“Is she pregnant, or just out of shape?” Misogyny and description in art history

Rosso Fiorentino, Female NudeThere’s nothing really known about this  drawing in the Uffizi by Rosso Fiorentino. It’s generally dated for stylistic reasons to the early 1520s. In red chalk, it portrays a woman – naked apart from a ring of pearls around her neck and the jewels in her unravelling hair – pointing with her right hand to something beyond the picture plain, whilst her left hand is placed on top of her head. Many commentators have found this woman’s body shape puzzling. In the words of the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, “is she pregnant or just out of shape”?

For me, it doesn’t seem puzzling at all – the woman is neither pregnant, nor out of shape, but her body reveals its own history, a history of pregnancy. This woman’s rounded stomach is a reminder of past pregnancies, a stomach that is familiar to many women today too, but tends to be hidden or perceived as an anomaly to be “remedied” by stomach crunches or plastic surgery. Rosso, rather than making an idealised nude form that has no relationship to time, shows a body that, I think, is hauntingly beautiful, but built into time, particularised but also universal in showing the rounded but softened belly that is familiar to most women who have given birth. It’s telling that this shape is largely missing from our familiar visual vocabulary of femininity – where slenderness and pregnancy are both acceptable, expected, but an interim state is somehow shocking. Is the internet  helping to remedy this?

The other, more famous, example of a formerly pregnant belly in renaissance art is Michelangelo’s Night. The language used by art historians to describe this older woman is often startlingly hostile and casually misogynistic – with reference to her spent, flaccid abdomen, her “tired” breasts, or the distortion of her body (distorted from what perceived norm?). In the Renaissance, this sculpture was praised for its beauty. Why does modern western culture view the post-pregnancy female body with such distaste? Would the history of art history have been the same if it had been largely written by mothers?

Image “Night … is a woman who has passed through many pregnancies. Those deeply delved wrinkles on the vast and flaccid abdomen sufficiently indicate this” (John Addington Symonds)

“a slumbering female of mature years whose spent breasts and slack belly have led many observers to characterize her as a mother” (Edith Balas)

“heavy-limbed Night, with her tired breasts and creased belly” (Honour and Fleming:)

“The figure’s weary yet still distressed and agonized form, her distended abdomen and breasts, testifies to the history of a different “interior” life, the life of a body that has brought forth and nourished other bodies, even if it is now barren” ( Kenneth Gross)

“brutally masculine proportions, with hanging breasts and wrinkled abdomen” (Metheny Robb and Janes Garrison)

Whereas Day is a Virgin with “firm high breasts”, Night is a mother, “whose abdomen and breasts are distorted by childbirth and lactation”. (Frederick Hartt)

“her worn-out body with its sagging breasts and loose abdominal muscles”. (Bernard Samuel Myers:)

Night has the “pendulous breasts and slack stomach muscles of a woman who has borne children” (Dixon)

“disturbingly masculine” Night’s elongated chest and stomach resemble “a shapeless trunk cut across with four horizontal furrows” (Yael Even).

Night’s “lean, lithe, and washboard-muscled body seems distinctly male, save for the unusual length of her torso, the fullness of her hip, and the breasts that hang like sacs from her board-flat sternum. Their distended nipples have been sucked so deeply that they have begun to deflate, as has her will”. (Eric Scigliano).

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The bureaucrat, the Mona Lisa, and leaving things rough

In early 2007, a rash of stories appeared in the international media about the discovery of the “true” identity of the Mona Lisa. The excitement was linked to the publication of a marginal note in an early printed edition of Cicero’s Epistulae ad familiare (printed in Bologna, 1477) now in Heidelberg University Library (catalogue nos D7620 qt. /inc. (GW 6821) – and available online as are many fantastic historical resources. This note had first been published by Armin Schlecter in his entry on the edition in an exhibition catalogue of Heidelberg’s incunabula in 2005, but had not been widely noticed at that time. [Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg ed., Die edel kunst der truckerey. Ausgewählte Inkunabeln der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. Ausstellungskatalog, Heidelberg 2005, Nr. 20 and fig. 8]. Earlier this year, Schlecter also published an exhaustive discussion of this book and its marginal annotations in an article freely consultable online – Ita Leonardus Vincius facit in omnibus suis picturis: Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa und die Cicero-Philologie von Angelo Poliziano bis Johann Georg Graevius”, IASL Online, [29.04.2008].

The annotation that has caused all the excitement was written on p. 11a of the book,  alongside a section of Cicero’s text – “Apelles perfected the head and bust of his Venus with the most elaborate art, but left the rest of her body in the rough” [Nunc ut Appelles Veneris caput & summa pectoris politissima arte perfecit: reliquam partem corporis incohatam reliquit]. I read the Latin note as meaning “Apelles the painter. Thus Leonardo da Vinci does in all his paintings, as is the head of Lisa del Giocondo and of Anne, mother of the Virgin  we will see what he will do in the Hall  of the Great Council he now made an agreement with the gonfaloniere [Piero Soderini]. 1503, October”.   [[Apelles] pictor. Ita leonar/dus uincius facit in omnibus suis / picturis. ut est Caput lisę del giocondo. et annę matris uirginis / videbimus quid faciet de aula / magni consilii. de qua re conuenit / iam cum vexillario. 1503. 8bris”]

This discovery is one of the most significant finds in Leonardo studies of recent years. To some extent, this is through confirming what we already know. Vasari’s Life of Leonardo was formerly our only source for Lisa del Giocondo being the subject of a renowned portrait by Leonardo. This contemporary reference both confirms that Vasari was correct, and confirms the date of 1503, that has generally been accepted as the start date of this portrait. Some sceptics may still point out the painting in the Louvre is not necessarily the same one as Leonardo started in Florence just over five hundred years ago, but I would guess that the majority of art historians will accept this compelling evidence for the date and identification.

It is more problematic to identify the St Anne described here with the several versions of the subject Leonardo made. It may be, as Schlecter argues, that this refers to the painting of the Virgin and Child with St Anne that Vasari says later went to France, but this needs more investigation. The “videmus quid faciet” could either be linked to Vespucci’s discussion of this painting, as Schlecter supposes, or possibly to the discussion of the Hall of the Great Council. At any rate, the note here further supports the argument put forward by Alessandro Cecchi of the centrality of Piero Soderini, the Florentine gonfaloniere a vita, in the commission for the decoration of the Great Council Hall.

The writer of the annotation, Agostino Vespucci, was well-placed to observe Leonardo’s activities in Florence. An assistant to Niccolo Machiavelli, the second chancellor of the republic, Vespucci’s name comes up as a scribe for the work Leonardo did for the government during this year, most notably his inspection of the Florentine fortress, La Verrucca, in June. It was Vespucci, too, who wrote the description of the Battle of Anghiari translated from Leonardo Dati’s Trophaeum Anglaricum that appears in the Codex Atlanticus. In late 1503, he was working as secretary to Antonio Tebalducci Giacomini,the commissioner in Romagna, potentially significant as Leonardo’s 1501 St Anne cartoon has been connected with the Tebalducci Giacomini St Anne chapel in the Annunziata. Leonardo’s place in a network of men at the centre of military affairs in Florence in the early 1500s would perhaps make him come readily to Vespucci’s mind (more on this in my article “Missed Deadlines and Creative Excuses: Fashioning Eccentricity for Leonardo and Michelangelo“).

Perhaps the most suggestive part of this new find, however, is the insight it gives us into perceptions of finish in early cinquecento painting. It is significant that Vespucci interprets the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo as being completed, despite the fact that part of the painting lack finish, are left “inchoate”. It could be that the fashion for display of drawings and unfinished works in Florence in the early sixteenth century were perceived by some of the educated elite, such as Vespucci, as referring to the practice of Apelles as noted by Cicero. In other words, could leaving works “unfinished” in itself be taken as a sign of artistry?

(This was originally written for the Leonardo da Vinci Society newsletter in May 2008 as “Agostino Vespucci’s Marginal Note about Leonardo da Vinci in Heidelberg”, I republish this here in a very slightly revised form, with links and pictures)
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Vasari and Artistic Value

A couple of weeks ago, I took part in an event called “The irreverent interpretation: Before and After Vasari’s Lives of the Artists”, organised by the fantastic Transmission Gallery committee for the Glasgow Art Festival.  I talked alongside Fiona Jardine and Jan Verwoert. My role was to present Vasari as a kind of conceptual anchor for the notion of the artist, and consider how the cultural value of an object is tied to the identity of the artist – something I’ve been thinking about for a while, particularly in the late of “discoveries” of paintings by Leonardo da Vinci and others that seem to be in the news regularly. I talked about the workshop system, the advent of printing, and the birth of the “super artist” in the early sixteenth century. Lots of good stuff came out of the evening, and it was great to have an excursion away from Renaissance studies with people making and writing about contemporary art.

There’s a sound recording of the event available, so if you were very clever, you could probably somehow juxtapose the sound with these images from my talk (pdf file).  You also get to hear Jan Verwoert shake a banana.

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The Pitfalls of Genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

I’m in the midst of giving several talks and papers – two in the last week, in Birmingham and Glasgow respectively, and one next week in Washington D.C. at the Renaissance Society of America conference. I thought I’d post my powerpoints here in a series of posts (as more manageable PDF files) for those who might be interested.

Leonardo da Vinci, Study of Battles on Horseback and on Foot, Venice, Accademia, c. 1503-6.

First the Birmingham talk, which was give at a study day for the exhibition of ten drawings by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal Collection and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There’s a summary of the whole study day by Mar Dixon.

My talk was about how difficult Leonardo could be to work with – and how Florentines tended to complain about the fact that he really just never got round to finishing anything. Most famously (and frustratingly for the Florentine government) he never finished his mural of the Battle of Anghiari. This has been very much in the news this week as initial researches have indicated that something MAY be behind Vasari’s frecoes in the Sala dei Cinquecento in the Palazzo Vecchio; who knows what they will find if they go on with this procedure, given that this was an incomplete painting that went badly wrong technically from the beginning…

Dilatoriness mattered in the mercantile culture of renaissance Florence. Unlike in courts – where people seemed to be able to make a living by hanging around, being charming and coming up with witty or fantastical ideas – Florentines expected results for their money. Leonardo also, compared with Michelangelo, was a bit of a spendthrift, both with his own money and other people’s. As Bartolommeo Cerretani said, around 1509:

“At this time there were two Florentines who were leaders, most excellent in sculpture and painting. One was called Leonardo di Ser Piero da Vinci, he wasn’t legitimate and was employed with the king of France in Milan… amongst other excellent things he did a very famous Last Supper; but he didn’t do much work. The other was Michelangelo di Francesco di Buonarotto Simoni, citizen, who did many things in sculpture, especially a marble David, which is in front of the Palazzo della Signoria, and also in painting, and he was in Rome painting the Chapel of Pope Sixtus, and he was doing the tomb of Julius II. And they both earnt a lot, but Michelangelo earnt more because he worked harder, and really well. And I spoke to them many times and saw them work.

The talk was partly taken from recently published material, arguing for the construction of the notion of “artistic temperament” in the early sixteenth century – (“Missed Deadlines and Creative Excuses: Fashioning Eccentricity for Leonardo and Michelangelo” in “una insalata di piu erbe”: A Festschrift for Patricia Lee Rubin, ed. Jim Harris, Scott Nethersole and Per Rumberg (Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 2011), pp. 129-37.

Here’s’ the powerpoint (as a PDF file):
The pitfalls of genius: Leonardo and his frustrated patrons

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The Da Vinci Debate

Often, people who don’t have an in-depth knowledge of renaissance art use the short hand “Da Vinci” instead of “Leonardo”. Sometimes you will come across some cognoscenti admitting to “squirming” when they come across people referring to Da Vinci instead of Leonardo – see here or here for example.

Although they are certainly correct that the art historical convention is to use first names or nicknames for renaissance artists, the emphasis on the wrongs and rights of naming irks me. In fact, any sense of superiority about knowing the “proper” artist’s name, or the “correct” pronunciation/application of Italian terms (“chiaroscuro”, “pentimento”, “contrapposto”) irks me.  Why? Partly because I imbibed Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction  as a graduate student – and have spent much research time investigating  the ways people seek to delineate and shore up social difference. Partly because I think this kind of pettiness can make renaissance art seem scary, unapproachable and snobbish. Anything that might put people off coming to these often spectacular objects with a fresh appreciative eye is to a real shame.

Also – and this is the key bit –renaissance artists’ names are just conventions. They are not “correct” or “incorrect”; they are generally just what has been deemed the “correct” name by art historians, curators and collectors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What’s in a name? Conventions and names for renaissance artists.

Leonardo da Vinci


Agostino Vespucci on "Leonardus Vincius", 1503

This really does just mean Leonard from Vinci, and so da Vinci might not be thought of as a “proper” surname, just a way of distinguishing him from Leonard from Prato, or Leonard from Poggibonsi etc. But then what are surnames for if not to distinguish people? How to people gain their surnames in the first place? Da Vinci does seem to be established as some kind of family name during Leonardo’s lifetime. His father, after all, is called Ser Piero da Vinci. Contemporary documents use “Vinci” pretty much as a surname. He’s referred to in Latin as “Leonardus Vincius” at least a couple of times in 1503;  “Magistro Leonardo de Vinci”; “maestro Leonardo vinci, pittore del Christiamissimo Re” in 1507; in the same year he signs himself “Leonardus vincius pictor”. People don’t ever call him just “da Vinci” in the documents. But they don’t call Lorenzo de’ Medici just “Medici” either. It’s not a convention to use surnames in this way in the fifteenth century.


This means little barrels. It’s a nickname for a painter actually called Alessandro Filipepi. As far as I know, no-one “squirms” when people don’t say Filipepi or Alessandro.

Rosso Fiorentino

This means the red-headed Florentine. It’s normally shortened to Rosso. His real name is Giovanni Battista di Jacopo, but no-one calls him that.


This is the Latin/French/English version of Raffaello Sanzio, which has been in common usage since the sixteenth century.  He’s called Raffaello, of course, in Italian texts, often referred to as il Sanzio. His dad, though, is referred to as Giovanni Santi, a different form of the same surname.

Sebastiano del Piombo

Means Sebastian of the lead, reflecting his position of keeper of the papal seal, which he received from the pope in 1531. He shouldn’t really be referred to as Sebastiano del Piombo when referring to the earlier part of his life, if we are going to be strictly “correct”, but this has become the conventional way to refer to him in English-language sources.  His real name was Sebastiano Luciani, and he is referred to as Luciani in French sources.

There are many other Italian renaissance artists’ names that I could mention that are mainly derived from nicknames. In most cases, there’s a variety of potential names that, in theory, could be used.

In the end, if we all know who we mean, isn’t that what really matters?

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Another priapic Vitruvian man!

This is just a quick addition to my previous post. One response to Cesariano’s man was a 1536 Italian edition of Vitruvius by Giovanni Battista Caporali. As far as I understand it, the passage about human proportion here was based on Cesariano’s  translation, but edited and with  new images. You might assume that the potentially problematic erect phallus was omitted in this later edition, but no. It is, however, really quite different from Cesariano’s version. The picture’s to the right. (from the wonderful University of Heidelberg library; the original text is also on http://www.archive.org)

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Leonardo’s Measure – The Genitals of Vitruvian Men

There seems to have been something of a genital fixation amongst commentators on Vitruvius’  in the 1490s and early 1500s. Vitruvius’ book on architecture was a favourite for many renaissance theorists, and his small passage about human proportion was revisited several times, notably by Leon Battista Alberti in his On Sculpture, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in his treatise on architecture, and, most famously, by Leonardo da Vinci (some of these are collected together here; Leonardo’s version of the Vitruvian Man is to the right).

In a very tricky to interpret bit of text, Vitruvius attempts to create some rules to how each part of the human (for which read male) body relates to the rest (so the length of a foot is a sixth of the height of the entire man etc), and also says that” if a man lies on his back with his hands and feet outspread, and the centre of a circle is placed on his navel, his figure and toes will be touched by the circumference. Also a square will be found described within the figure, in the same way as a round figure is produced”.

Leonardo’s drawing is basically a response to Vitruvius’ ideas. He remeasured people himself and made a series of his own proportional drawings. His notes on proportions are written around the image (in mirror writing, of course).  He agrees with Vitruvius  that the stomach button could be the centre of a circle, but also argues that it is not the navel that’s the exact centre of the body, but the penis – or “virile member” to translate exactly (“Il membro virile nascie nel mezo dell’omo“). He’s shown this on the drawing with the horizontal line that goes across the base of the penis which is, indeed, half-way down the square.

Another commentator on Vitruvius, Cesare Cesariano,  translated the Latin text in a published edition of 1521. His illustration of a perfectly proportioned man has the belly button as the centre of both the circle and the square, but as if to make up for that, his figure has a prominent erection.

In yet another edition of Vitruvius from the early sixteenth century, a manuscript now in Ferrara by an anonymous  writer, his drawing of the canon of proportions is  illustrated by a man who also seems to have an erect penis (unless I’m seeing things) – the illustration is to the right.

I have a few ideas why this should be, and am currently writing them into a chapter on life drawing, proportion, and the perfect body. I’m still puzzling over this a little bit though, and wonder how Cesariano’s original audience may have reacted to this image?

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