BY Tim Smith-Laing in Opinion | 11 MAR 19

How ‘The Renaissance Nude’ Complicates Easy Narratives About the Naked Body

A new show at London’s Royal Academy examines the pleasure and pain of the human form 

BY Tim Smith-Laing in Opinion | 11 MAR 19

On one side of the panel stands a well-heeled Renaissance burgher: black cap, stern eyes, broad body lost beneath a fur-trimmed cloak. Most likely painted sometime before 1497 and cautiously attributed to Jacometto Veneziano, it is not necessarily a painting you would single out from similar contemporary portraits. Turn it around, though, and it becomes a different piece entirely. On the back stands a pair of naked lovers in a rich, bare interior: the woman gazing into a hand mirror while the man tries to get her attention, one hand on her shoulder, the other squeezing her breast. At the bottom right, on a trompe l’oeil windowsill, stands a water glass holding a sprig of laurel, looking like nothing so much as a detail from a mid-1970s David Hockney. 

Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533, oil on canvas, 87 × 77 cm. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid and Royal Academy, London

Like much in this brilliant show, Veneziano’s double panel defies easy analysis. All the stranger for loitering behind the worthy burgher, the scene on the reverse is utterly strange in its combination of sensuality and sadness. If this is a hidden panel, destined for private pleasures, you would expect it to be erotic, but any eroticism is sapped by the disconsolate expressions both lovers wear. Perhaps, suggests the art historian Ulrich Pfisterer in his catalogue essay, the panel is a moral lesson: they are melancholy precisely because, in their nakedness, they have been overcome by their senses. This is certainly a recurring theme in medieval and Renaissance thought: when Robert Burton came to draw up the index for his Anatomy of Melancholy in the early 1600s, the first entry under H was ‘Hand and paps, how forcible in Love-Melanch[oly]’. Veneziano’s sadly groping male anticipates him by over a century. And yet, it is hard to shake the sensuality of the scene, too. Veneziano, like Burton, seems to have known that bodies are at once delicate and destructive, dangerous and beautiful – and, perhaps, all of these most of all when most exposed.

This curious balance is exposed time and again in the course of ‘The Renaissance Nude’, a show dedicated to complicating easy narratives about prurience and prudishness in Renaissance art. Focusing on a period stretching from roughly 1400 through to 1530, the curators (Thomas Kren from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and Per Rumberg from the Royal Academy) have gathered some 90 works that examine the naked human body in its beauty and ugliness, pleasure and pain, as a pathway to divinity and to animality, and as both an instrument and site of domination. Ranging from uncanny fantasias by Albrecht Dürer and Hans Baldung Grien to erotically charged prayer-book miniatures by the Limbourg Brothers, and from tender classical paintings by Piero di Cosimo and Titian to the goriest of saintly tortures by Konrad von Vechta and Donatello, it is a feast for the eyes that covers – or rather uncovers – its subject from every conceivable angle. Accompanied by a vast and carefully compiled analytical catalogue, it is one of those rare, ground-breaking shows that manages to be both coherent and satisfying even as it undermines any simplifying narratives about the art and the period it examines.

Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, 1470s, engaving, 42 × 61 cm. Courtesy: The Albertina Museum, Vienna

One of the central problems with modern conceptions of nudes in this period is our uneven calibration of the mores of medieval and Renaissance viewers. We are inclined to think, often, of a prudish and Christian medieval world that slowly softened, across the 15th century, towards classical notions of bodily beauty and perfection: a trend that culminated, not without contemporary scandal, in the bodily cornucopia of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, completed for the Sistine Chapel in 1541. Even if Pope Pius IV ordered some of the figures to be modestly covered up in the mid-1560s, the Last Judgement reveals just how dominant the naked body had become in a world that was a far cry from that of a century and a half before. While there is some truth in this narrative, seen above all in the endless proliferation of the nude everywhere in European art during the period, it fails to stand up at the granular level. ‘The Renaissance Nude’ tackles it from five angles: in Christian art; the impact of humanism and secular nudes; proportion, anatomy, and artistic theory; the vulnerability and fallibility of the body; and, finally, the nude as personalized product, at the court of Isabella d’Este (1474–1539).

Taken together, the pieces gathered under each theme show just how many competing and contradictory mores and impulses were at work in depictions of the nude. In Christian art, for instance, stern moral messages seem often to be mere pretexts for the pleasures of looking: a selection of seductive Bathshebas from prayer books of the 15th century might be a warning against the dangers of the flesh, but they are also clearly objects of lust. More surprisingly, one illumination picked out from the Limbourg Brothers’ Belles heures du Duc de Berry (ca.1385–1416) shows a procession of male flagellants writhing in postures that would not seem out of place in a Robert Mapplethorpe photograph.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, c. 1526, oil on panel, 83 × 56 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and Royal Academy, London

Similar currents can be seen across the five themes, each defying simple summary. As the encyclopaedic catalogue – destined to become a standard work in art history – makes clear, this is an exhibition to stimulate questions rather than answers. Despite its title, it reveals, above all, that there is no such thing as the Renaissance nude, but rather an inexhaustible variety of them, each one demanding careful, individual consideration. And if that, too, turns out to be just a pretext for the pleasures of looking at this superb show, then all the better. 

The Renaissance Nude runs at the Royal Academy, London, UK until 3 June. 

Main image: Dosso Dossi, Allegory of Fortune, c. 1530, oil on canvas, 179 × 217 cm. Courtesy: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and Royal Academy, London

Tim Smith-Laing is a writer and critic based in London, UK. He is writing a novel based on the life of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt and a biography of Lady Luck @TimSmith_Laing