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Astronomical sex

Two books explore how bodies were understood and sex was depicted in the Renaissance

Sensory overload: Rambures Master, Bath Scene, around 1470

Kenneth Clark caused a stir in his classic study The Nude (1956) when he took issue with the prevailing formalist accounts of nudity in art. Clark cited an influential passage from Samuel Alexander’s Beauty and Other Forms of Value (1933) in which erotic arousal was deemed irrelevant to aesthetics: “If the nude is so treated that it raises in the spectator ideas or desires appropriate to the material subject, it is false art, and bad morals”. For Clark, this “high-minded theory is contrary to experience…no nude, however abstract, should fail to arouse in the spectator some vestige of erotic feeling, even although it be only the faintest shadow—and if it does not do so, it is bad art and false morals. The desire to grasp and be united with another human body is so fundamental a part of our nature, that our judgment of what is known as ‘pure form’ is inevitably influenced by it”.

Over the past 50 years, art historians and artists of many stripes have been increasingly interested in issues of what we might term “viewer arousal”, and the nude has been central to those enquiries, though not always regarded in the relaxed way Clark envisaged. In our resolutely impure, “interactive” art world, empathy goes hand in hand with antipathy.

Sense and sensuality

One major academic growth industry has been the historical study of the senses, in which the sensory hierarchies and experiences of the past are reconstructed. François Quiviger’s The Sensory World of Italian Renaissance Art is one of the most stimulating and ambitious. He first explores Renaissance theories of the five senses, and then shows how these theories operate in works of art, firing the imagination and influencing the behaviour of the viewer. Quiviger works at the Warburg Institute, and his book is a primer in the same mould as his predecessor Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy.

Quiviger’s overarching contention is that during the Renaissance, Europeans followed Aristotle in believing that their skulls contained three spherical ventricles that processed and stored the sensory data by which the higher faculties of the rational soul acquired knowledge of the world. This gave sensory data a unique importance, and also underpinned the prestige of images, and ultimately of image-makers. The belief that the brain was a place where images are formed and stored influenced, Quiviger ingeniously contends, the Renaissance fashion for adorning hats and helmets with emblematic devices. These imprese made the wearers’ thoughts visible, and the imagery often involves or suggests the most intense tactile sensations—burning, biting, pinching and stinging. He goes on to show how the touching of rosary beads, with their variety of shape, size and form, stimulated the tactile imagination of worshippers; how recurrent images of angels tuning their instruments in altarpieces prompted the sonic imagination; and flowers, corpses and pudenda, the olfactory sense.

The artists’ own bodily awareness also informed the way in which they depicted their subjects: the popular saying “every painter paints himself” implied that the artist’s own posture and physiognomy would be echoed in the bodies in their own work. Similarly, Bronzino writes a story about the painting of a picture of a copulating couple in which the painter’s brush becomes an enthusiastic participant, adapting itself to every position.

Quiviger is fascinated by the paradox that, while Italian Renaissance art may be more naturalistic than medieval art, it exhibits an increased reticence in the depiction of human suffering, especially that of Christ during his Passion. He believes that Renaissance viewers became so attuned to the idea that the human figure is a sensitive entity, that they could no longer tolerate blood and wounds without distaste and discomfort (his argument is similar to Norbert Elias’ “civilising process”, but Elias goes unmentioned). Instead, they preferred “gentler tactile themes”—such as the Madonna touching the sole of the Christ child’s foot, or a woman in a scene of the Nativity of the Virgin dipping her fingers in a bath.

But this needs to be set in a wider context that modifies the notion that there was a sudden “sensitisation” in this period. After all, the Crucifixion only became a central subject of Christian art in the ninth century because the gory spectacle of the death of God was already felt to be unpalatable. Sixth-century Crucifixion images show Christ on the cross, alive and with his eyes open, triumphing over death, and this type was again popular in 11th- and 12th-century Tuscany. The “decorum” of Crucifixion imagery never ceased being a live issue.

A further relevant consideration is that, if the worshipper was going to simulate Christ’s suffering with self-flagellation, it made spiritual as well as medical sense not to be inspired by a depicted body that was too badly damaged. Michelangelo’s father wrote to him in 1500 warning him to look after himself because misery is a vice displeasing to God: “It will hurt your soul and your body”. The Christ in his Vatican Pietà, 1498-99, strikes the right balance between suffering and serenity.

Much of what Quiviger says is convincing, if not always very surprising. However, the primer format has in certain areas led to over-simplification, sometimes to the detriment of clarity. Some arguments are left hanging, with insufficient evidence offered (Lorenzo Ghiberti’s belief that the refinements of antique sculptures could only be appreciated by touch should have been mentioned in relation to “gentler tactile themes”, as should Lorenzo de’ Medici’s cult of the left hand).

It may be that “Europeans believed that their heads contained three ventricles”, but on a day-to-day level they were far more concerned with the planetary influences on their mind and body. There is no mention here of the widespread belief in “man as microcosm”, which was the basis of medicine, folklore and astrological prediction.

Indeed, the two imprese that Quiviger discusses—the golden plaquette of Hercules and Antaeus suspended above the right temple of Pontormo’s Halberdier and the plaquette of a comet crossing a starry sky pinned above the left temple of Titian’s Ippolito de’ Medici (a reference to his love for Giulia Gonzaga)—can only be understood in relation to a branch of astrology, planetary melothesia, in which the body was divided into the left and right sides.

The right side signified “male” and “light”; the left side “female” and “dark”. Each physical component was the province of a planet. Thus, the right eye was the domain of the sun, and the right nostril of Mars (hence Hercules); the left eye was the domain of the moon, and the left nostril of Venus (hence Giulia). Indeed, it was astrology that sensitised the whole Renaissance body from head to toe.

Looking for sex

Diane Wolfthal’s In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe seeks to expand the repertoire of images by which we should be aroused. Five chapters are devoted to locations “associated with sexual activity or desire”: beds, dressing rooms, windows, baths and streets. Wolfthal believes the sexual content of the images she discusses has either been ignored or denied. Her book is a (defrocked) curate’s egg, with lively scholarly discussions of boudoir portraits, bathing scenes and women at the window, interspersed with wild tabloid-style speculation.

In the bed section, Wolfthal charts church hostility towards marriage, and the consequential “acute anxiety” that beset married couples in relation to sex. But then she suddenly changes tack: the Italian merchant who commissioned Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, 1434, was desperate to marry so as not to be considered a sodomite. By depicting himself “surrounded by markers of heterosexuality (a wife and their bed) as well as signs of fertility…Arnolfini represents himself as the ‘proper’ model of masculinity and seeks to counteract any negative [sodomitical] associations with his profession”. Later, the mysterious male pair reflected in the convex mirror in Petrus Christus’ Goldsmith’s Shop, 1449, is claimed as gay, in pointed contrast with the heterosexual couple in the shop. Neither interpretation is remotely plausible.

All kinds of considerations prompt people to get married, but there’s no evidence that unmarried merchants were prone to accusations of sodomy. The fashionably dressed man in Christus’ mirror is, I would guess, the prospective partner of the woman buying a ring in the shop (his companion holding a falcon may be a servant; the man accompanying the woman her chaperone). They are about to make an exchange of lovers’ rings, as sanctioned by the rules of courtly love.

My interpretation of Christus’ image would fit well with Wolfthal’s far more compelling discussion of the way in which marriage gradually became romanticised: “If in the 15th century marriage was often constructed as the opposite of adultery, by the 17th century adultery sometimes served as a model for marriage, instilling it with the ideals of romantic love and sexual desire”. We can forget about asceticism. No less than Quiviger, Wolfthal’s ideal is a banquet of the senses.

The writer is author of The Sinister Side: How Left-Right Symbolism Shaped Western Art (Oxford Universtiy Press)

François Quiviger, The Sensory World Italian Renaissance Art (Reaktion Books), 208 pp, £17.95 (hb) ISBN 9781861896575

Diane Wolfthal, In and Out of the Marital Bed: Seeing Sex in Renaissance Europe (Yale University Press), 224 pp, £25 (hb) ISBN 9780300141542

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