Men with Breasts – Michelangelo’s women 2

Michelangelo, Study for the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

So in the first part of this post, I’ve argued that Michelangelo’s women had access to female models, and that his use of male models for female figures wasn’t unusual. The other thing that is often mentioned in class is that Michelangelo was gay and thus somehow had an inbuilt distaste, or even inability, to portray women’s bodies accurately. Now, without getting too closely into the fluidity of sexual identities in the Renaissance/early modern period (if you’re interested, a great starting point is the essays in Judith Brown and Robert Davis, Gender and Society in Renaissance Italy), I don’t think it’s possible in this period that a person’s sexuality can be taken as a straightforward explanation for his or her artistic choices. Moreover, it certainly doesn’t explain why this type of image should be popular with a broader audience.

There are two easier explanations:
1)  androgynous bodies were thought to be beautiful in the Renaissance,
2) artistic nudes weren’t meant to be realistic.

The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today.  Thomas Laqueur has argued in relation to renaissance anatomical practice that at this time there was “only one canonical body and that body was male”. Although people have objected to what Laqueur has called the “one-sex model”, it seems to have been a highly influential way of understanding sexual difference in the renaissance. The idea was that the normative human body was male, and that women’s bodies were simply imperfect versions of men’s. For this reason, in  early anatomical books, the bodies used to demonstrate human physiology are always male unless the female reproductive system is specifically being studied

Women, after all, were related to Eve who was created from Adam’s rib. Leone Ebreo in his Dialogues of Love (written from the 1490s but first published in 1535) explains that when God created Adam, he was a complete human, containing both male and female parts; Eve was created from his rib whilst he was sleeping, as women represent the imperfect, passive and corporeal aspect of men – who are representative of the intellectual and spiritual tendencies of humans.

Leonardo da Vinci, John the Baptist, 1513-16, Paris, Louvre

No wonder then, that for some in the renaissance, the most beautiful women were those who looked the most like that perfect original form. Like is attracted to like, Marsilio Ficino explained: “Women truly easily capture men, and even more those women who bear a masculine character. And even more easily, men catch men, as they are more like men than are women”. Ficino’s follower, Mario Equicola, claimed in 1525 that “the effeminate male and the manly female are graceful in almost every aspect”. This was shown to comic effect in Benvenuto Cellini’s Autobiography, where he tells a story of a dinner party where he brought his young and beautiful model, Diego, dressed up as a woman, and Diego was declared the most beautiful of all the ladies. There are plenty of images of feminine-looking young men in the Renaissance that show the interest in male androgyny too – many of Leonardo da Vinci’s male figures look feminine (hence the non-controversy about John the Evangelist “really” being Mary Magdalen that Dan Brown talked about in the Da Vinci code).

There are good reasons, therefore, beyond convenience, why renaissance artists might study a male model as the basis for their female figures. What we need to do when looking at this type of renaissance nude is to disassociate ourselves from expectations of naturalism and to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful.

About jillburke

I'm Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures, in the School of History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. I'm currently writing a book called How to Be A Renaissance Woman, about make up, body care and hygiene in the sixteenth century. My last book, on the Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale University Press) was out in 2018, and I was also involved in the exhibition on The Renaissance Nude at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Royal Academy in London 2018-19. I have a research blog for putting out ideas and research more quickly than traditional publishing allows, and also to include thoughts, material and info that won't fit in an article or book.
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21 Responses to Men with Breasts – Michelangelo’s women 2

  1. Pingback: Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1 | renaissance research

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  4. Sarah says:

    This was very interesting to read, I’m really glad to have been linked to your blog. I’ve talked at length about this with my high school art history teacher and we both felt that the idea that Michelangelo was gay as explanation for why his female nudes appear more stereotypically masculine does a great disservice to less stereotypically feminine women. That these women are viewed as less attractive by our societal beauty ideals doesn’t mean that they have always been viewed that way, and I wish more people in art history would take the time you have to understand the past views on androgyny, etc, in society.
    I’ve often said that history teaches us what happened in the past but art history teaches us what people felt in the past. This post is a very good example of that.

  5. Ranjita says:

    The boundaries between male and female were conceived differently in renaissance culture than they are today Michelangelo womens Hot Female Models are so looking good.

  6. Tracy H. says:

    I can’t buy this theory entirely, though it is intriguing. Too many of Michelangelo’s female figures are so clearly rendered as young males with breasts stuck on any which way for it to be merely some different ideal of beauty. A Leda and the Swan that was on display next to David in Florence when I was there, gets dismissed as his by some art historians I’ve read/heard specifically because the model was very obviously female. I was taught that he actually considered the female form ugly and definitely did not want to use female models therefore.

  7. Hi your article is very interesting. I am at the moment reading the notebooks of da Vinci. It appears to me that his interest in androgynous figures was mostly esoteric. He appears to have a deep understanding of Hermetic symbolism and thought. On the topic of his being gay, I am inclined to say no, but I honestly am not sure. He is thought to have painted the Mona Lisa from his own image in a mirror. This sounds to me either simply the product of his own particular genius, or a sign that he had a basic female instinct, and was transgender. But again, seeing how debilitating gender dysphoria is, it’s hard to imagine how persons like this got along in society, much less accomplish such great feats.

    • Elias says:

      Dear me, i wasn’t about to comment on this as i was only looking through this while researching for a school project, but I do have something to contribute here. I am transgender myself, and have friends who are as well. I can tell you that every individual trans person has a different level of dysphoria. Moreover, that level often fluctuates throughout their life. Besides that, even with a nearly unbearable level of dysphoria, i have brought myself to my sketchbook to draw and it sometimes even helped me sort out my feelings. It makes me a bit uncomfortable when people insinuate that we can’t accomplish as much because of our dysphoria because it’s so untrue. It often makes it harder to socialize if you aren’t understood, but does not usually affect passions, hobbies etc that are done alone. I am certainly not saying I’m sold on this theory, because I’m really not. What I imagine when I hear that he painted her from his own image is that he referenced the proportions of his own face before creating unique characteristics for the subject shown in the painting. That’s just my view though.

    • Apollo says:

      If he did paint the Mona Lisa from his own image, it sounds more like he was a gay man living in a homophobic society, who was thought-experimenting on a way he could try to get around those harmful restrictions. If that is what it means to be transgender, maybe we should question why we, as a society, are expected to support this ideology, rather than deal with the homophobia that it stems from.

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  11. Donna Richardson says:

    There’s more than androgyny, homophilia, or lack of female models going on here. All that stuff, plus some serious dissing of women as worthy of male love (cf. The Symposium) are present in classical Greek culture, but the women do NOT look like men; they have rib cases, butts, bellies, and breasts proportional to real women. What’s creepy about Michelangelo’s women is that they literally have breasts stuck on a male torso–the breasts are too small, baseball-round,and separate from each other to be real. The bodies are deliberately de-sensualized and denaturalized and made to be repulsive nudes, in a way Greek female bodies are not (the naked Aphrodite of Praxiteles horrified Greeks who though female images should be clothed, but that apparently didn’t prevent men from trying to have sex with the statue, which is indeed pretty yummy). You just can’t help thinking that, other than a demure clothed Virgin Mary, Christian SPIRITUAL concepts of women at that time were just plain repulsed by the sensuality of the body and couldn’t deal with it. Michelangelo just can’t seem to transfer the same freedom from medieval convention to female bodies as he can to male ones–he can’t figure out how to combine the feminine sensual with the feminine spiritual. The Greeks never had that problem in their concepts of the gods.

  12. Ggerlitz says:

    I think it is a home erotic statement and testament to his relationship with the Medici’s and possible homosexuality eroticism exposure about the Medici’s. Michelangelo knew female anatomy and he is skilled… I think he is saying something about some happenings during the times.

  13. russofrevo says:

    glad I bumped into this, I was curious why Michelangelo’s females were so male looking,

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  16. michael g says:

    I’m not really sure but if you look at all of Michelangelo’s nudes and many clothed both male and female I find almost of them are all the same body type. He did this same muscle bound male form for all matter what ages they were depicted. The very old were as muscle bound as were the young, all the same. I doubt that he had only muscle bound models but that his style or maybe the local style at the time was to muscle up everyone in the same ways that today’s comic books male superheroes are. I do not know of all of his works but I was just reviewing a book on the Sistine Chapel and it is a rare image (I only remember one) that is not muscled up and there is a lot of bodies in there.

    • michael g says:

      PS I went back and reviewed the one image that I thought was not muscled up and viewing it from other images it too was given the muscled treatment. The clothing had fooled me somewhat..

  17. dépaysement says:

    So it boils down to misogyny. No surprises there.

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