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.
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.
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.