Teaching and Researching the Renaissance

Dirk Jacobsz Vellert, School Room, woodcut, 1526. Image (c) British Museum

I’m officially back from two years’ research leave (courtesy of a Philip Leverhulme Prize). I can’t pretend that I didn’t find the time useful in finishing several book projects that have been ongoing for a while (as well as starting others), but like most academics I know, one of the reasons I wanted to do this job in the first place was to teach, and I have missed working with undergraduate students.

The research/teaching divide is a little false anyway; pulling together material for a course, dividing it up into separate weeks and choosing on significant themes (while necessarily discarding others) is exactly the kind of thing you have to do whilst writing a book. It seems to me a shame that thousands of renaissance studies courses are being taught internationally, but relatively few are accessible online. You can learn a lot from reading other people’s courses; as I’ve just found out reading a new course about early modern human/animal relationships by a friend and colleague, Sarah Cockram, and learnt huge amounts about an area that I would like to know more about, but wasn’t entirely sure how to get started with.

To that end, I’ve put my course materials online, using the wiki service offered by the University of Edinburgh. My new second semester course (“How to Make Italian Renaissance Art”) is very much a work in progress,  and will be filled in progressively during the next month or so. My first semester course (“The Renaissance Body”) is one that I’ve taught for a few years, (in fact it has been responsible for framing many of my research questions) but I made some extensive changes to it this summer after doing all the reading for my nudes book. My MSc options course, Medieval and Renaissance Italy: Texts, Objects and Practices, is taught onsite in Florence and Prato, in collaboration with History at Monash University, the website was written last year so that Australian students could easily access the course materials. I’ll be transferring this to Edinburgh University’s wiki pages this semester.

Of course, there’s bound to be gaps in my knowledge that will be exposed here – and in some way that’s the point of putting the courses on the web. I hope that if people know articles, books or websites that they think would help my students (and me), they’ll  let me know in the comments to this post.  If there’s any collection of online renaissance/early modern courses that would also be useful – and if not I’m happy to put together a page of links here if I get sent any. Collaboration can only be good for both research and teaching.

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That’s no saint! Mirrors, witches and seeing yourself naked

As last week was overrun with discussing, making up, and trying out renaissance cosmetics ( and I’m updating the Making Up the Renaissance website as fast as I can alongside my other work) I didn’t have time for my normal blog post. I did, however, spot a couple of images that I thought would be perfect to talk about whilst I was once again looking through the fantastically useful British Museum Collections Database. I was searching for images of mirrors. As I briefly mentioned in a previous post,  I’m interested in how innovations in mirror technology (particularly the advent of flat glass mirrors, as opposed to convex glass or polished metal) may have affected body image. This happened at the very beginning of the sixteenth century, the first flat glass mirror patent being taken out in Venice in 1507. Largescale flat mirrors meant, I think, that people would be able to observe their entire bodies in mirrors for the first time. I’m wondering what kind of emotional charge that might have had. Anyone who remembers the TV series  What not to Wear, where candidates were ritually humiliated about their fashion choices and their rubbish bodies whilst standing in a small room lined with large mirrors, will know what I mean.

Monogrammist M, Vanity and Death, mid 16th century, British Museum

Although the What not to Wear hosts might have been vindictive, at least they weren’t actually Death, as in this Italian print from around the mid-sixteenth century. He peaks round the corner, holding an hour glass leering (as much as skeletons can leer?) at a naked woman trying to see herself from behind in a large flat mirror.  “Mortalia Facta Peribunt” says the Latin inscription at the bottom, “mortal things will perish”. The woman seems to be a kind of mixture of  Michelangelo’s Louvre Dying Slave and his Dawn in the Medici chapel, possibly an indicator of the most beautiful body someone could aim to own in the mid-sixteenth century?

Death and Vanity, to my knowledge, is much more common as a subject for prints in Northern Europe, particularly Germany, than in Italy. The same is true of images of witchcraft. There’s some fantastic German images of witches undertaking demonic rituals from the early sixteenth century by Dürer and Hans Baldung, but not many Italian images that are equivalent (if you want to read more about the German images, the relevant chapter in Joseph Koerner’s The Moment of Self-Portraiture might be a good start). Perhaps the nearest Italian equivalent to the frenzied German witches is an enigmatic print possibly by Agostino Veneziano called Lo Stregozzo.

Agostino Veneziano, Witch(?), British Museum.

So I was happy, and surprised,when I noticed the print to the left. Definitely by Agostino Veneziano (his signature is on it), the BM had catalogued this as an image of St Margaret, Looking at her though, it’s not likely that this woman is a saint – she’s all together too lascivious. Although she’s alongside a demon-type creature (at the bottom right), which could be St Margaret’s dragon, St Margaret isn’t normally shown next to a cave, nor does she wear a flimsy see-through dress which she suggestively raises with her left hand. That demon-type creature also seems suspiciously phallic if you look closely. In her other hand she holds a convex mirror – perhaps intended to be a scrying glass (like a crystal-ball, convex mirrors were sometimes held to reveal the future and other occult secrets to people who knew how to use them). I have to say I don’t work on witchcraft, so I’m not going to do much with this image, but I’d love to hear from anyone who wants to do further research on it, or from those people who have already done some great research on witchcraft images in Italy. Anyhow, it seems to me that we can add this print to the small list of Italian images of witches. It would be good to know if this reflects actual ritual (there are several extant witchcraft trials, especially from northern Italy), or whether it’s just an artist’s fantasy. I wonder if there’s any others that have been miscatalogued?

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Pollaiuolo’s Battle of Naked Africans?

This week has been concerned a strange, but fun, mixture of finalising our renaissance make up recipes for the Making Up the Renaissance study day (finding red sandalwood, allum and vinegar to make lipstick and blusher, for example), and avid reading of Alvise Cadamosto’s account of his voyages to Africa in the 1450s. As the cosmetics day is on Friday, I’ll blog about the properties of the renaissance make up next week. Today, I’ll stick to Cadamosto, which is a fascinating read, if you’re interested in finding out what Europeans thought about people from Africa, in a time when they weren’t really sure what was south of the Sahara.

Cadamosto (or Ca’ da Mosto) was a Venetian adventurer, who sailed on the Portuguese voyages of discovery to Western Africa in 1455-6, going to present-day Senegal. The important thing about his account is his detailed description of the climate, peoples and animals he encountered.  The account of his travels wasn’t published until 1507, but was available in manuscript form in Italy from the late 1460s.

Memmo di Filipuccio, Bed Scene, c. 1320, Palazzo del Podestà, San Gimignano

In chapter 2 of the renaissance nudes book, I talk about how Cadamosto’s description of the naked natives he saw influenced the way people thought about nakedness, and thus how the nude was represented in painting and sculpture. Before the 1470s, nude figures do occur in the visual arts, but its normally for understandable reasons that have to do with telling a story. So, for example, Adam and Eve are naked because that’s what it says about them in the Bible; or you might get figures in bed for scenes of lovers, who are naked for obvious reasons – although they almost always wear a hat, as above!  After the 1470s, though,  you start to get nudes who have no obvious narrative purpose.

Antonio del Pollaiuolo was a pioneer of the male-nude-in-action form, which was to become repeatedly revisited in Italian renaissance art. His most famous work is probably the incredibly influential Battle of Naked Men which – though obviously inspired by the heroic nudes of classical antiquity – show men who seem “primitive” (according to Joseph Manca), or “bestial” and “degraded” (Patricia Emison), or “undignified” and “vicious” (Alison Wright), which has been a bit of a mystery for art historians in terms of finding a convincing iconography.

It doesn’t correspond in every way, but Cadamosto’s account of battling African tribes in Senegal is very close in mood to Pollaiuolo’s image:

Antonio del Pollaiuolo Battle of the Nudes, c. 1470, this impression at the British Museum (for link, see below).

These black lords often got to war with one another, and also very frequently with their neighbours. Their wars are waged on foot, because they have very few horses … They do not have armour, but only have broad round shields, and for attack they carry many “Azanage”, which are their spears, and they throw them quickly … They also carry some Moorish swords (gomie), in the shape of a small scimitar, that is curved; and they are made of iron, not of steel ….  Also they carry into battle another weapon, an “azaga, almost like a ghiaverina (a type of Italian spear), but they don’t have any other weapons. Their wars are deadly, as their bodies are unprotected, many are slain. They are very daring and bestial: at every danger they would more quickly stay and kill each other than attempt to flee. They are not afraid of seeing their companions killed, as these men are so accustomed to death it seems that they do not care about it, and they do not fear death at all.

Cadamosto, elsewhere in his text, talks about how these Africans went around naked, about some tribes using poison arrows, and he emphasises the fertility of their land – perhaps reflected by the sorghum and vines in the back of the image.

I’m not claiming to have found the magic iconographical bullet, but the mood of the passage,  and, importantly, its attitude towards “bestial” African peoples, may have influenced Pollaiuolo and his Florentine patrons. I’m becoming more and more convinced that the voyages of discovery are fundamental to the development of the artistic nude.

More on the Pollaiuolo’s battle scene, plus lots of technical details and further reading at the excellent websites of:
The British MuseumThe Metropolitan Museum and The Cleveland Museum of Art

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Finding Out What’s Normal: Making Lists

Back when I started my PhD, many eons ago, my supervisor, Pat Rubin, suggested I should establish “what was normal” in terms of patterns of art commissioning for Florentine patricians. This was, I think, great advice, and involved me (possibly in naïve enthusiasm) attempting to make a list of every artwork made in Florence between 1494 and 1512 for which we have a patron’s name.

I was also interested in tracing networks of patrons and artists to see if there was a political dimension to taste (very influenced by Frederick Antal’s Florentine Painting and its Social Background, as well as a great article by William Wallace, “‘Michelangelo in and out of Florence between 1500 and 1508’, in S. Hager (ed.), Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael in Renaissance Florence from 1500-1506 (Washington D.C., 1992), pp. 54-88). Because of this I also made a big database of  Florentine patricians linked with the mentions made of them in various chronicles.

Over the years a couple of people have asked me about certain individuals and I’ve (often) been able to use these databases to give them some references to chronicle sources. It struck me that these notes would be more useful freely available than languishing, barely looked at, on my computer.  So, I’ve set up a databases and notes page. Today, I’ve added the database of patrician’s names first, because this is the biggest list and also, possibly, the most useful; but the other databases will follow, whenever I have time.

To be honest, this is very specialist stuff – but if anyone is doing research on Florence in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, and wants to look up an individual or family name, or to work out which family is connected to which artists, I hope it might be helpful. Having said that, there are probably a ton of mistakes, so it’s essential to check them alongside the original sources  (of course…)

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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.

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Cosmetics, mirrors and pubic shaving

Titian, Venus with a Mirror, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Most of this week has been taken up with organistion of a study day on Renaissance Cosmetics at the National Gallery of Scotland – more info at the Making Up the Renaissance website. It’s been a real pleasure as I’m co-organising it with Tricia Allerston from the National Galleries, one of my PhD students, Jackie Spicer, and Anna Canning, a herbalist and, luckily for us, all round polyglot wonder. Anna is making up some cosmetics recipes from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti, a text that Jackie worked on for her masters dissertation last year, and we worked out yesterday which recipes we should try out. We plan to post Anna’s modern version of the recipes, plus photos of the result of us trying out these recipes on willing student volunteers, on the website.

There are lots of unanswered questions about renaissance cosmetics, which have not been studied very much to date, despite the fact that it’s a great subject for considering issues like female identity, ideas of beauty, the impact of disease on populations (many of the cosmetics recipes seem to be related to ridding the face of scarring due to skin disease), the availability and understanding of ingredients, early medicine in the home, and how health problems were tackled in the home.

Pontormo, Self Portrait, c. 1523, British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings.

My own interest is through the work I’m doing on body image – in particular, I was trying to work out if pubic shaving was something that became more popular when images of hairless female nudes became more diffused in the early sixteenth century: did women try to make their bodies look like classical sculpture? Was the invention of the flat reflecting mirror  towards the end of the fifteenth century responsible for people being more body conscious? One thing it did make possible was full body naked self-portraits, like the one by Pontormo to the left (this image taken from the fantastic British Museum collections database).

Trying to find out this kind of thing is difficult even now – but it’s really difficult if you’re peering through 500 years of history. One of the sources you can look at though are a type of book called Books of Secrets – lists of recipes for cosmetics, medicines, even sometimes poisons, that were designed to be made up at home. There’s several Italian books of secrets from the sixteenth century, and they all do seem to contain recipes for getting rid of body hair. The evidence would suggest that some women certainly did shave, or otherwise remove, their pubic and body hair during the renaissance, sometimes in rather terrifying ways. Here’s a recipe from a 1532 Book of Secrets:

how to remove or lose hair from anywhere on the body… boil together a solution of one pint of arsenic and 8th of a pint of quicklime. Go to a baths or a hot room and smear medicine over the area to be depilated. When the skin feels hot, wash quickly with hot water so the flesh doesn’t come off.

Not one we’re trying on the study day.

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Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1

Michelangelo NightWhen I give a talk, or run a class that includes work by Michelangelo, generally at some point someone will suggest that Michelangelo’s female figures look like “men with breasts”. I have to admit, that I sometimes deliberately task students with describing a picture of Michelangelo’s Night (right) just so I can elicit this reaction – it’s a really useful starting point for discussing ideas about what we expect men and women’s bodies to look like, whether renaissance art is naturalistic, differing ideals of beauty and so on. Because this has happened so frequently, my title for yesterday’s masterclass at Glasgow uni was “Men With Breasts: Michelangelo’s Female Nudes and the Historical Context for Body Image”.

An explanation that people often given for the Michelangelo men-with-breasts phenomenon – which we should properly call the aesthetic of androgyny – is that they couldn’t get female nude models in the Renaissance, so artists just juxtaposed the head and breasts of women on men’s bodies. Because of stringent controls over female modesty, the idea goes, it was inappropriate for women to get undressed in front of men. In fact, this is the explanation given in Gill Saunders 1989 book, The Nude: A New Perspective– “female nudes in the painting and sculpture of the [renaissance] period were derived from male models … so they appear unconvincing”.

Now, this is both right and wrong. It’s true of course that for many women, especially women from the upper classes, there was strict control over their dress and comportment in the Renaissance. It’s also true that many of the female figures in renaissance paintings were based on male models – this is common practice, and goes well beyond Michelangelo. There were more men available around a painter’s workshop after all. What’s not true is that it necessarily made for unconvincing women – Raphael’s St Catherine of Alexandria was based on a male model, and I don’t see her as particularly androgynous.

There was also, however, women in this period who would take their clothes off in return for payment or other favours; it’s probably best not to make assumptions about women’s lives in the past based solely on the evidence from a social elite. Although there’s not very many drawings after the female nude still in existence, there’s plenty of evidence for renaissance artists having naked women models, especially after 1500 – there’ll be more about this in a chapter of my nudes book. As a matter of fact, one of the handful of extant renaissance drawings after the female nude is by Michelangelo (to the left, now in the Louvre). This image of a naked kneeling woman, her hair plaited around her head, is a study for Mary Magdalen in his unfinished Entombment panel, which was painted around 1500 for the church of Sant’Agostino in Rome (therein lies a tale about courtesan culture in Rome, but I’ll save that for another post).

If Michelangelo, then, knew what women’s bodies looked like, and was clearly able to draw them (being quite handy at drawing), we have to assume that the appearance of his women was through deliberate choice rather than ignorance. I’ll return to what these choices may have been in the next post – I’m off to the library now to start reading the new edition of The Image of the Black in Western Art.

For more on this, see Men with Breasts 2….

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