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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Profane Love and Erotic Art in the Italian Renaissance

In the intellectually sophisticated milieu of Renaissance Rome, as elsewhere in Italy in the sixteenth century in the decades before the Counter-Reformation, the sacred and the profane were not distinct or separate realms, but rather two aspects of a single, seamless culture. Both proceeded from a learned immersion in classical antiquity, which offered paradigms both lofty and low: the humanists who revered and emulated the noble prose of Cicero also devoured the racy texts of Ovid and the humorous dialogues of Lucian. The artists who studied the Apollo Belevedere and the Laocoon in an effort to revive that heroic manner found that the ancient Romans had indulged, in equal measure, their taste for prurient, less noble fare. Scenes of heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking were commonplace in Roman wall painting, and also frequently appeared on small-scale decorative objects such as cameos, silver, pottery and oil lamps. Like the monumental architectural and sculptural remains, these miniature and often fragmentary relics of classical antiquity were keenly studied by Renaissance artists and humanists—particularly in Rome, where such material, already abundant, was constantly augmented by new archaeological discoveries. Such antique exemplae both fueled and sanctioned their enthusiastic embrace of lewd imagery, which could be justified (however speciously) as a learned revival of the maniera all’antica.

Some of the most rhetorically elevated, learned, and refined works of Renaissance art and literature were produced by painters and poets who turned their energies with equal facility to lewd, salacious, and erotic subject matter. Artists like Giulio Romano, Perino del Vaga (Pietro Buonaccorsi), Francesco Salviati, and Parmigianino decorated sacred liturgical spaces with decorous frescoes and altarpieces at the same time they were exploring in their drawings more earthy subjects like fornication and pederasty. Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael’s gifted engraver who reproduced that master’s most brilliant pictorial inventions, was also responsible for some of the most sexually explicit and transgressive prints ever produced. Cesare da Sesto, a talented follower of Leonardo da Vinci from Milan who spent a number of years in Rome, drew standing saints next to copulating figures in the pages of one of his sketchbooks. The poet and curial secretary Francesco Berni, a learned humanist, penned an ode to his urinal and rhapsodized in verse about the pleasures of sodomy, enlisting as a stand-in for the male buttocks a peach—one of the many suggestively shaped fruits and vegetables endowed with erotic alter egos by literary wits of the day and a treat, he quipped, to be enjoyed at any time (other favorites were figs, parsnips, green beans, and zucchini)—while the painter Bronzino, who was also a gifted poet, found literary inspiration in his paintbrush and frying pan. If such banal objects strike a modern audience as dull muses, contemporaries conversant with the burlesque lexicon of the day would have immediately recognized the phallic and sodomitic references encoded in his witty encomia.

In the Renaissance as in antiquity, the theme of illicit, carnal, erotic love thus provided an endless font of inspiration. Some of the images in question are unabashedly vulgar and lurid in their portrayal of licentiousness. Others explore erotic subject matter with learned erudition. And informing many is a parodic, burlesque sensibility that mocks or satirizes with wit and humor more intellectually elevated modes of literary discourse and artistic display. Regardless of the particular tone that distinguishes them, most of these drawings, paintings, and objects were made for private rather than public consumption: they were meant to be enjoyed by a privileged audience, be it a single individual, or a select few gathered behind the protective walls of a villa, studiolo, or academy. (Prints are an exception: produced in multiples, they had the capacity to disseminate scandalous imagery to a vast, uncontrollable audience and were for this reason the frequent targets of censorship campaigns launched by the Church and civic authorities.) And like the sculpture of a nude Venus described by the satirist Pietro Aretino—that most vocal and prurient champion of erotic love—erotic images were not intended to incite the viewer to virtuous thoughts or noble deeds, rather, their purpose was to arouse pure lust. In disavowing all “Petrarchan subtleties,” Aretino’s lusty heroine, the prostitute Nanna, announces not only the essence of profane love, but also of profane art, in the Renaissance.