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 a senior lecturer in Renaissance Art History at the University of Edinburgh, and the Associate Editor of the journal Renaissance Studies. 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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8 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

  2. Pingback: What is Talent? Musings on Art and Gender

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

  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.

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