How to see naked men
Seeing naked or near-naked men in the Renaissance does not seem to have been very difficult. I should point out that looking at naked people is not, necessarily, erotic. Indeed, the word for naked, nudo, in Italian had pejorative connotations, as suggested by the definition of “nudo” in John Florio’s 1611 English/Italian dictionary: nude, naked, bare, discovered; also poore, beggarly, and deprived of.
Near nakedness in Italian renaissance cities was rather more common than you might suppose. Poor people sometimes couldn’t afford many clothes, and the clothes they had were worn and tattered. This could pose a problem of accidental genital display. In fact, several Italian states passed sumptuary laws specifically disallowing the public display of genitals. Thus in Lucca, in 1342, it is forbidden for people over 14 to be seen publicly naked. Similarly, in 1375 in Aquila, short doublets are banned because they allow the genitals to remain uncovered.
Some occupations also required workers to be near-naked. Sometimes for comfort – labourers may have stripped to their underwear in the hot Italian summers, and swimming and fishing were also activities that were done naked or near-naked, as in this detail from the chain map of Florence.
Other jobs, such as dying and curing leather, involved some workers standing naked in vats of urine as part of the process.
Certainly in northern europe, these workers would walk near naked to and from work – in an age where clothing was relatively expensive, and washing was time-consuming, it would be foolish to risk dowsing a set of clothes in wet and smelly substances.
So although male genitals were certainly taboo, it seems they were sometimes seen – and near-naked men dressed in just their underwear was likely to have been a relatively common sight in the renaissance city.
How to see naked women
Female public nakedness or near-nakedness was much more unusual, and much more connected to transgression and public shame. There is some evidence in some cities that prostitutes, for example, would bear their breasts publicly. According to Michele Savonarola, in Ferrara, prostitutes were allowed to keep their breasts partially or totally uncovered in order to tempt men from the greater sin of sodomy. The Ponte delle Tette in Venice also seems to have been a location where prostitutes would show off their breasts to passing trade.
There were also races in Ferrara and Rome where prostitutes would run through the city naked. This would take place at carnival time in Rome and on the Palio di San Giorgio in April in Ferrara and be closely related to marking the marginal positions of these groups. There was also a ritual humiliation of adulterous women in Ferrara called the scopa where they were made to run naked through the city; in 1356 in Florence legislation was passed to punish female servants who broke sumptuary laws with being flogged naked through the city. (For these practices in Ferrara, see Deanna Shemek’s Ladies Errant)
It’s not surprising then, that for aristocratic women, nakedness was something to be avoided at all costs. Castiglione’s Courtier includes a comment on “affected refinement” about a lady who was thinking of something that always makes me shudder when it comes to mind and always oppresses my heart. And this is that on the Day of Judgement all our bodies must rise and appear naked before the tribunal of Christ, and I cannot tell you the distress I feel at the thought that my body will have to appear naked as well.
This may be light-hearted; less so was a diplomatic incident of 1463 during marriage negotiations between the Gonzaga and Sforza families. The Sforza demanded to the see the potential bride – Dorotea Gonzaga – naked, in case she had a hunchback. The Gonzaga resisted as they argued it wasn’t “honest” to show 14 year old girl naked to a man – even to doctors, in private – but they would let her be examined with her dress on. The Sforza doctors, however, insisted that they needed to see her backbone naked and her chest in front. The marriage was called off.
Did people have sex naked?
Not necessarily it seems. Although married couples are often depicted naked in bed, aside from their head coverings, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they would see each other naked during sex, or at other times. In fact, the evidence suggests that this was thought to be rather perverse and transgressive.
Giovanni Pontano, in his treatise On the Prince of 1493 illustrates King Dionysius’ anxiety through explaining that he never had intercourse with either of his two wives “unless they had been stripped naked beforehand”. This is clearly deemed a bit odd and unnecessary. Moralists of the time were absolutely determined that married people should not witness each other naked. Francesco Barbaro in his De Re Uxoria of 1416 suggests that wives should never be seen naked, and also be silent: “it is expedient that not only the arms, but indeed the discourses of a woman should be hidden; for the speech women is not less to be feared than the nakedness of the body”.
Perhaps even more telling about the suspicions about gazing at a naked body are the words of Cherubino da Siena in his Rules for Married Life (1450-1481): “Certainly, when a wife needs to see her husband’s shameful parts, for some illness or for another necessity, it is not a sin; in fact, it is a charity. But when they do it for brute delight, it is a sin; because… some things are permitted to do, but not permitted to see. You, woman, never agree to allow yourself to be seen naked by your husband; because he is sinning, and so are you.”
Strangely enough, this suspicion of seeing naked women is also suggested by renaissance pornography, which suggests that women took of their undershirts, or camicie, only very reluctantly. For example, in the anonymous dialogue from the 1520s, Giulia e Maddalena, when Giulia is peering through cracks in her bedroom floor at her cousin and his wife, Caterina, in their bedroom, she sees Caterina take off her camicia in order to check it for fleas. When her husband asks to have sex with her, she puts her camicia back on! Then, when Giulia takes a lover herself, Roberto, they have illicit trists in the donkey’s stable. Various positions are described – standing up, sitting down, her on top, him on top and so on before the climax, so to speak, of their sexual relationship, when Roberto asks her to take off her undershirt, as to see her naked was what he desired “above everything else”. A similar thing happens with her next lover, Federico, who also begs her to take off her camicia:
I didn’t want to do it” Giulia says, “no way, but at the end he begged me and I took it off. Both of us stripped naked, we embraced each other and looked at each other everywhere.
In Aretino’s Dialogues (early 1530s), his character Nanna, a procuress explains to her daughter, who she’s training to be a courtesan, about the peccadillos of wealthy clients. She says that they sometimes “get a huge mirror, undress us and make us go about completely naked, and then they force us to hold the most obscene postures and positions that the human fantasy can concoct. They gaze longingly at our faces, breasts, nipples, shoulders, loins, cunnies and thighs, nor could I possibly tell you how that satiates their lust and the pleasure they get from looking”
I’d like to emphasise here that the act of looking, even when allowed or invited by a sexual partner, is in itself transgressive, and has a sexual charge of its own. It’s not necessarily a preamble to touching, but constitutes a separate erotic experience. The gender of the naked person is all important. Visual access to women’s bodies was closely controlled.
Female nudes and women’s bodies
Unlike in real life, where gazing at a naked female body would be understood as socially transgressive, sinful and may well have been a fleeting pleasure at most, paintings and prints of female nudes allowed their viewer the lasting illicit pleasure of feasting his (and, perhaps, her) eyes on a beautiful naked form for a protracted period of time. The fact that many of these nudes are sleeping, or ladies who seem to be surprised whilst getting dressed or putting make up on, means that these women are not culpable, or in social disgrace. This may have been reflected in real-life practices, as suggested by the following passage in Alessandro Piccolomini’s Raffaella a “dialogue about good manners for ladies” of 1534. Here Raffaella tells her young charge, Margarita, about the lengths she should go to to engineer showing off her body to young men without letting it seem that she wants to be seen:
If you have a good chest, it’s of the greatest importance for a woman to find out ways that it can be seen (and especially to show that it is naturally beautiful, not through artulness). So in the morning pretend to get up without tying up your dress, and so he’ll know that the breasts are round and pronounced by themselves without support. You can also play in the snow, or bathe with water in summer, and then as you’re all damp make it necessary to untie yourself to get dry. You can show off a nice leg in the villa going to fish or catch birds, and show your arms horse riding. If your whole body is nice, make sure you go bathing at a time you can be seen.
The erotic transaction of looker and looked is presented here as something of a game. The balance of power between the two partners is not simply one way, these women are not the passive recipients of an all-powerful “male gaze”. But stripped of any significant political or economic agency in the main, women’s sovereignty over their bodies, and the ability to hide or reveal their nakedness at will, was clearly of huge importance. Real-life renaissance women, as I’ve discussed previously, took opportunities to modify their faces and bodies to make them conform to an ideal that might attract a “better” husband or lover, one of the few types of agency that was available to them.
I wonder, also if there is a class dynamic in this transaction. Is sight a more noble sense than touch? At any rate, the “pleasure” aristocratic men got from looking (according to Aretino at least), coupled with the unacceptability of their female counterparts appearing naked, even within marriage, perhaps created the perfect storm in which images of the female nude could be appreciated, both erotically and aesthetically, by European elites.
(This post is a version of a paper I gave yesterday at the Graduate Seminar for History of Art at the University of Cambridge. A longer version, with full references, will be published in my forthcoming book, The Italian Renaissance Nude: Nakedness in Art and Life 1400-1530).