The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley (1965)

Obviously the issues of women, gender, sexuality, ‘the body’ and so on have come to dominate academic discourse in the humanities over the last 30 years or so. Before it was fashionable, 60 years ago, the classicist M.I. Finley wrote a thoughtful essay on the role of women in ancient Rome, which must have seemed fairly radical in its time but has itself come to be criticised by modern feminist historians.

M.I. Finley

Finley himself is an interesting character. He was born in 1912 in New York City to Nathan Finkelstein and Anna Katzenellenbogen, so was Jewish. Young Finkelstein was precociously intelligent and graduated from Syracuse University at the age of 15, and took another degree at Columbia University. He then taught at Columbia and City College of New York, where he was influenced by members of the Marxist Frankfurt School who had fled Nazi Germany and were working in exile in America. About 1945 he changed his name to Finley, nobody seems to know why, maybe to forestall antisemitism.

Finley was teaching at Rutgers University when, in 1951, he was named by a witness before the House Unamerican Activities Committee as a communist. He was then summoned before the committee and, when asked whether he was a communist, took the Fifth Amendment, like many other fellow travellers. J. Edgar Hoover leaned on Rutgers and, after the affair had dragged on for 3 years, Finley was eventually dismissed.

So he emigrated to Britain where he was quickly appointed university lecturer in classics at Cambridge, elected to a fellowship at Jesus College, and eventually rose through the hierarchy to become Master of Darwin College (1976 to 1982). He was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1971 and knighted in 1979, becoming Sir Moses Israel Finley. He died in 1986.

The silent women of Rome

Finley’s essay has a straightforward aim: to lament the passive, repressed, largely voiceless role of aristocratic women in ancient Rome, using a number of examples, laws and situations to do so.

To start with he says that not many names of Roman-era women are remembered: the most famous woman from the period, Cleopatra was neither Roman nor Egyptian but Greek. As to Roman women, how many of them are remembered? Messalina, Agrippina, Catullus’s Lesbia, some legendary women such as Lucretia or, going way back, Dido.

[This is obviously a weak way to begin, with purely anecdotal summary of ‘famous women’ and no actual evidence.]

Obviously, most societies have been patriarchal and suppressed women but Finley asserts it’s hard to think of any other great civilised state ‘without a single really important woman writer or poet, with no truly regal queen…no patron of the arts.’

He then moves on to a more careful consideration of the evidence which he places under five headings:

  1. through the erotic and satirical poetry of the late Republic and empire, ‘all written by men’
  2. through the historians and biographers, ‘all men’ and attracted to salacious scandal
  3. through the letter writers and philosophers, ‘all men’
  4. through painting and sculpture, inscribed tombstones and religious monuments
  5. through innumerable legal texts

So Finley, with his left-wing credentials, is fully aware of the patriarchal slant of his sources and that they record ideals and stereotypes ‘formulated and imposed by middle- and upper-class Roman males.’ For his day (1965) this feels like a full-on, left-wing, feminist mindset, and you’d have thought he anticipated a million feminist plaints by lamenting that what will always be missing from histories of Rome is the voices of women themselves.

For a start, until late in Roman history, women didn’t have individual names. The names they were given were the family name with an ‘a’ added, so that a daughter of the Claudii gens was named Claudia, of the Julii gens, Julia, and so on. In this spirit sisters were given the same name and only distinguished by the addition of ‘elder’ and ‘younger’, or ‘first’, ‘second’ etc. In the case of marriage between paternal cousins, mother and daughter could easily end up with the same names. For example, Augustus’s daughter was named Julia because he and she came of the Julii clan, and her daughter (Augustus’s grand daughter) was also named Julia.

This in itself is a staggering fact, really worth stopping to take onboard. Roman women didn’t have individual names. As Finley goes on to say, it’s as if Roman society as a whole wished to emphasise that girls and women were not genuine individuals but only offshoots of male-dominated families.

In fact he goes on to point out that although the word familia is Latin it never meant to Romans what it does to us nowadays. Familia either meant all the persons under the authority of the head of the household, or all the descendants from a common ancestor, or all one’s property, or all one’s servants – never our modern notion of the small nuclear family. ‘The stress was on a power structure, rather than on biology or intimacy.’

The Roman paterfamilias need not even be a father; the term was a legal one and applied to any head of a household. Biological children were excluded if illegitimate, whereas the practice of legal adoption was very common (two famous examples being Publius Clodius Pulcher having himself adopted by a plebeian family; and Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew Octavius).

Theoretically a paterfamilias’s power over his wife, sons and daughters and son’s wives and children, over all his slaves and property, was absolute. In law it was the power of life or death. A Roman woman was rarely if ever, at any point in her life, not in the legal power of a man.

Roman legislators and lawyers devoted a lot of space to precise definitions of the status of all possible permutations of family members (in the extended sense). This was because the family, in this extended sense, was the basic building block, the foundation, of their society. Not just women had highly defined places, but children, sons, heirs, and so on. Finley explains that strict rules were enacted prohibiting certain kinds of marriage: between a Roman citizen and a non-citizen; or between a Roman of the senatorial class and a citizen who had risen from the class of freemen (former slaves).

We miss the full picture if we concentrate only on women. The Roman state sought to regulate and control all social relationships.

Finley’s essay then uses the complex family life of Octavian/Augustus to demonstrate the absolute power of the paterfamilias at arranging the lives and marriages of all those in his power; but this strikes me as not a useful example because the greatest, longest-serving emperor is just about the least representative example you can imagine, and it’s all available in any life of Augustus, anyway.

Finley then goes back a bit in time to guesstimate that the submissive role of women in the Roman state was very ancient, and certainly by the time Hannibal was defeated (about 200 BC) all the elements were in place of the social situation Augustus tried to manage.

Male infidelity was widely accepted. Husbands could have mistresses, multiple partners and illegitimate children. ‘There was no puritanism in the Roman concept of morality.’ When you think about it this follows naturally from the central axiom that all that concerned the state was the efficient management of family legal matters; beyond carrying out their legal functions and duties towards the state, what people got up to in their ‘private lives’ was their own affair.

Throughout his long rule Augustus wasn’t concerned with reforming what we, the heirs to Christianity, think of ‘morality’, so much as social order. Above all he was concerned that not enough upper-class citizens were getting married and having children. Childlessness was an abrogation of responsibilities to the state. The licentious living he saw becoming more common around him wasn’t completely reprehensible in itself, but to be criticised insofar as it indicated a dereliction of duty to the state which he saw it as his responsibility to protect and maintain. Augustus disapproved of the Roman aristocracy living debauched lives because they were spending money on themselves which they should have been investing in their children and The Future of Rome.

There was nothing at all holy about marriage, as the chopping and changing of Augustus’s own marital career and of umpteen aristocrats amply demonstrated. This explains why divorce was easy and commonplace. It was a purely legal transaction. Marriage was important because:

  • it ensured the creation of the next generation of citizens
  • it ensured the smooth transition of property from one generation to the next
  • the entire social hierarchy depended on cleanly defined lineage and descent within families, which themselves needed to be clearly defined as patrician or plebeian or knightly in order to take their place in the systems of political management and control

So marriage was really important in ancient Rome from a social, economic, political and legal point of view. But hardly at all from a moral or emotional point of view, the two ways in which we have been increasingly taught to view it over the past 200 years, maybe since the so-called Romantic revolution around 1800 began to change a lot of attitudes in favour of the primacy of personality and emotion over duty and sacrifice.

Finley has a digression about the laws of marriage governing soldiers. These kept changing, as soldiers’ terms of service were themselves changed and developed, eventually becoming so complicated it resulted in an entire specialised area of Roman law.

Having discussed the aristocracy at some length, Finley then goes on to speculate about the condition of women in the working class. We know next to nothing about them but the chances are they were a lot more free of the social codes and restrictions imposed on aristocratic women because a) they had to work, and probably helped their husbands in a wide variety of trades and b) the rapid expansion of the slave trade and the slave population after the destruction of Carthage (146 BC), along with the surprisingly generous Roman habit of freeing slaves, meant that an ever-increasing proportion of the free population was directly descended from slaves, almost certainly giving them a drastically different notions about marriage norms than the aristocracy.

Mortality was higher among women than men. It is estimated that of the population which reached the age of 15 (i.e. evaded the high infant mortality) more than half the women were dead by forty, in some places, by 35. Women were a lot more likely to die due to a) multiple childbirths without any modern medicine b) sheer exhaustion of bearing children, rearing them, and working.

Divorce was easy and men often remarried. You can see how this would enormously complicate the legal situation around heirs, property, citizenship and so on. Hence the jungle of legislation.

And yet (Finley says, swinging his train of thought into a new groove), there is evidence that aristocratic Roman enjoyed some autonomy. They attended dinner parties and certainly the many festivals and games. Many Roman writers report the stimulating conversation of educated women in mixed company. Ovid in The Art of Love gives extensive advice on how to make the best of themselves, advising women of this class to dress and primp properly, to sweeten their breath, to walk gracefully and dance well, to cultivate the best poetry. This makes them sound quite free and independent in their behaviour.

Finley comes to his final thought: How did respectable Roman women of the level of education implied by Ovid and others find outlets for their repressed energies?

1. Religion

Roman religion was very patriarchal. Traditional Roman religion was based on the household gods and public rituals and men controlled both. There was a handful of female cults, such as the women-only Bona Dea, but all religious festivals were led by men and even the famous Vestal Virgins were under the direct supervision of a man, the pontifex maximus.

A big change came with the solidification of the empire and the great influx into Rome of eastern mystery cults, many of them carrying the entirely unroman concepts of personal communion with the god and personal salvation. Although some of these gods were completely closed to women (such as the military cult of Mithras) others offered women status and agency like they’d never had before.

The most notable example of these was the cult of Isis, who subsumed a world of other goddesses and cults (and which Ovid complains about in some of his poems). One of the hymns to Isis says: ‘You gave women equal power with men.’ This explains why the cult of Isis was one of the most obstinately resistant to the rise of the new cult of Christ as the latter spread  around the Mediterranean during the later first century AD.

Christianity itself was a very mixed blessing for women. Women played a crucial role in the life of Jesus. His mother, Mary, quickly assumed cult status. Jesus was genuinely open-handed about the role of women. Take the woman her community is about to stone for adultery. Jesus saves her and shames the vengeful men.

Women quickly held office in the early church, not in ultimate power but as assistants, deacons and sacristans, assisting in ceremonies as well as taking a lead in charitable works. It was the Empress Helena who ‘found’ the true cross in Palestine and brought it back to Rome. A good proportion of the early martyrs were women i.e. women were allowed to be memorialised as martyrs, to be remembered as saints, and their relics worked just as many miracles, as men did. Here was a true holy equality.

But then, alas, St Paul. Paul thrashed out the theology of Christianity but at the expense of embedding it deeply back into the traditional Jewish teachings which Jesus had seemed to escape. In chapter 14 of his first letter to the congregation at Corinth he says:

‘Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.’

From the floating repertoire of ancient documents indicated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the early Christians selected the ones which they thought best bolstered their case, assembling them into a library which eventually came to be called The Old Testament. Much of it was a reversion to a harsher, Jewish concept of the deity than Jesus seemed at many moments to believe. Over coming generations the strange and ominous legend of Adam and Eve came to assume the severity of doctrine, and became an irrefutable accusation with which hundreds of generations of misogynists could bad-mouth and shut down women.

One unintended consequence of Pauline thought was the new emphasis it put on virginity. In our times we think the obsessive importance assigned by generations of Christians to the virginity of a bride ludicrously repressive and bigoted. But if you think about it from the point of view of a 12, 13 or 14 year old girl in a Roman household, who knows she is doomed to be married off to someone she might never have met, who might be four times her age, purely as a business and legal transaction – then a new cult which rejects this bartering of women, and declares that the holiest thing a woman can do is devote her life to Jesus and eternal virginity, maybe in a community of like-minded women – you can see how in many cases this might have been experienced as a wonderful liberation from patriarchal tyranny. An escape route.

Convents began to be set up soon after the first monasteries and offered a way for women to walk out of the entire male-dominated society in a way they hadn’t been able to since Rome was founded. A huge subject but Finley’s brief discussion is suggestive.

2. Entertainments

Much smaller in conceptual terms, but still significant, was the way women were allowed to be spectators in theatres and at games. Finley tells us that gladiators became ‘pin-ups’ for Roman women, ‘especially in the upper classes’. It would be good to see the evidence for this.

3. Imperial women

Finley rather spoils the effect with his third area of female agency, by reverting to the anecdotal level of the opening of his essay, and telling us that many of the women at the top of the next few hundred years of Roman Empire ‘revealed a ferocity and sadism’ that were not often matched by their menfolk. They never held direct power, but they pulled many of the strings for their husbands and sons, brothers and lovers. Well, if feminists want strong independent women, here are some of the most ferociously strong and determined women we have any record of.

Finley tries to interpret the behaviour of this handful of bloodthirsty women as a ‘rebellion’ against the suppression of almost all women almost all the time. Unfortunately, it comes over more as a certain type of sexist stereotyping without any consideration of the fact that strong women everywhere have been subjected to poisonous character assassination. I.e. that much of what male society and its male historians wrote about them may be vicious rumours or simply untrue.

Shame. Finley was very ‘on message’ and sympathetic to Rome’s repressed women up to this very last point.

Thoughts

This is a deeply intelligent, very interesting, well-written essay. It has an elegantly arresting introductory remark about Cleopatra and then moves with a steady, fluent logic through a series of highly interesting points. Agree or disagree with his thesis, it is beautifully written.

It is very persuasive about the topics it addresses. But it can be seen that, at various points, it veers away from a strict consideration of its title; the passage on the marriage laws for Roman soldiers feels some distance from ‘the silent women of Rome’, the extended passage about Augustus and his women is interesting but can hardly be taken as representative of Roman society at large.

The anti-Finley debate

A few minutes surfing on the internet turns up the fact that Finley’s essay was contested by feminists.

The Reverend Dr. J. Dorcas Gordon of Knox College, Canada, in her book ‘Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians 7 and Cultural Anthropology’, gives a summary of the feminist responses to Finley’s essay, which she calls ‘controversial’.

According to her, there is a relatively straightforward spectrum of views, with one school holding that women in Rome lived passive repressed lives in the shadows of their fathers or husbands (the Finley view), but quite a few more modern revisionists insisting the exact opposite.

These latter are represented by Sarah Pomeroy who, in her pioneering 1975 feminist book, ‘Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity’, argued that changes in Hellenistic society produced many emancipated but respected upper-class women. She argues that Roman matrons had a much bigger range of choices in their roles and lifestyles, as well as more of an influence on the cultural and political life of their society, than Finley allows.

Gordon goes on to produce pages of evidence showing women having more agency in the ancient world than the Finley side of the debate claims, evidence including history, moral anecdote and exempla, slander, funerary inscriptions.

In Hellenistic Egypt we know that women bought and sold real estate as well as movable property. We know from Cicero’s abundant correspondence that his wife, Terentia, had considerable freedom of action in the areas of finance, politics and matchmaking.

There is evidence that women, despite an explicit ban, argued their cases in the law courts, namely Afrania, wife of a senator and Hortensia delivering a speech before the triumvirs. Servilia was the long-time mistress of Julius Caesar and mother of Brutus and all her contemporaries took her political influence of for granted. Cicero depicts a woman friend, Caerellia, as independently wealthy and a noted intellectual. Everyone was intimidated by Augustus’s formidable wife, Livia.

An inscription from Corinth recognises Junia Theodora who bestowed gifts of money on the city and citizens. More surprisingly an inscription speaks of a certain Hedea racing a chariot and winning at the Isthmean Games of 43 AD. Inscriptions from Asia Minor memorialise wealthy Greek women who civic and federal magistracies and priesthoods. Women with estates and all sorts of businesses were attested at Pompeii.

And so, considerably, on.

The major engine for new historical interpretations

In the end, Dorcas suggests, it depends how you interpret the evidence. Obviously that is true, but I’d go a step further to point out something obvious, to me at any rate, which is: the outcome of many debates in the humanities depends not so much on how you interpret the evidence, but on what evidence you consider; on what evidence you admit to the field of debate.

Time after time, when reading modern history books which claim to be ‘overturning conventional wisdom’ or ‘subverting established beliefs’ blah blah, it turns out that they’re not doing so by presenting startling new evidence; more often than not they are using evidence which has always been known about by scholars, but not previously considered part of the debate; things the experts knew about but nobody had considered including in the body of evidence used in this particular debate.

If the complete corpus of historical evidence can be likened to a landscape, the landscape itself rarely changes – what changes, and sometimes drastically, is which features of the landscape historians choose to pay attention to; which bits of evidence we include and prioritise.

Since you and I can never hope to acquire total mastery of all the evidence from the ancient world on this or any number of other issues (the experiences of slaves, the experiences of gladiators, the experiences of the working classes, the experience of farmers, the experiences of business men) we are, in effect, at the mercy of scholars and their changing interests. Our knowledge of ‘history’ is restricted by the ever-changing fashions for this or that kind of evidence among the historians we read.

Now almost contemporary historians are convinced that we need to be more inclusive, need to pay attention to the lives of women, or black people, or other previously excluded groups. While fine and admirable in itself, this attitude can also be seen as just the latest wave, the latest refocusing of attention and evidence which will, itself, be eclipsed by further waves in the decades to come.

In other words, nothing like a ‘true’ understanding of history is ever possible. Because the study of history covers such a huge area, and historians for decades have been expanding the fields of evidence to include previously ignored groups, any modern read is doing well if they can get a grasp on the history of a period as it is generally understood today i.e. as it is interpreted and conceived for our times by the congeries of historians of our day.

But even if you could wriggle free of the preconceptions and assumptions of our age, penetrating through the veil of how events are presented by contemporary writers is virtually impossible, because as you go further back in time you don’t encourage any kind of truth, all you encounter is previous generations of historians interpreting events in terms of the ideologies, moral values, social needs of their times, biased by all their preconceptions and prejudices.

The thing itself – the objective, ‘true’ and definitive account of events – can it ever be reached, does it even exist? I don’t think so. It’s bias, interpretation and ideology all the way back to the original sources and documents which, themselves, are (fairly obviously) biased and limited. From ever-changing mosaics of evidence historians create narratives which are acceptable to us and our concerns.


Credit

The silent women of Rome by M.I Finley was published in 1965. It was included in a collection of essays by him titled Aspects of Antiquity, published by Penguin books in 1968. References are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

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The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful full scale and in the flesh.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness at all.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

And it is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other. There are some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together pieces from across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure had been covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is documenting the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists from the period handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, probably the locus classicus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be hoped for or feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of of other subjects which provided an opportunity for nudity, such as Christ being scourged or crucified, or the large number of Last Judgements with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the entire show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The Fall of The Damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the fact that the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to torture and even eat. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was a well-established intellectual practice by the early 1500s.

Initially, humanism focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of the classical mythology which informed them. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. It’s relatively small, but this little drawing is among the most ravishing works in the exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round the exhibition, I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ do not appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, which began to seem increasingly odd to me because some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of naked human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

It may come over as a bit paranoid but looking closely at picture after picture which are obviously about sex, which display sexy young people cavorting sexily, and yet listening to the audioguide and reading all the wall labels, you can’t help noticing the complete absence of the blunt Anglo-Saxon word ‘sex’ in any form.You get the strong impression that it is banned, swept under the carpet. You get the equally strong impression that art scholars prefer to use the vague and willowy term ‘desire’, and you also get the strong impression that ‘same-sex desire’ is the optimum form of this, especially when it comes to men, presumably it is ‘desire’ not targeted at women who have, in recent years, become increasingly touchy about being seen in any kind of sexy context.

Eventually, the banishment of the term ‘sex’ and the failure to point out the sexiness of pretty obviously sexy images led me to believe that male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Not just in this exhibition, but in any other you attend nowadays, any way in which a straight man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but I was struck how they are all banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history. Do you see how the sexy or horny male has been quietly and subtly elided from the picture.

I don’t even really disagree with this view, as such; fine for empowering women, bully for same-sex male desire! It’s more the narrowness of perception I’m complaining about, the sheer tedium of having the same narrow interpretations and carefully limited vocabulary crop up in every art exhibition. For me art opens up, expands broadens my perceptions and ideas and emotions. The repetitive use of just a handful of approved ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters for the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men, often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich sugar daddy? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and Bronzino’s show-off depiction of the red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made by Renaissance artists copying newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and sometimes dismissed as rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artists’ workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion created by Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy (in the example below, of a man’s shoulder).

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated. The founding motif in this subject in the Western tradition is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with a spear as per the Gospel accounts of his interrogation, torture and execution.

There is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. If you can ignore the half naked man being scourged within an inch of his life at the centre, the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were (according to Christian legend) executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on ‘desire’ and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s desire or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives which exist out here in the real world. The universal use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses for the same kind of thing, is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and whippings on display in this room. They were crystallised by this image, which was the first one to make me really disagree with the curators’ interpretations.

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned into the unlikely context of even this dark image.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

Anyway, the curators’ interpretation is so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one

Is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed. The fact that the curators completely miss the religious threat and complexities of the picture in order to focus on the ‘power’ of naked women typifies everything about the shallowness , body obsession and unimaginativeness of their worldview.

Number two

The nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. Surely the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is it just a cooked animal or something worse (i.e. a human body part)? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of smothering investigation and analysis under a blanket of tired clichés and corporate buzz words.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them was a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Netherlandish painter, Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons or bulging musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back towards the little bridge.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti, you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – in my opinion – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming, but I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are. There is something a bit rotten about the Italian paintings, they have the official dullness of those packs of Medici Christmas cards you get in charity shops. Sterile. Dead.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity: they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography, the way the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross was deliberately echoed in depictions of the almost-nudity of countless saints who are shown being tortured to death.

The curators discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (often the belovèd of the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel that it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning – and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy – and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony – and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story – but also key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity – but also incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age – and celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men… or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs… or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400 to 1530.

The opposite: by the end the exhibition has suggested that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and significances which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their many-minded patrons, and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.
  • In fact one of the several medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress a bit to reveal some of her thighs. That’s not nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not, in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between total nudity and the various forms of dress and bodily covering to be found in the pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, each of these statuses drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and their requirement to assert that this period saw The Rise of the Daring Naughty Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world (in its iconography) which often achieved a lovely delicacy and innocence.

This late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny, illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, we learn, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way the artist shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in these books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Yes but note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses as they fall down her back.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of a classic Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists’ workshops, the kind of thing you can nowadays find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker. I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull. The triumph of soulless perfectionism.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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