Close Look

Renaissance Porn: A Brief History of the European Erotic Nude

By

Renaissance Porn: A Brief History of the European Erotic Nude
Venus of Urbino via Khan Academy

Pssst...hey, you there.  

 

...Ever seen a naked lady before? 

 Tintoretto, Susanna and the Elders1555 via Wikipedia 

Neither have I, but I hear they’re pretty popular, especially with 16th-century Italian dudes. As it turns out, perverts have been around longer than Craigslist, even (who knew?), and it’s no secret that the most conservative eras invariably give rise to stunningly prurient tastes; just ask Foucault (or don’t; he’s dead). But still, how did the tradition of the erotic nude, so resplendently ensconced in the canon by the likes of Rubens, Titian and their horny brethren, worm its way past religious gatekeepers and Papal condemnation? The answer lies at the crossroads of trend, capitalism, and human nature, the same buzzy nexus that gifted us the latest Cats movie trailer, with slightly different results. 

 Peter Paul Rubens, Susanna and the Elders1636

Let’s take a journey into the juicy folds of painting past and survey some of the most historically significant butts on record.

Respectfully, of course. 



A Crash-Course in Western Nudity:

Statuette of Aphrodite emerging from the Sea, Greek or Roman, 1st C BC via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Contemporary viewers understand the Renaissance aesthetic as a maniera all’antica exercise writ large, a revival of classical form, and thus an explicit reverence for bygone social mores. While the vocabulary of Greek and Roman statuary certainly influenced 14th and 15th century art, nakedness was viewed very differently from one culture to the next. For the ancient Greeks, the naked body was a sign of elite status, athleticism, and racial supremacy. An idealized male nude was considered a stand-in for humanity as a whole; an idealized female nude, most commonly depicted in the falsely modest style of the Venus Pudica, spoke directly to multitheistic notions of sexuality and fertility.

Medici Venus Pudica, right, 1st C. BC, Greece, Boticelli's Birth of Venus, left via ItalianRenaissance.org 

While ancient Greek and Roman women were expected to cover up in polite society, the depiction of a deity was justification enough for a sculpturally contextualized disrobing. Aesthetes of the Western Middle Ages were nothing if not perplexed by the preponderance of body parts on display in Greek and Roman art. Nudity was not only understood as fundamentally sinful in Christian dogma, but indicative of poverty and humiliation. In fact, the first widespread employment of artistic nudity in the Medieval era manifested in portrayals of Christ, whose self-consciously human form underscored the doctrines of incarnation and mortification central to premodern Catholicism. Early Renaissance critics and thinkers simply assumed that the freedom with which the Ancients depicted bodies was directly related to their distance from Christianity, prompting Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini to opine in 1426, “The same license is not given to us Christians as was given to the poets of old, who did not know God.” A frequent punishment for adulterous women of the time period was forced, public nakedness, whereas male life-drawing models often kept underwear on in the process. Women, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius observed in 1631, were “generally colder and moister than the male sex, and less fitted for affairs which require understanding; therefore the male sex is given by nature a sort of authority over women,” (charming) and thus wore no underwear, in order to avoid being mistaken for cross-dressers or sex workers. Still, the transgressive nature of total female nudity during the Renaissance cannot be overstated. Women were still regarded as naked when wearing a chemise; in 16th century Amsterdam, street-walkers received harsher punishments for having sex naked as opposed to clothed. Husbands were even chastised for seeing their wives fully naked, lest they find themselves irrevocably possessed by lust. 



Courtesans: Sex, Art and Commerce:

 Famed courtesan Imperia Cognati posing for Raphael in Galatea, 1514

The rise of courtesan culture might seem incongruous with this deeply repressed cultural context, but such a read discounts the glaring loopholes patriarchal hegemony so often permits. Starting in the 15th century, the courtiers of the Papal court introduced the practice of hiring female escorts to accompany their public activities. Papal courtiers were clerics, thus banned from marriage, which meant the women they consorted with couldn’t interact with the wedding market, but had to be educated and genteel enough to participate in the formal aspects of courtly life. Courtiers’ proximity to the divine afforded them the benefit of living far above suspicion, which engendered the arrival of a new class of sex work in Christian Europe; that of the courtesan.

Flora, Titian, 1520

Courtesans, or cortigiana, the feminine of the Italian word for “courtier,” were glamorous female court attendees who lavished charming, well-bred attention on individual clients. Those clients typically returned the favor with money, property, and unfettered access to noble social circles. In 15th century Venice, a stratification occurred; the cortigiana onesta, or honest courtesan, was cast as an intellectual, and treated similarly to nobility. Cortigiana di lume, lower-class courtesans, were more commonly associated with sexual perversion, and often barred from more rarified or elegant engagements. While courtesans were expected to embody perpetual singlehood, a number of them were actually married to men of lower social rungs, all of whom were well aware of their spouses’ professional enterprises. 

The rise of the courtesan as a society staple coincided with a shift in 16th century treatment of the academic nude; collectors and commissioning institutions began to associate the naked body with the potential to become Christianized, and thus civilized, through clothing, and artists considered nudity essential to the accurate comparison of their work to the merit of ancient sculptors. By the time Michelangelo came on the scene, nudity functioned as a short-hand for artistic mastery, but the erotic nude, or depictions of women designed to entice, were still considered utterly scandalous, especially in Northern Europe. In Venice, however, the still-elusive artist Giorgione debuted the controversial Laura: Portrait of a Woman in 1506, effectively opening the floodgates for a new type of painterly investigation.

Giorgione, Laura, 1506 

Laura’s identity, still unconfirmed, bothered art historians for centuries. What woman would allow herself to be portrayed in such a fashion when the social ramifications were so steep? Well, a courtesan, obviously. The Italian Masters owed many of their greatest masterpieces to the good will and patience of the cortigiana. Artists, writers, and courtesans operated in the same milieu, often for the same patrons, but fascinatingly, courtesans were also some of the first and most consistent buyers of erotic nudes. In fact, most emergent erotic nudes of the 16th century were designed specifically for the quadro da portego, long, rectangular reception and entertainment rooms that were a distinctive feature of Venetian patrician homes, hallmarks of the successful courtesan lifestyle. Artistocrats and rich merchants would also participate in erotic commissions, typically justified by their mythological narratives and outfitted with a set of frame-secured curtains, for politeness. 

 

Fraught, But Make It Fashion: 

 

 Sussana and the Elders, Artemisia Gentileschi, 1450

While it was Dutch custom to place explicit paintings in the marital suite in order to encourage, well, coitus, Spainards, despite owning some of the most important collections of erotic paintings in Europe, launched the fiercest unilateral opposition to the genre. Scholar Juan de Butron’s assertion that paintings of nudes necessarily made onlookers “slaves to lust” coincided with court painter’s call to his artistic community’s spiritual faculties, imploring other artists not to paint “dishonest and lascivious things that were the invention of the devil.” In 1640, “lascivious painting” was officially disallowed from being imported to the Kingdom of Spain, and painters who declined to find new subject matter were threatened with excommunication. Catholic clergy all over Europe tried their best to ban the depiction of naked bodies in the church, but the proliferation of erotic nudes nonetheless continued, buoyed by a new framing device, not unlike the Venus Pundica—observer ambivalence. Compositions clearly designed to elicit arousal were imbued with moralistic references to sexual transgression or covetous sin; stories like Susanna and the Elders, Lot’s Daughters, or the tale of Diana and Actaeon proved particularly popular. Beautiful naked women eventually became symbols of tragedy, vanity, or the ethical tension central to lust.

Jacopo Negretti, Portrait of a Woman, 1520 

Multifaceted and fraught, the cluster of concepts limning the tradition of the female nude mirrored the divisions in religious, political, and cultural customs of the day, but one element remains fixed: Folks want to look at naked pictures of other folks.

 

Always have, always will. 

RELATED ARTICLES: 

I'll Show Your Most Illustrious Lordship What a Woman Can Do!: Artemisia Gentileschi, The Best Baroque Feminist Painter You've Never Heard Of

Take It Easy: 9 20th Century Masterpieces That Remix the Reclining Nude

DISCOVER

a treasure trove of fine art from the world's most renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. We offer exclusive works you can't find anywhere else.

LEARN

through exclusive content featuring art news, collecting guides, and interviews with artists, dealers, collectors, curators and influencers.

BUY

authentic artworks from across the globe. Collecting with us means you're helping to sustain creative culture and supporting organizations that are making the world a better place.

CONNECT

with our art advisors for buying advice or to help you find the art that's perfect for you. We have the resources to find works that suit your needs.

INSIDER ACCESS TO THE WORLD'S BEST ART

Artspace offers you authentic, exclusive works from world-renowned artists, galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Collecting with us helps support creative culture while bringing you art news, interviews and access to global art resources.

  • COLLECT FROM 300+ GALLERIES & MUSEUMS