Art Pickings 2: Early Modern Femininity and Patient Looking in Clara Peeters’ Still Life with Flowers

How long do we spend looking at things? Really looking? Early modern women were often urged to be patient, and their skills of slow, close and acute observation can be seen in their naturalistic representation of nature in a variety of media (painting, drawing, needlework and more). The text below derives from a class exercise in patient looking, where the students and I looked closely at one image and wrote a visual analysis, bringing in comparisons as appropriate.

Clara Peeters Prado still life

Clara Peeters, Still Life with Flowers, a silver-gilt goblet, almonds, dried fruit, sweetmeats, bread sticks, wine and a pewter pitcher. 1611. Oil on panel. 52x73cm. Madrid, Prado

Placed upon a table, in a seemingly random fashion, are a collection of objects – an intricately worked cream ceramic vase to our left, so stuffed with an abundance of colourful flowers that some have fallen out, scattered on the table – the leaves jutting out over the edge into our space to the lower left. Next to that, dominating the centre of the composition, is  a round scalloped white Faenza bowl, full of dried fruits – dates, almonds and white sweatmeets. At the centre, just at the edge of the table, is a golden goblet, its lid sporting a classicising male figure with staff and shield, evoking the shape of an ecclesiastical chalice. Perhaps, like the glass behind the bowl, it contains wine.

Clara Peeters pewter reflectionThe artist here shows her skills of observation as she shows how the the fall of light through transparent substances changes the colour of wine from a dark crimson to a startling scarlet. The glass itself was of Italian origin and made in Antwerp at this time by Italian immigrants.  The right-hand side of the composition seems more domestic in tone. At the front a circular pewter bowl contains curved bread sticks and scattered white sweets, as if discarded during a meal. Behind this stands a dark metallic pitcher or jug – ready to pour the wine perhaps, the reflections on its curved sides demands our attention. Geometric areas of white light bounce off its surface, and, if we look closely, we can see two tiny reflections of the artist – one upside down –  shining in the light. We see the reflection again if we peer closely at the central goblet – a miniature Clara Peeters looks back at us in tiny smudges of paint.

Hoefnagel, Amoris Monumentum Matri

Joris Hoefnagel, Amoris Monumentum Matri Chariss(Imae). 1589. Watercolour and gouache on parchment. 11.7×9.3cm.

A medly of textures, surfaces, reflections and a multiplicity of colours, this is a panel that demands patient looking. This patience is, according to Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, a quality associated with women artists. Certainly, Peeters worked patiently in her very many minutely rendered still lives that became hugely popular in the first half of the 17thcentury in her native Holland and well beyond, leaving 31 works that show her signature between 1607 and 1621. Unfortunately, there is little recorded about her life beyond her works. What we do know is that she was one of the pioneers of still life painting, said to have its roots in scientific illustration – in fact, this image of 1589 by the Netherlandish polymath, Joris Hoefnagel, is often called the first still life painting. It’s no accident that it presents flowers for his mother. These images so often are a tribute to the powers of observation and a way of making the beauties of nature into a permanent gift.

Like many other women who painted flowers, Peeters’ influences seemed to be related to scientific observation, particularly the tradition of illustrated herbals– which in turn afforded women designs for the traditional feminine pursuits of embroidery and lace making. In fact, Peeters’ flowers in this painting – from tulips, to narcissi, to roses –  have been linked to printed images by the early netherlandish engraver, Adriaen Collaert. She shared this link between her artistic pursuits and early scientific work with many of her female counterparts – such as those artists related to the Accademia dei Lincei,  the “Academy of the Lynx-eyed”, which was founded in Rome in 1603. These links point up the improtance of “slow-looking”, of careful observation over a long period of time before committing image to canvas, paper, or panel. We can see this in action, perhaps, in the later German naturalist and artist Maria Sibilla Merian’s work. For example, her account of watching the Pease Blossom moth:

Merian, Larkspur and Pease Blossom Moth

Maria Sibylla Merian, Meadow Larkspur and Pease Blossom Moth, Undated. Gouache on Paper. Private Collection.

I have often seen hovering over the light blue flowers of the Consolida regalis the enchanting  little moth that I depict here; so well known it is for its beauty and unusual colouring that I found myself wondering more than once from what caterpillar it might spring. I therefore pursued my research until I found the caterpillars I was looking for on the flowers of this very plant, to which they cause great damage since they not only like to feed upon them, but often devour the leaves and flowers with such voracity that they leave the stem completely bare …  I have portrayed one of these small moths in the centre of the picture, poised on two green leaves, the more to delight the eye of the nature lover the more attentive and acute the eye is, and to lend lustre to this tiny work of art of indefatigable nature

This careful looking, this patience, was perhaps central to much of the art produced by women at the turn of the seventeenth century. Nature was observed over time and represented minutely, carefully and patiently. To return to Clara Peeters’ image – working with time in myriad ways, this painting both shows a fleeting moment (the bitten pretzel, the hazy image of the artist), but also suggests the eternity of nature (the flowers of different seasons). It shows the richness of possessions (the gold cup, the faence bowl, the wine glass) but also the inevitability, perhaps, of death.


Want to read more?
If you’re interested in how to hone your skills of visual analysis, there are many introductory texts (like Anne d’Alleva’s How to Write Art History) that you could try. To be honest, just reading widely, thinking about how writers you admire achieve the affects they do, and taking a notebook with you to art galleries and writing down your impressions is a great start.

For a classic discussion of “art” and “craft”, including thinking about femininity and flower painting, read:
Griselda Pollock and Rozsika Parker,  “Crafty Women and the Hierarchy of the Arts”, Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (London: I B Tauris, 2nd edition, 1995), 50-81.

For more on women and the culture of observation in what we now call art and science, see:
Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi, “‘La femminil pazienza”: Women Painters and Natural History in the Seventeenth and Early Eighteenth Centuries. Studies in the History of Art 69 (2008), 158-185 (to which my description is very much indebted)

Schiebinger, Londa. “Women of Natural Knowledge”. In Katherine Park and Lorraine Daston eds., The Cambridge History of Science, vol 3: Early Modern Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006, 192-205.

For more on Clara Peeters, see the Prado website with links to videos about their 2016 exhibition of her work, and the catalogue of that exhibition.

For a starting point on Maria Sybilla Merian, see
Reitsma, E Maria Sibylla Merian & daughters: Women of Art and Science. The Rembrandt House Museum, Amsterdam (2008). You will need to log in to Internet Archive to borrow this book; it’s free to do so.






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Art pickings 1: Queering Raphael’s Fornarina

A homage to the wonderful Brain Pickings, Art Pickings is an irregular series of 5-minute-read visual analyses that show some ways of exploring historical understandings of gender, sexuality and the body via Renaissance art. 

Half-smiling, half-naked, her fingers more suggestive than concealing (the risqué”v” of her left hand! The slight give where her index finger presses the soft skin of her breast!), this woman’s warm relationship with the viewer is far from the icy profiles of the fancy high society women portrayed by, say, Domenico Ghirlandaio, or the sometimes slightly creepy ambiguity of Leonardo da Vinci’s female sitters, or even the too-perfect blonde anonymity of Titian’s women.

raphael fornarina

Raphael, Portrait of a Young Woman (La Fornarina). 1518-19. Oil on Panel, 85 cm × 60 cm. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica (Palazzo Barberini), Rome.

We don’t really know who the sitter was. Now called the Fornarina, or the Baker’s Girl, this epithet was a title given this painting in the nineteenth century, a poetic invention based on Vasari’s story of Raphael’s lovers. Some people identify her as a woman called Margherita Luti, but the evidence is shaky, to say the least. It’s a famous image, and has been frequently discussed by art historians. What’s not normally recognised, though, is that the long yellow scarf tied around her head suggests she is a sex worker, one of the unsung heroes of Renaissance art, women who were willing to take their clothes off for artists (for a fee, of course – and why not?). Yellow scarves were required wearing in many Italian states for what were then called “dishonest women”, who were allowed to bare their breasts as long as they wore their conspicuous yellow veils.

In fact, the years when Raphael was painting this portrait in Rome were the beginnings of the European golden age of the courtesan, and this painting is the fruit of a culture that was experimenting with diverse forms of sexual relationship, often influenced by ideas of love and sex derived from the writings of classical antiquity. The word “courtesan” (or “cortegiana” in Italian) was coined in these years. Its first known written usage is both revealing and upsetting.

Johannes Burchard, the papal master of ceremonies recorded in his diary on 2 April 1498, about how Rome was scandalised by a woman called Cursetta “a courtesan, that is an honest prostitute”, who had dressed her black male servant (nicknamed “Spanish Barbara”) in women’s clothes, and had also been sleeping with him. Their punishment was to be paraded around Rome. Cursetta was shamed by walking round semi-dressed in a black velvet gown slit to reveal her naked body. Barbara had his dress tied up above the belly button so everyone could see his genitals; the “trick” of gender switching was thus exposed.

They were put in jail after this ritualised punishment, but Cursetta was soon set free. Her servant was not to be so lucky.  After a brief time in jail, he was released only to take part in a procession to his death, lead by an executioner riding a donkey, carrying a Jewish man’s testicles on a stick (this poor man had been castrated for sleeping with a Christian woman). They went from the prison to the Campo dei Fiori, where the thieves were hanged, but Barbara was tied to the stake on a woodpile to be burnt alive.

This document reminds us that queering society’s norms of gender and sexuality has an extremely long history, and that this history is full of violent repression for the people who deviate from patriarchal norms. The fact that the servant was not white most likely added to the severity of his punishment. Perhaps you will remember  this story next time you read about the Italian Renaissance being a “golden age”.

It allows us to understand that the portrait of the Fornarina is inherently transgressive. Her  yellow scarf evokes both the exotic and the shameful and marks her out, along with her bear breasts, as an outsider to “respectable” society.   Raphael seeks to show his love for (and ownership of?) this woman through painting his name in gold letters on her blue armlet, an act that for the educated viewer would evoke associations with classical sculptures of Venus. Perhaps his real act of love, however, is that he portrayed her as resolutely not a figment of his imagination, but as a living presence. It’s a portrait that, in many ways, goes against the grain.


Want to read more?
Ulrich Pfisterer writes a catalogue entry for this painting (with different conclusions to mine – informed disagreement is good!) in Thomas Kren, Jill Burke and Stephen J. Campbell eds., The Renaissance Nude.

I write more about the Fornarina in the context of the female nude in The Italian Renaissance Nude. I also write about female nakedness as a punishment in the first chapter, and in a previous blog post.

James Grantham Turner has some great things to say about the renaissance art, particularly the Raphael workshop and sexuality in Eros Visible

For more tales of wayward renaissance women, Deanna Shemek wrote a book about this – Ladies Errant: Wayward Women and Social Order in Early Modern Italy. 

And on courtesans, the book by Margaret Rosenthal on Veronica Franco is fabulous, and contains much information that contextualises Franco in wider courtesan culture.

Or if your interest is slightly more casual, here’s the wikipedia page on the Fornarina.


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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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