it is not a sin; in fact, it is a charity. But when they do it for brute delight, it is a sin; because… some things are permitted to do, but not permitted to see. You, woman, never agree to allow yourself to be seen naked by your husband; because he is sinning, and so are you.”

allegoryofcopulation detail camiciaStrangely enough, this suspicion of seeing naked women is also suggested by renaissance pornography, which suggests that women took of their undershirts, or camicie, only very reluctantly. For example, in the anonymous dialogue from the 1520s, Giulia e Maddalena, when Giulia is peering through cracks in her bedroom floor at her cousin and his wife, Caterina, in their bedroom, she sees Caterina take off her camicia in order to check it for fleas. When her husband asks to have sex with her, she puts her camicia back on! Then, when Giulia takes a lover herself, Roberto, they have illicit trists in the donkey’s stable. Various positions are described – standing up, sitting down, her on top, him on top and so on before the climax, so to speak, of their sexual relationship, when Roberto asks her to take off her undershirt, as to see her naked was what he desired “above everything else”. A similar thing happens with her next lover, Federico, who also begs her to take off her camicia:

I didn’t want to do it” Giulia says, “no way, but at the end he begged me and I took it offBoth of us stripped naked, we embraced each other and looked at each other everywhere.

In Aretino’s Dialogues (early 1530s), his character Nanna, a procuress explains to her daughter, who she’s training to be a courtesan, about the peccadillos of wealthy clients. She says that they sometimes  “get a huge mirror, undress us and make us go about completely naked, and then they force us to hold the most obscene postures and positions that the human fantasy can concoct. They gaze longingly at our faces, breasts, nipples, shoulders, loins, cunnies and thighs, nor could I possibly tell you how that satiates their lust and the pleasure they get from looking

I’d like to emphasise here that the act of looking, even when allowed or invited by a sexual partner, is in itself transgressive, and has a sexual charge of its own. It’s not necessarily a preamble to touching, but constitutes a separate erotic experience. The gender of the naked person is all important. Visual access to women’s bodies was closely controlled.


Female nudes and women’s bodies
Unlike in real life, where gazing at a naked female body would be understood as socially transgressive, sinful and may well have been a fleeting pleasure at most, paintings and prints of female nudes allowed their viewer the lasting illicit pleasure of feasting his (and, perhaps, her) eyes on a beautiful naked form for a protracted period of time. The fact that many of these nudes are sleeping, or ladies who seem to be surprised whilst getting dressed or putting make up on, means that these women are not culpable, or in social disgrace. This may have been reflected in real-life practices, as suggested by the following passage in Alessandro Piccolomini’s Raffaella a “dialogue about good manners for ladies” of 1534. Here Raffaella tells her young charge, Margarita, about the lengths she should go to to engineer showing off her body to young men without letting it seem that she wants to be seen:

Titian young woman black dressIf you have a good chest, it’s of the greatest importance for a woman to find out ways that it can be seen (and especially to show that it is naturally beautiful, not through artulness). So in the morning pretend to get up without tying up your dress, and so he’ll know that the breasts are round and pronounced by themselves without support. You can also play in the snow, or bathe with water in summer, and then as you’re all damp make it necessary to untie yourself to get dry. You can show off a nice leg in the villa going to fish or catch birds, and show your arms horse riding. If your whole body is nice, make sure you go bathing at a time you can be seen.

The erotic transaction of looker and looked is presented here as something of a game. The balance of power between the two partners is not simply one way, these women are not the passive recipients of an all-powerful “male gaze”. But stripped of any significant political or economic agency in the main, women’s sovereignty over their bodies, and the ability to hide or reveal their nakedness at will, was clearly of huge importance. Real-life renaissance women, as I’ve discussed previously, took opportunities to modify their faces and bodies to make them conform to an ideal that might attract a “better” husband or lover, one of the few types of agency that was available to them.

I wonder, also if there is a class dynamic in this transaction. Is sight a more noble sense than touch? At any rate, the “pleasure” aristocratic men got from looking (according to Aretino at least), coupled with the unacceptability of their female counterparts appearing naked, even within marriage, perhaps created the perfect storm in which images of the female nude could be appreciated, both erotically and aesthetically, by European elites.

(This post is a version of a paper I gave yesterday at the Graduate Seminar for History of Art at the University of Cambridge. A longer version, with full references, will be published in my forthcoming book, The Italian Renaissance Nude: Nakedness in Art and Life 1400-1530).

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Did renaissance women remove their body hair?


Notoriously, on the wedding night of the celebrated art critic, John Ruskin and Effie Gray in 1848, Ruskin was so repelled by the sight of his bride’s body that he was unable to consummate the marriage. Effie Gray explained in a letter of five years later “he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person”. Although we’ll never get to the bottom, so to speak, of the reasons for Ruskin’s reaction, it’s been widely assumed that he was traumatised by Effie’s pubic hair.

And, frankly, no wonder. For an English male art historian of the nineteenth century, steeped in the classical tradition and Italian Renaissance art, the expected female body would surely have been completely hairless. But how did these pictures interact with the way women treated their own bodies? Did the reinvention of the female nude in renaissance Italy go hand in hand with a vogue for body hair removal?

First, some methodology

There has been a fair amount of research over the last ten years on a new fashion for the removal of pubic hair amongst young women. It’s been linked in some quarters to an aesthetic of pornography now widely available on the internet that has reset the “norms” of women’s bodily appearance.

Visible body hair on women disrupts traditional gender roles – it is deemed to be masculine to have hair on one’s body in many cultures – and this includes the hair on the pubic area and armpits that naturally grows on most female bodies. In many cultures it is normal to remove this hair – in a 2005 study of UK women, over 90% participants reported having removed hair from their underarms and legs, over 80% from their pubic area and eyebrows. These figures are similar in the US and Australia.

Thus, as many feminists have pointed out, being a “normal” woman involves a great deal of work that men normally do not have to do. Sandra Bartky, in a much cited essay of 1988, considers Michel Foucault’s argument in Discipine and Punish that there was an “emergence of unprecedented discipline directed against the body” in the later eighteenth century. Bartky takes Foucault to task for ignoring gender – ““To have a body felt to be “feminine” – a body socially constructed through the appropriate practices – is in most cases crucial to a woman’s sense of herself as female”. This explains normative self-governimg practices such as the use of cosmetics, dieting and depilation. For both Bartky and Foucault this self-discipline is a by-product of modernity. Bartky argues that “In contemporary patriarchal culture, a panoptical male connoisseur resides within the consciousness of most women: They stand perpetually before his gaze and under his judgment.”

The idea that there was a pre-modern era of “anything goes” in terms of normative bodies is a commonplace. Lennard Davis, too, in his important work on the disabled body and what he calls “enforcing normalcy” claims that “before the advent of statistics in the nineteenth century” images of beautiful women such as Venus possessed “a mythic poetic body linked to that of the gods” and thus “there is no demand that populations have bodies that conform to the ideal”.

ImageIf you look more closely at the premodern period, however, these assumptions are hard to sustain. It is a commonplace in today’s psychological literature that body image and the desire for body modification of all kinds is profoundly affected by an unconscious assimilation of images taken from a variety of media sources. It is impossible to conduct psychological experiments, of course, on long-dead subjects, but my question is – can the proliferation of images of the female nude from the early sixteenth century onwards have affected women’s notions of their own bodies?

How to remove body hair – renaissance style

Sandra Cavallo has noted an “explosion in treatments for facial appearance” in the sixteenth century, as propagated by the proliferation of household recipe books – often titled “books of secrets”. These books are full of all sorts of recipes that might be useful for the household including many for what we’d consider cosmetic use. Alongside the reams of advice on creating the perfect complexion – recipes for A cheap easy liquor which can be used to keep your skin smooth, soft and shiny, or a lotion To remove every kind of mark from the face and …keep the skin looking lovely, or Waters to make one look twenty or twenty-five years old, there is indeed advice on how to remove hair from every part of the body in all of these books I have consulted. The renewed interest in facial cosmetics was, then, matched by an explosion in treatments for body hair removal. The Renaissance could, indeed be called a golden age of depilation.

The recipes

A recipe that constantly recurs is one based on creating a highly alkaline solution that melts the hair from the surface of the skin (just as hair-removers like Veet do today). There’s evidence of recipes for this paste – which is called “rhusma” being used in Ancient Turkey from about 3000 BC, and the Trotula – a very popular medieval book of recipes dating from the 12th century, but reproduced frequently since, also includes this.

A 1532 book of secrets gives this version of the recipe:

How to Remove or Lose Hair from Anywhere on the Body

Boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and eighth of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.

Caterina Sforza in her Experimenti (basically a book of secrets compiled around the turn of the sixteenth century), gives more or less the same instruction, but advises that you should leave the mixture on the skin for “the time it takes to say two Our Fathers”.

All the recipe books I’ve looked at contain a version of this technique. The Trotula’s three recipes for hair removal are all variations of this technique in fact – and this perhaps is telling; the books of secrets written from the turn of the sixteenth century onwards have a proliferation of recipes for hair removal. Thus Caterina Sforza’s book has such 9 recipes; including one made of pig lard, mustard and juniper, and another involving a distillation of swallows.

Another recipe compilation in Bologna from around the same time has an entire section called Treatise on how to remove hairs from the body in various ways, so that they never return, which advises that the woman “who delights in keeping herself neat, and adorning and gently cleansing her face will need a depilatory that cleanly removes the unsightly hairs in various places on a woman’s body”. It gives no less than 16 recipes. This new variety of recipe types is equally noticeable in subsequent books, and they start to contain ingredients everyday, rather less volatile ingredients that one could get cheaply and use at home. There’s a particularly memorable recipe in the 1532 book, for example, that recommends women wash the area where hair is to be removed in a mixture of cat dung and vinegar.

Argumentative, muscular, ugly

Hair removal was not just aesthetic. As Cavallo has noted, there’s an understanding of hair as a bodily excretion that needs to be removed in the early modern period. A 1626 account suggests that a “bushiness of hair” creates a proliferation of vermin and filth – though it has to be said that there is little evidence for removal of male body hair for this reason.

In fact, hairiness in women could be a visual representation of humoral imbalance. According to the humoral system, women were cold and wet in nature as opposed to their hot dry male counterparts, and it was heat and dryness that was the source of body hair. Thus the sixteenth-century Spanish physician Juan Huarte wrote that

Having a lot of body hair and a bit of beard is a clear indication of low levels of coldness and moisture… and if the hair is dark then even higher levels of heat and dryness are present. The opposite temperature creates a woman who is smooth, without beard or body hair. The woman of average levels of coldness and moisture has a little bit of hair on her body but it is light and blonde. Of course, the woman who has much body and facial hair (being of a more hot and dry nature) is also intelligent but disagreeable and argumentative, muscular, ugly, has a deep voice and frequent infertility problems.

Having too much body hair could, in sum, make a woman a poor marriage partner.

ImageRemoving the hair could be seen as merely a return to the proper balance of a female body, avoiding the dangerous specter of a masculinized woman. Medicine, hygiene and beauty were closely intertwined in the Renaissance (as they are today). But certainly aesthetics were an element of hair removal. For example, Francisco Delicado’s La Lozana Andaluza, was published in Venice in 1528. It tells the tale of an Andalucian prostitute, Lozana, in Rome who gets up to all sorts of sexual misadventures and also offers beauty treatments to female clients. Lozana declares that in a certain Roman brothel “You’ll see more than ten whores, some who pluck their eyebrows and others who shave their private parts“, and later recounts a story of how “By mistake we burned off all the hair from the private parts of a lady from Bologna, but we put butter on it and made her believe she was right in style“. Later some women come to Lozana for some cosmetics and ointments, and also ask Lozana to “teach me and my cousin here how to shave off female hair, since that’s the way our husbands like it.”

Male expectations of female bodies – or even as here women’s assumptions about male expectations of female bodies – can lead to highly effective self-policing. It’s not a million miles away from Sandra Bartky’s “panoptical male connoisseur”.


Terry Eagleton, in his After Theory of 2001 said “not all students of culture are blind to the Western narcissism involved in working on the history of pubic hair while half the world’s population lacks adequate sanitation and survives on less than 2 dollars a day”. As several outraged pubic hair specialists have noted (and yes, they do exist), research into women’s personal grooming habits is, in many ways the study of systems of inequality – particularly the internalisation of the notion that a woman’s body is imperfect unless it is somehow modified.

The study of cosmetics has been dismissed as frivolous – and that’s certainly still the reaction of some colleagues. It’s hard not to see some sexism, even misogyny, as a structural reason why this subject has been ignored despite the abundance of primary source material available that can give us an insight into the daily life of early modern women. Although there is no way to make a neat causal connection between the visual art of this period and female bodily identity, perhaps it’s time we asked these questions. The renaissance nude wasn’t simply a celebration of humanity, or a homage to a lost antique past, but popularised – even fetishised – quite narrow notions of attractiveness in a society where, for women, beauty was a cultural currency and could determine their future prospects. No wonder they sought to modify their bodies to meet this ideal.

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