Sexual Assault and Hope for the Future in Titian’s Rape of Europe.

This is the text of a lecture I gave for a conference to consider the Titian: Love, Desire and Death exhibition at the National Gallery, London. If you’d prefer this in video form, you can see a recording of the lecture on YouTube.

There’s a lot of rape imagery in art museums – the rape of the Sabine Women, the rape of Europa, the rape of Lucretia, the Rape of Ganymede and so on. It’s so common, in fact, that when I started off in this field I used to think it was a ‘special-art-history-word’, like ‘contrapposto‘ or ‘chiaroscuro‘ or ‘formal analysis’ that you used in the correct way to prove you were part of the (terribly refined) gang. Then I read Diane Wolfthal’s book, Images of Rape: The Heroic Rape Tradition and its Alternatives (2000), and felt that I’d been duped all those years.  If you can spot a #MeToo moment in the History of Renaissance Art – and arguably, this has not yet happened – then that book must mark it. She argued that these works ‘glorify, sanitize and aestheticize sexual violence’. Art Historians’ reactions to Titian’s Rape of Europa are particularly subject to Wolfthal’s scorn. Rather than merely sanitizing sexual violence, she sees this painting deliberately eroticising it. Yet scholars who deal with it “usually focus on style,” she says, “and glorify the artist as a creative genius”.

Since Wolfthal’s bracingly furious analysis, other scholars  like Yael Even have agreed that Europa’s rape is sexually titillating in an ethically compromising way, some scholars arguing that the moral complication of evoking desire in a rape scene dispels any potential aesthetic enjoyment. Others have sought to excuse Titian of any so-called wrong-doing, as his careful rendering of Europa’s plight is sympathetic to women and allows them new social roles. She is ‘the epitome of the unchaste female body … a woman in the position of total abandon’. Others, still, continue to sidestep this debate by focusing on style. There’s been some fancy footwork in the National Gallery exhibition, I think, which is keen to emphasize Titian’s “sympathy” with the victims in these cases, and emphasising the painting as a complex mix of “ecstasy and violence but also distinct humour”

This retains the valence of ‘rape’ a special-art-history-word that has little to do with forced sexual intercourse. It’s presumably this approach that has led to the jarring marketing decisions that sees Europa being re-used for a cosmetics bag on sale in the gallery shop. What’s the message here? Put on some make up, make yourself look pretty and maybe you, too, can be abducted and raped by a god in the form of a bull?

Rape in the sixteenth century

Elsewhere in the National Gallery, we see this document on display. It’s Artemisia Gentileschi’s testimony of her own rape scene. Here’s a translated extract.

He shoved me onto the edge of the bed, forcing me with his hand on my chest, he put a knee between my thighs so that I could not close them … he placed his hand with a handkerchief over my throat and mouth that I would not cry out…  Having before placed both his knees between my legs, and pointing his penis at my vagina he began to push and he put it in inside so that I felt it burning strongly and giving me great pain, but because of the gag that he held at my mouth I could not cry out

This upsetting language might feel familiar to anyone who has suffered sexual assault, and we should believe Artemisia’s testimony, extracted under torture. It’s become a rather dull trope to say that we can’t judge history on our terms, that we have to understand that people thought differently then – but to suggest that violent rape was something that rape victims thought was ok is patently ridiculous.

However, we should also understand that the cognitive, legal and personal framing of stupro was not the same in the 16th or 17th century as it is today. Our word rape indicates non-consensual penetrative sex, but it doesn’t map on to renaissance concepts of rape very well. There are two words that you’ll find commonly used in Italian in this period – ‘stupro’ and ‘ratto’ (stuprum and raptus in Latin).

In his dictionary of moral theology, the Summa Angelica, first published in 1486 but with many subsequent editions,  Angiolo da Chivasso neatly explains the differences of degree.  Stupro “is when the virgin woman consents voluntarily and spontaneously offers herself up to sin’. Thus it doesn’t necessarily have to be forcible sex, just sex outside of marriage. Stupro could apply to virgins or widows under their fathers protection. A worse kind of stupro is called ‘violence’, when a maiden’s virginity is taken away by force. The third is called ‘ratto’ and is “when the woman is stolen and taken by force from her house, even if she later consents.” The use of violence and ‘ratto’ ‘changes the sin into another type.  In stupro,  the perpetrator should give the victim a dowry and preferably marry her, if her father agrees. The desired outcome of Artemisia’s trial is that her attacker would marry her.

Although this may seem horrendous to us, historians Elizabeth Cohen and Cecilia Cristellon have shown – working respectively in sixteenth century Venice and seventeenth century Rome – that the Renaissance system was much more flexibile and less clear cut than the legal framework might suggest, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad system for the woman involved. Cohen summarises:

Even in the aftermath of experience in which standard morality and parental expectations, on the one hand, and the persistent demands and even physical force of would be lovers, on the other, left girls scant room for manoevre, some of them spoke to the judges not as passive victims but as participants in the making of their own fate

Rape, therefore, is seen in the Renaissance as a point of transformation between a virginal state, under the protection of the father, to a married stage under the protection of the husband – if social order is to be maintained.

Rape and War

Rape was also, however, a tool of war, and a symbol of cities under attack.

From 1494 until 1559, the Italian peninsular had been subjected to periods of several invasions, involving brutal sacks of cities and widespread slaughter of civilians. The key actors was the king of Spain, the Imperial forces – joined in the person of Philip II’s father, Charles V from 1519-1556 –  and the French kings, all of whom had claims to the Kingdom of Naples and other Italian states.

As part of these invasions, French, Spanish and Imperial troops raped Italian women as part of a litany of horrendous cruelty to civilians during the Italian wars. Stephen Bowd notes several examples of women killing themselves by drowning rather than submitting to rape by soldiers. In his eye-witness account of the Sack of Capua in 1501, the priest Marino Casalena, described how one of the city’s noblewomen, Laura de Antiniano, threw herself into the river to avoid rape, saying “better to die than to be defiled”.

Full title: Portrait of a Woman inspired by Lucretia Artist: Lorenzo Lotto Date made: about 1530-2 Source: Contact: Copyright © The National Gallery, London

The story of the Rape of Lucretia –   where the ancient Roman noblewoman killed herself after her rape by the son of the tyrannical King Tarquin – provided an example of this type of virtue that some renaissance women took to heart (and here I’m showing you a portrait by Lorenzo Lotto done around 1530 that shows the main figure holding an image of Lucretia’s suicide. Lucretia’s rape and suicide led ultimately to the establishment of the Roman Republic.

The Rape of the Sabine Women – another example of violent  ‘raptus’ as part of war, and another popular subject in Renaissance art similarly lead to transformation, the start of  a war that was eventually brokered by the women themselves, who brought their Sabine fathers under the protection of their Roman husbands.

Again, the rape of women in both stories act as a hinge point, a driver of historical change.

Narratives of Rape and Transformation

Renaissance readers understood the stories of Jupiter’s rapes of mortal women in this way too, as a catalyst for transformation with wider and sometimes unexpected consequences.  Rape was a popular subject of poems, plays and paintings in this period because of its inherent drama, but also because of its transformative effects. Before we judge this period for its use of violence against women as a trope for entertainment, we should take the mote out of our eye and think about how violence, rape and murder of women is a central narrative of many crime dramas, where resolution is found not through the woman’s marriage – often the central victim is dead by this point– but through the identification of the perpetrator.

The Rape of Europa was retold many times in Renaissance Italy, and often in a much neater way than the Ovidian text, which leaves Europa literally hanging off the bull at the end of the second chapter. A text that I think helps us to understand Titian’s version of Europa’s rape is a narrative poem called ‘Europa’ written in 1551 by Girolamo Muzio. Muzio was embedded both in Venetian literary circles (this book is dedicated to the important patron, Domenico Venier) and like Titian, worked for members of the Habsburg circle, such as the mercenary general Alfonso d’Avolos, the Marquis of Vasto, and the influential Habsburg agent Antoine Perrenot di Granvelle – who Titian painted when he visited the imperial court at Augsburg in 1548.

Titian, Alfonso d’Avalos, Marquis of Vasto, c. 1533. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Muzio has a similar attitude to Europa as many art historians detect in Titian’s painting.  He first asks the audience to look at Europa in the same way as Jupiter, with desiring eyes:

“The golden hair and the delicate breast, Adorned with white, pink and vermillion”. When Jupiter saw her face, Muzio tells us, his heart tempted him  with a new desire, to have the pleasure of seeing her naked.

Like other sources, he emphasizes the beauty of the bull – which I think we mistakenly read as comic – he has a ‘delicate flank’, is ‘whiter than fresh snow’, shining horns, and a ‘sweet odour’ – to explain why Europa is lulled into a false sense of security to get on his back.

After this description of the beauty of the main protagonists, the tone switches to focus on Europa’s fear. “With trembling voice to her companions/ she shouts now help help” And now by name /She calls her dearest friends, now this one, now that one”

She tries to grip on the bull’s horn, but cannot reach it so rests her hand “all trembling, on the robust shoulders” whilst her friends on the shore in vain “call her back, in vain extending their arms”. Despite the calm sea and blue sky, Europa’s mood turns from fear to despair. “The graceful Europa, whose sorrowful face “Turns back so that at last she sees /Her home hillsides so far away .. with bitter heart and hoarse voice” cries out for her homeland.”

The story, however, turns on a dime in the last page. Venus arrives with her cupids and comforts Europa by telling her the end of the story.

Put an end to your sorrow, to the weeping and plaints, Royal clear blood, lineage of Jupiter. Called to another homeland, to a another kingdom, to a better fortune. A hundred great civilisations will have you as Queen … with torches lit the most peaceful Hymen awaits you. This horned steed, who sweetly and quickly rides over the sea, made happy and proud by you as his trophy, this is the great King of the Gods …. In another form conjoined with you, he will make you fortunate mother, of many lands; your bloodline will eternally bear sceptres, and your share of the world will serve your name with eternal renown.”

This version of the image sees Venus as revealing Europa’s (or Europe’s) destiny – to suffer strife, but then to triumph. Given his Habsburg patronage, it’s likely that Muzio was referring to them as the rightful bearers of the ‘eternal sceptre” as rulers of a newly happy Europe.

He wasn’t alone in eliding the story of Europa with Habsburg rule over the continent. The legend of the Rape of Europa was Europe’s founding myth, and the story is recounted in many Italian sixteenth-century geographic texts and encyclopedias before describing the qualities of the continenet. See, for example, the The World And Its Parts; Garzoni’s encyclopedic Piazza Universale .

As John Jeffries Martin has noted, the continent of Europe if not completely “invented” in the sixteenth century ,was certainly popularised then, particularly by the Hapsburgs who saw their lineage as Europe’s rightful custodians, its protector against threats from the Ottoman Turks, and at the vanguard of conquest of other parts of the world. Europe is pictured as Queen Europa with Habsburg Spain at its head in maps of the sixteenth century, and it’s under the patronage of Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle,  a leading minister of the Spanish Habsburgs (and a friend of both Titian’s and Musio’s) that one of the first maps of Europe was made in 1554.

“Europa Regina” in Sebastian Munsters Cosmographia, 1570

It may be a coincidence, of course, that Titian changed the subject of his last poesie in 1559, from an image of Jason and Medea to an image of Europa, just a couple of months after the peace of Cateau-Cambresis which ended a 65 year struggle over the balance of power in Europe and which secured Habsburg rule over most of the continent. It’s unlikely though, that Philip II would have been unaware of the significance of this change. Europa is not just a raped woman, but a raped and suffering continent, about to be led to peace and happiness by  the glorious Habsburgs. It is, fundamentally, an image of hope.

I’d suggest then, that understanding renaissance attitudes to rape  can help us understand these paintings. Titian’s sympathy to Europa is not an indication of his peculiar sympathy to women – he is absolutely in line with Europa’s presentation in other accounts, which are designed to evoke pathos to make the story more exciting. It’s less an ambivalent consideration of women’s plight, more of a narrative pivot, reflecting ideas about rape in both art and life in this period. The treatment of rape in ahistorical terms can present women as passive victims of a monolithic patriarchy, ironically under-estimating female agency and resilience.  Ignoring the harsh facts of rape through aestheticization prevents us engaging with Renaissance understandings of both ratto and stupro as catalysts for the transformation of suffering into something better, transformations  that can equally be deeply individual, but also act as a synecdoche for the experience of an entire continent.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Overlooking Women’s Labour in Sofonisba Anguissola’s Chess Game

Time is a terribly scarce commodity for those of us who spend our skills and labour equally on our families and our own work.
Laura Cereta, Letter to Sigismondo de’ Bucci, 1486

It seems terribly modern, doesn’t it, a woman complaining about trying to do (“our own”) intellectual work whilst being constantly pulled back to domestic labour, but it goes back a long way – more than five hundred years at least, according to Laura Cereta, a female humanist from Brescia in Northern Italy.

I’ve been thinking about subject a lot, especially recently, where one of the unforeseen consequences of the Covid lockdown has been to severely dent the productivity of women in academia, but not men. Art History, more than any other university discipline, is a discipline of women. Most of my colleagues are women. Most of my students are women. Museum and gallery curators, increasingly, are women (though, predictably, not as well paid as their male colleagues).  The discipline’s femininity surely adds to its perception as a “useless” degree subject amongst some people (who, to be fair to them, have the kind of strong opinions that are only possible without the burden of knowledge or experience). But anyhow, women are more successful in Art History than, probably, any other humanities discipline. However, there are real problems, still, and they are often, ironically, linked to our failure to look at what is staring us in the face.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game. 1555. Oil on canvas, 72 x 97cm. National Museum, Poznań.

Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game. 1555. 72 x 97cm. National Museum, Poznań.

Look at those Anguissola sisters, for example, playing chess together in 1555. The moment was crystallised in time by a fourth sister, Sofonisba, whose life became dominated by her prodigious talent for painting. In the image, the oldest sister, Lucia, has just taken her opponent’s black queen, much to Minerva’s consternation. Their little sister, Europa, laughs with delight at Minerva’s discomfort. It’s very unusual for the period in having that authentic feeling of love and rivalry amonst siblings, a kind of Renaissance Little Women.

The game of war, chess’s complexities and intellectual challenges were a man’s thing in the sixteenth century. It’s no doubt that we should understand this panel as a feminist artwork, that celebrates the power of the (literal) sisterhood. A truly innovative painting within the context of Northern Italian art, this is one of Sofonisba’s most famous works.

Most analysis, understandably, concentrates on the dynamic between the sisters,  But there’s a fourth person on this panel, isn’t there? Her grey hair neatly tied back in a white linen wrap, head turned to look at the game. She’s not playing chess; I wonder if she didn’t have the time? She’s one of the hundreds of servants/attendants/maids/slaves on sixteenth-century paintings, often as an older, darker foil to the luminous white skin and fair hair of the main character. They are only very recently getting attention from art historians.

Sofonisba Self-Portrait with Clavichord, Althorp

Sofonisba Anguissola, Self Portrait at the Clavichord, with female servant. 1561. Althorp House, Northamptonshire.

Thinking about this woman has made me notice the profligate use of time on this image and others that depict renaissance women in their pleasant, but fundamentally unproductive, pursuits. The same woman turns up again in one of Sofonisba’s many self portraits, now at Althorp House, a stately home in Northamptonshire (UK). Here the artist is showing off her musical ability – a much more cherished “feminine” pursuit in this period than chess. There used to be an inscription on this portrait that proclaimed Sofonisba’s status as an unmarried maiden, despite her great age of 23; the proclamation of her as “virgo” is repeated on many of her self-portraits. In fact, she didn’t marry until she was around 40, unlike two of her sisters who gave up on painting once they found husbands.  Maybe, like the Venetian feminist Moderata Fonte, Sofonisba questioned the usefulness of getting hitched: “what exactly does [a woman] gain from it, except that instead of being her own mistress and the mistress of her own money, she becomes a slave, and loses her liberty and … her control over her own property?” Interestingly, female academics who get married – whether or not they have children – are likely to do less well in their career than their unmarried counterparts.

The servant looms out of the darkness and, like the artist, looks straight at us. She’s aged in the five years since The Chest Game was painted – her cheeks more sunken, eye sockets darker. You might, like Michael Cole, think Sofonisba’s portrayal of her servant is “sympathetic”.  I agree to some extent, suggest that this runs the risk of being overly comforting. It suggests that our main protagonist, the one prettily playing the keyboard, is a good person who treats her servants well.  We have a woman making it good against the odds, someone we can wholeheartedly celebrate – a feminist hero, the exception that proves the patriarchal rule. This is a past where people were absolutely fine with structural inequality (unless it directly impeded them, of course), a past where servants knew their place, and were grateful for the crumbs from their mistresses’ tables.

For me, though, the figure of the older woman looks like the ghost of femininity yet-to-come. Her features are tired due to a life of looking after her rich-girl charges. Always ready to tidy up the discarded chess pieces, wipe sticky fingerprints off the clavichord, she melts into the background – always there, but never the centre of attention. Think what would have happened to Sofonisba had she had to tidy up after herself and, god forbid, the children.

 It’s easy to judge a woman who has been dead for 450 years, I suppose – and recently some commentators have harrumphed that we can’t “judge” history with today’s eyes (but surely today’s eyes are the only eyes we have, and pretending otherwise is effectively choosing not to look?).  Anyhow, there have always been people who disagreed, who fought back, who wanted more for themselves and other people. It’s not like everyone agreed in the past.

Academia is a career where it is unlikely you will get a job in the place where you grew up or studied. It normally necessitates a break from the family and friendship networks that are so essential for the well-being of women with babies and young children. It means that to do our jobs we normally need to ship out some of that reproductive labour (“activities that reproduce the work force – this includes daily activities as cooking, washing clothes but also bearing children)” – all the stuff that still takes up so much time for female academics, especially during a pandemic.

Those cleaners, childcare workers and nannies are almost all women, tend to be from less socially advantaged backgrounds, and are more likely to be people of colour and/or recent immigrants.  They tend to earn much less than the people whose children or houses they care for, despite their key role in keeping society, keeping life, going. The disjunction between “essential” labour and the labour society actually pays properly for has been starkly highlighted recently.

I don’t have a solution for this (beyond making my sons do their share of the housework); my expertise is “useless”, after all.  It’s made me pause, however, about condoning feminist analyses that ignore economic inequality, whilst reifying works that explicitly endorse it.  Art History (especially Italian Renaissance art history) has a class and a race problem. It’s clearer now, perhaps clearer than at anytime in my lifetime, how fundamentally the way we understand the past directly affects the present. Coming from a discipline dominated by women, a discipline based on looking, I (we?) need to pay closer attention to those figures who have dwelled in the shadows for too long.


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

The wordlessness of grief in Michelangelo’s Pietà: Art Pickings 5

My colleagues and I have been each asked to choose an object that made us “#hookedonarthistory for the University of Edinburgh’s History of Art department’s social media account. It’s a lovely, fun thing with some brilliant answers from my colleagues, so I hesitated before choosing Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà. There are two reasons. Firstly, it is an ineffably sad sculpture, and I didn’t want to bring down the mood. Secondly, about a decade or so ago, an art historical grandee upbraided me for my hackneyed and banal affection for this work, and unfortunately at that time I lacked the confidence to tell him to bog off.

So here’s some advice for you for free, which took me several years and a PhD to realise:  if someone tells you that your feelings about an art work (or, frankly, anything else) are somehow not good enough, steer well clear of that person.

Anyhow, maybe the grandee guy was right, maybe sadness is banal – we all get to feel it at some point, after all.  As banal, then, as love, as well as being love’s inevitable counterpoint.

Michelangelo, Pieta, St Peters with crowds

I first saw this sculpture when I was 19. I’d been inter-railing through Italy with my then boyfriend. He was about to go to art college, and I was recovering from the scarring transition between a Leeds comprehensive school and an Oxford college. We’d arrived in Rome from Florence at lunchtime. It was July and the air was heavy with heat. I have the unbronzable skin of a redhead and zigzagged between patches of shade.

So perhaps the first thing I remember about St Peter’s is the relief that most north European tourists must feel when entering the dark haven of a church in the middle of an Italian summer. To be honest, it’s hard to take anything in at first visit beyond the size. St Peter’s is dumbstrikingly enormous.  I had my Rough Guide with me, so knew to look for a sculpture by Michelangelo to the right of the entrance. It was easy to find, in fact, with its throng of tourists, and reflections of illicit camera flashes bouncing off bulletproof glass.

I suppose I was ripe for a moment like this, only-just adult, not yet knowing what I didn’t know, impressionable. But it was the first time I really understood that art could have a transformative power, and that the visual can guide us when we encounter parts of our lives where words no longer help.


The dead Christ lies on his mother’s lap. Mary looks young, younger than her son. It’s hard to understand how all this can possibly be chiselled from stone – the fluid mass of drapery, the veins of Christ’s arms, his ribs, the folds of her veil, the pressure of the virgin’s fingers on the winding cloth as she grasps her dead son to her. And her empty left hand, turning upwards, reaching out to us in a gesture that punctuates the entire sculpture.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s this gesture that in more recent years I have returned to, to think about and articulate the strange open-ended, unexpected nature of grief: the kind of feelings that creep on you unawares, as you find yourself in tears in a shop because you’ve stumbled across the ideal present that you’ll never have the chance to give; the messy anger, numbness and shame that insistently remind you of the words you never said, or of the words you wished you had never said, of conversations that can never be resolved; the ceaseless weight of it, the blank guilt of not feeling sad, then remembering.

Mourning also brings the kindness of others, who are there at funerals, who send cards, who say kind words –  sometimes people you barely know, whose presence helps so much, makes you feel less alone. This is what art can do too, make us realise that we are not alone and that what we feel, however unmanageable, has been managed and borne by countless others.

Art and Grief in the Renaissance
Michelangelo was about 24 years old when he made the Pietà for the chapel of a French cardinal in the old (slightly less vast) St Peter’s. By then, like most of his contemporaries, he’d experienced a huge amount of loss. The French invasion of 1494 broke through Italy’s decades-long peace and fractured Michelangelo’s world irrevocably. Traditional historical accounts talk about the tactics of military leaders in the Italian wars, of doges, kings, dukes and popes, but fail to mention the irreplaceable human cost of lives lost, cities sacked, women raped, civilians murdered in their thousands. Even without the invasion, life was much more uncertain then.

“Nothing is as certain as death, and nothing is as uncertain as the hour of death” was a popular preamble to wills in Florence from around the 1490s. There are many renaissance accounts of losing people that can still be difficult to read. Giovanni Tornabuoni wrote to his friend, Lorenzo de’ Medici, of the death of his young wife, Francesca Pitti, in 1477:

I am so oppressed by grief and pain for the most bitter and unforeseen accident of my most sweet wife that I myself do not know where I am. As you will have heard yesterday, as pleased God, at the 22nd hour she passed from this life in childbirth, and the infant, having cut her open, we extracted from the body dead, which to me was a double grief still.

Tornabuoni commissioned a tomb to permanently memorialise his wife. This extraordinary marble frieze, now in the Bargello Museum in Florence, is the only part of the tomb that remains. The frize is a harrowing record of one person’s grief. You can see Francesca’s limp body on the bed at the right hand side, surrounded by female attendants who start to mourn, tearing their hair or heads buried in their hands, as they realise what has happened. On the left side of the frieze, a midwife brings the dead infant to his as yet unknowing father, Giovanni.

Verrocchio wksp Pitti Tornabuoni reliefWomen dying in childbirth, stillbirths and infant mortality were all horribly high during the Renaissance – it’s been estimated that just over 17% of children died before the age of 2. This was a population scarred by loss, though we only have a fragmented understanding of how this made grieving parents feel. Richard Trexler discusses the Florentine merchant Giovanni Morelli’s ritual that he used to try and relieve himself of the grief of losing his 9-year old son, Alberto, in 1408. He prayed whilst embracing Alberto’s crucifix, kissing the images of the saints in the same places as his son had.

I never would have thought that God’s dividing my son from me … would have been, and is, to me such a grave knife … I cannot, nor can his mother, forget. Instead we continually have his image before our eyes, remember his ways, his conditions, words and acts, day and night, at lunch and dinner, inside and out, sleeping and awake.

No wonder the Pietà was an often re-visited subject in these years, where death could be sudden, and at close quarters. There are many moving Pietàs beyond Michelangelo’s. Enguerrand Quarton’s striking, abstracted image of the 1450s, for example, is art-historian-famous, but I suspect less well known by non specialists. Enguerrand_Quarton,_La_Pietà_de_Villeneuve-lès-Avignon_(c._1455)

Or there’s Titian’s astonishing, freely painted, scumbled and dark verson that he made for his own tomb, left incomplete at his death in his 80s in 1576.


To visually crystallise the loss of her son, Käthe Kollwitz adapted renaissance examples in the creation of her bronze sculpture, Mother with her Dead SonIt has been in the Neue Wache in central Berlin since 1993. Illuminated by a skylight in the empty stone room, it powerfully shows how the horrors of maternal loss act as a synecdoche for all grief, as a memorial “to the victims of war and tyranny”.

kollwitz new-wache-statue


Michelangelo’s patron died, in fact, just as the sculpture was put into place in his chapel, but it wasn’t made only for him. This visual poem of mourning has spoken to viewers for five hundred years and more. It spoke to me at 19, not knowing anything about Michelangelo, or the Renaissance, barely knowing what loss was, but it pointed me in a direction that was to profoundly influence my life. And I’ve returned to it when I’ve needed to.

We are living at a moment in time when hundreds of thousands of people have recently lost someone they love. We plot the numbers of the dead on graphs, allowing us to somehow understand what is happening without having to constantly face the raw pain that these numbers represent. We carry on as well as we can, aware that our lives now are resting on a vast undertow of loss, too large to face or articulate.

If you are grieving, I’m so sorry. My thoughts are with you. I know my words are inadequate. Art can sometimes help where words fail.




Further reading
As with everything by Michelangelo, there has been a lot written on the St Peter’s Pietà. For a recent article that discusses it in the context of mourning and the liturgy of death, see Emily A. Finichel, “Michelangelo’s Pieta as a Tomb Monument: Patronage, Liturgy and Mourning,” Renaissance Quarterly 70 (2017). 

For more on Tornabuoni family patronage, including the extraordinary tomb for Francesca, see:
Maria de Prano, Art Patronage, Family and Gender in Renaissance Florence: The Tornabuoni. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Phillip Sohm wrote The Artist Grows Old, a lovely book on artists and aging, if you want to find more about Titian in his old age (and Michelangelo, for that matter).


Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Plague, the Self and the Body in Pontormo’s Naked Self Portrait: Art Pickings 4

Pontormo drew himself naked whilst escaping from the plague. For a few months in 1523-4 he was holed up in a Carthusian Monastery, the Certosa di Galluzzo, a few miles outside Florence.

The first intimations of a wave of plague had come in August 1522, when five officials were appointed to protect Florence from the disease that had already hit Rome, and was currently raging in the countryside around the city. The Florentines closed the gates to incomers, but to no avail.  Blamed by some on an anonymous “German” incomer (because xenophobia, racism and infectious disease often go hand in hand), the plague soon had a grip in the district around the church of San Lorenzo. The streets were sealed off and the disease burnt itself out by the end of November, with the relatively low death rate of around 20 people.

Unfortunately for the Florentines, the plague came back into the city in early 1523, and in March of that year the government decreed that no-one could leave Florence, in an entirely unsuccessful attempt to stop upper classes abandoning the city.  All those affected by plague – largely in the poorest areas at the edge of town – were made to go to the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, and if anyone in their households had remained healthy, they were kept in quarantine in the Camaldoli monastery.  The stopping of normal life in the city lead to riots in May, as the poor who didn’t have the plague started to die of starvation due to having no work and no money. By July, it was estimated that around 3000 people had died (from a population of around 60,000, so about 5%), but  by 1st August 1524 the plague had largely died down.

Although Florence got off relatively lightly in comparison to some other cities (in Rome, it was reckoned, 25,000 people died), we should not underestimate just how profoundly frightening this disease was.  Sam Cohn and Guido Alfani’s work on the 1523 plague in Milan indicates that the symptoms included buboes and tumors, often accompanied by black or purple spots, but the single most defining characteristic was rapidity of death. More than half of those affected died on the day they saw their first symptoms. Throughout the century, the modal time the plague lasted was two days. The renaissance saying, often found on wills, that “nothing is as certain as death, nothing as uncertain as the hour of death” seems less morbid introspection and more simple statement of fact when considered in this light.

Pontormo’s former teacher, the imaginative, flamboyant and brilliantly eccentric painter, Piero di Cosimo, had died during the first wave of plague in 1522, leaving his favourite pupil his house in via Larga. No wonder Pontormo took the chance to run away when he could.


The Certosa di Galluzzo. Photographer anon.

Self-isolation at Galuzzo
The Charterhouse at Galuzzo was the perfect place for practising social distancing (a phrase that I’ve come across often over the last few coronavirus-dominated days). Not only did their statutes demand that their monastery be built in remote locations, so the monks remain free of all distraction by the world, but monks lived individual, hermit-like existences. Occupying two-storey cells disposed around the large cloister, each monk had access to their own small enclosed garden which they were expected to tend. Food and other necessities, were brought to the monks by lay brothers who left them in a turntable hatch in the wall.  Once a week, walks were taken in the countryside, and monks were permitted to talk to each other on these occasions, walking in pairs and then swapping partner. It might be that the drawing of two monks on the other side of the paper to the self-portrait drawing (see the image here) was done on such an occasion. The Carthusian constitutions, restated in 1509, urged brothers to:

ponder and reflect on the great spiritual benefits derived from solitude … and you will readily agree that for tasting the spiritual savour of psalmody; for penetrating the message of the written page; for kindling the fire of fervent prayer; for engaging in profound meditation; for losing oneself in mystic contemplation; for obtaining the heavenly dew of purifying tears — nothing is more helpful.

Pontormo and Dürer

Self-portrait drawing of Durer, naked, truncated at thigh, looking at viewer

Albrecht Dürer, Nude self portrait. c. 1509. 29 x 15cm. Pen and brush, black ink with white lead on green prepared paper. Weima, Klassik Stiftung, Graphische Sammlungen, inv. KK 106.

Pontormo’s self-portrait drawing is very unusual.  I don’t know of any other Italian examples of a nude or semi clad self portrait. The one other image that really seems to correspond to this is a couple of decades earlier and German –  Albrecht Dürer’s incredible naked self portrait now in Weimar. There is a similar viewing distance, angle and truncation at the knees as Pontormo’s version –  but there are more than superficial resemblances. Erwin Panofsky suggested that Durer’s self-portrait should be connected to a wave of epidemic illness that had been spreading through Germany, Dürer forensically (and unapologetically) examining his disease-raddled naked body. Both he and Pontormo had by this time become adept in creating idealised nude male figures, all muscles and poise, blank-faced everymen. What did it mean to memorialise their own bodies like this? Both drawings can best be understood perhaps, as the result of long periods of introspection in the face of existential panic brought on by an epidemic.  They each possess a similar air of self-speculation, of asking difficult questions about the relationship of the body to the self, of the general ‘nude’ to the individual ‘naked’, of confronting one’s own mortality. We can possibly see in Pontormo’s work a mixture of a search for symptoms, a kind of memorial, a meditation on physicality and – with his right finger pointing at the viewer (or at himself in the mirror? or a sizing gesture?)– possibly a reminder that he so easily could be next.


Jacopo Pontormo, Deposition, c. 1525-8. Oil on canvas. 313 x 192 cm. Florence, Church of Santa Felicita’

Thank goodness Pontormo fled the plague. Had he died in 1524, he would never have completed his paintings of the Capponi Chapel, one of the most incredible decorative ensembles of the early sixteenth century. When Italy is open to visitors once again, you should go to Florence to see it. Head over the Ponte Vecchio but pause before joining the crowds at the Pitti Palace, and go into the church of Santa Felicità. Just to the right of the entrance, you’ll see the chapel and its luminous inhabitants.

There’s a lot to see and think about here, but before the intellectual pondering kicks in, before you turn your reactions into words, just lose yourself in the Deposition altarpiece, with its mass of candy-coloured figures, circling in sadness about a central void.  The Virgin Mary has fallen backwards, her loss proving too heavy to bear, as her son, Christ, is led away by mourners.  That emptiness at the centre! Pontormo, fresh from his self-imposed exile in Galluzzo somehow portrayed his grief and loss in that swirling composition. He reminds us that facing death, disease – and fear of both – is part of our shared humanity.




Written with love to my friends in Italy.

Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The Power of Sexual Assault in Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia: Art Pickings 3

These thoughts about Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia came about during a discussion at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (UK) for the wonderful Behind the Scenes at the Museum podcast. Thanks to Tiffany Jenkins, Luke Syson and Michael Savage for our conversation – worth getting up at 4am for! I should also warn readers that given the subject of the painting, this post could be upsetting for some.

Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia. Oil on Canvas, 88.9 cm × 145.1 cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.

Titian, Tarquin and Lucretia. Oil on Canvas, 88.9 cm × 145.1 cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

She tries to push him back, her fingers splayed against his chest, but it’s not working. He’s taken her other arm in his grip, ruddy fingers pressing into soft pale flesh. His eyes stare, but he does not see her, focussing completely on the as yet-unconquered terrain of her body. Dagger held in a tight fist, arm tensed, knee thrust between her legs, his lavish velvet hose and embroidered gold doublet don’t mask the brutality of his actions. The loosening of his hose makes the viewer’s stomach sink. We know what it indicates, what is to come.  She sees him, though. Her eyes are fixed on her attacker, face blushed in energetic defence and a tear escaping onto her cheeks. We don’t help her. We just look on, like the figure – a servant? – who lifts the heavy dark velvet curtains that swathe the scene, and appears transfixed, witnessing the rape.

This disturbing painting, normally called Tarquin and Lucretia (giving them equal billing, as if it depicts two friends or lovers), is in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Like many paintings from this period of mythological and historical subjects, it shows a sexual assault. The story, told most famously by Livy, explains that in 509 BCE Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king of Rome, raped Lucretia, the virtuous wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Afterwards, Lucretia told her husband, and he and his family vowed to avenge the attack. Despite their entreaties, Lucretia stabbed herself in shame, then her family drove the Tarquins from Rome and founded the Roman Republic. It was widely understood in the Renaissance that this story was not about the rape of a woman, but about civic and family honour. Lucretia’s body was a symbol of a homeland plundered by a despotic tyrant.

The Venetian renaissance painter, Titian, made this image for the King of Spain, Philip II. Titian spent much of his career as a propagandist to the wealthy elite, providing rooms to relax in for men whose actions led to mass-murder, starvation and displacement of populations. Notably, in his old age, his work was altogether less celebratory, more reflective. His later poesie for Philip II are some of the few sexual assault scenes in Renaissance art that seem to show some empathy with the victim. Europa has been thrown back, carried off by the bull. Her face is shadowed, her dress dishevelled, her legs splayed untidily. Callisto is brutally held back by naked nymphs as they peel back her clothes to reveal her pregnant belly to the unforgiving eye of the goddess Diana. Even the way Titian uses paint on these late canvasses – the choppy impasto, the fingerprints, the opaque dashes of lead white for highlights – imbues the surface with emotional physicality.

Titian knew women who had been the victims of sexual violence. He was friends with one of Venice’s most famous courtesans, Angela del Moro, also known as La Zaffetta – in fact, some art historians suggest that she acted as his model in the 1520s and ‘30s. In 1531 the Venetian poet Lorenzo Venier published a poem that celebrated del Moro’s gang rape, or “Trentuno”. He explains in the beginning of the poeme that this was a way of punishing her for spurning his advances and gleefully recounts how 79 men brutalised her one after another, leaving her half dead.

Courtesans came in for many verbal and physical attacks in a society which was suspicious of women with their own property and means to make a living, and  Venier’s poem reflects the many  “punishment” sexual assaults on women by groups of men. This was a time when rape was considered by many to primarily be a blow to family honour rather than to an individual person; punishment for the rapist often focussed on him marrying the victim, and there were tariffs of punishments depending on the perceived social status of the woman involved – high penalties for a noble virgin compared to nothing for a servant or slave.

about 1530-2

Lorenzo Lotto, Portrait of a Woman as Lucretia, c. 1533. National Gallery, London.

For much of the sixteenth century, Italy was at war. Widespread rape of female civilians  by soldiers was used as a way of controlling populations in sacked cities. There are contemporary accounts of women taking Lucretia as a model and killing themselves – often by drowning – rather than submitting to rape. A portrait by Lorenzo Lotto in the National Gallery in London celebrates this type of female virtue as the subject grasps a drawing of Lucretia killing herself with a dagger, the Latin inscription below meaning “no woman survives dishonour, Lucretia sets the example”. Because of her republican roots, Lucretia both stood for virtuous conduct for women, and also the neeed for beleagured states to rid themselves of tyrants, sometimes necessitating great sacrifices.

Titian’s patron, King Philip II, was constantly waging his own wars, of course, notably against the burgeoning forces of Protestantism in lands under his rule, becoming involved in suppressing dissent in the Netherlands, France and England. Earlier he had financed the Catholic League during the French Wars of Religion and before this, continued the longstanding and complex Italian wars, up to the peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559. He also shored up Spanish authority in the New World, heading up a regime responsible for the genocide of native populations whilst plundering the land for silver and other goods that flooded the European economy.

ITitian, Lucretia, dett’s often been pointed out that the uneasy sexuality of Titian’s poesie – which simultaenously tempt with their lusciously painted female nudes and repel with the violence of their subject matter – are well matched to the complex moral world of this pious Catholic with a taste for renaissance nudes. It’s tempting to see Philip – and all war-mongering tyrants –  in the role of Tarquin here, his attack reflecting the ugly violence of hyper-masculine desire for conquest, overwhelming – not even seeing –  the humanity of the victims of war. Perhaps Lucretia cries for us all.


Further Reading

For Titian’s late paintings, see now the relevant chapters in Maria Loh, Titian’s Touch. Art, Magic and Philosophy (2019)

On sexual assault and its punishment in the Renaissance, amongst others, Guido Ruggiero, The Boundaries of Eros: Sex Crime and Sexuality in Renaissance Venice (1985)

The little that we know of Angela del Moro is collected together in Douglas Salkeld, Shakespeare Among the Courtesans: Prostitution, Literature and Drama, 1500-1650 (2012).

The landmark book on images of sexual assault in the Renaissance is Diane Wolfthal, Images of Rape: The Heroic Tradition and Its Alternatives (1998)

Mary Beard lecture on Lucretia and the politics of sexual violence

Further blog posts and videos discussing some of these issues in Renaissance art by me, and the most splendid Sherry Lindquist and Thomas Kren, see the Getty Iris blog.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Clara Peeters’ Still Life with Flowers and the “Feminine” Virtue of Patience: Art Pickings 2.

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.

This is now also available as a video lecture

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Raphael’s Fornarina, Sex Work and Cross-Dressing in Renaissance Rome

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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


Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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.



Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

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:

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments