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.
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 do” in 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.
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.
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.
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
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…”
The 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.
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.
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 chamber”for rest and relaxation in his palace at Ferrara with paintings largely by Titian.
These 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 notation 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.”
It 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.
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.