The Aeneid by Virgil – books 1 to 3

I am Aeneas, known for my devotion. (Aeneid book 1, line 378)

I own three translations of the Aeneid:

  • the 1956 Penguin Classics prose translation by W.F. Jackson Knight
  • the 1971 verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
  • the 1991 Penguin Classics prose translation by David West

I read most of the Aeneid in the West prose translation. It seemed easy and modern. I dipped into the Mandelbaum but was put off by his tone, too hectically American, maybe because I read it at the height of the heatwave when everything felt a bit hysterical. But I did use Mandelbaum’s comprehensive Glossary of Names and Places. The West edition doesn’t have a glossary or any notes at all. The idea is for you to rely entirely on the information Virgil gives in the poem itself which, it turns out, is all you need, most of the time.

Virgil

Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to as Virgil (70 to 19 BC) was the great Roman poet who straddled the epochal transition from the Roman Republic to the early Roman Empire. There were other very important figures, such as Catullus from the generation before (b.84), Virgil’s younger contemporary, Horace (b.63 BC), and, a generation younger, the great poet of mythology, Ovid (b.43). But Virgil towers above them all.

Virgil was born near the northern city of Mantua to parents who owned farmland. He was sent to Rome to complete his education where he probably met the young Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD) and his friends, namely his future patron and Augustus’s ‘minister of culture’, Maecenas (68 to 8 BC).

Always a sickly, sensitive young man, Virgil left Rome and settled near Naples where he spent the rest of his life quietly studying and writing poetry.

Virgil left no juvenilia or collections of random poems. He wrote just three works, each of them masterpieces:

  • the ten very short and highly stylised poems of idealised country life featuring lovelorn shepherds, the Eclogues
  • the four longer, tougher-minded, sometimes lyrical, sometimes practical, sometimes sweepingly destructive Georgics, are, on paper, poems of advice to farmers and livestock owners, but in reality a lot more varied and complex than that
  • the long epic poem the Aeneid, which has a claim to being the most important and most influential poem ever written in Europe

Epic poem

An epic poem is a long poem with a historical or legendary setting, which usually tells the adventures of one or more heroes on an epic journey or pitched into a mighty struggle, all with the input of gods and goddesses. Many societies and cultures have produced epic poems.

Sometimes an epic poem has as part of its purpose to explain the origin of cities or races or gods and religions. (The Greeks had a word for such an origin story, an aition.) Always epics are characterised by long narratives with multiple incidents or episodes strung along the central plot.

In the 1940s C.S. Lewis proposed an elemental distinction between primary and secondary epic. Primary epic is produced in illiterate cultures, often by travelling poets or troubadors, often using familiar narratives, well-known characters and using time-honoured, stock descriptions. The process by which they’re written down is obscure but by the time they are recorded they already display very sophisticated techniques of oral storytelling. In our European tradition, the two Greek epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey show these characteristics. They are attributed to a figure called ‘Homer’ but it’s not certain that anyone named Homer ever existed.

By complete contrast, secondary epic is the production of a literate culture. It is the product of known authors, was written at a known time and place. It self-consciously invokes many of the tropes and techniques of primary epic, such as well-known legends and legendary characters, famous episodes or adventures, extended similes, stock descriptive phrases, episodic structure and so on. Virgil’s Aeneid has a good claim to be the greatest secondary epic.

A poem of multiple levels

The Aeneid is a carefully wrought collation of numerous themes on multiple levels.

Adventure story

In terms of storyline or plot it tells the story of Aeneas, a prince of Troy – a story familiar to all educated Romans of Virgil’s day – who escapes the destruction of the city at the climax of the ten-year-long siege by the Greeks, and describes the wanderings of him and 20 shiploads of comrades as they sail west across the Mediterranean looking for a new home.

Foundation story

Why bother with this story? Because the Romans believed that their city ultimately owed its founding to prince Aeneas. The traditional view (which is recapped in book 1) goes that Aeneas underwent numerous florid adventures as he sailed west from Troy before finally making landfall in western Italy. After fighting off the local tribes he establishes a settlement at a place he calls Lavinium.

His son, Ascanius, also known as Iulus, will move their settlement to a place named Alba Longa, where his descendants will live for 300 years. Then Ilia, the royal priestess of Vesta, will be seduced and impregnated by the god Mars and give birth to twins, Romulus and Remus. Romulus will grow up to build a new settlement, named Rome after him, which will go on to rule the world.

Patriotic story

So on one level the poem is an ultra-patriotic dramatisation of the man who founds the settlement which was to form the basis of Rome. Aeneas is shown as an epitome of the Roman virtues, a man who puts duty to family and country before self.

Pleasing Augustus

Throughout the narrative Virgil goes out of his way to suck up to the current ruler of Rome, the princeps Gaius Octavianus who was awarded the title Augustus while he was composing the work. Gaius Octavianus had been adopted by Julius Caesar in his will and so took his name, becoming Gaius Julius Caesar.

Virgil is at pains to demonstrate the extreme antiquity of the family of ‘Julii’ of which Octavianus had become a member, and so goes out of his way to tell us, repeatedly, that Aeneas’s son, Ascanius, had this second name Iulus (this name had been Ilus while Troy, which was also called Ilium, had stood). Ilus – Iulus – Iulius. The aim was to create a direct link from Aeneas via Ilus-Iulius to the house of Julius Caesar, and so to the current emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar aka Augustus.

Those are the public and political aims of the poem. Two additional factors make it a masterpiece.

Adapting Homer

One is the tremendous skill with which Virgil closely models himself on the two outstanding epics of his tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, adopting the tone of voice, the capacious bird’s-eye-view of the narrator, the confident intertwining of the human level with the character of the immortal gods who play a crucial role in the plot, either supporting or scheming against Aeneas. It is a very sophisticated invocation and twining together of the epic tradition up to his time.

Virgil’s sensibility

But more important is Virgil’s sensitivity. Homer’s heroes are killing machines. They may be sad and burst into tears, but only when there is good justification (weeping over the dead) and most of the time they are just angry and keying themselves up for yet another fight.

By contrast, the Aeneid is soulful. The narrator and his hero are sensitive to ‘the tears of things’, to the tragic inevitability of the universe. Aeneas does his duty, but with a heavy heart at the suffering he has seen and the new suffering he causes. It is an epic poem with lyrical feeling.

Book 1 Storm and banquet

In the best tradition, the poem starts in media res meaning ‘in the middle of things’. We find our hero aboard ship, having set sail from Sicily towards the cost of Italy but caught up in a violent storm. His fleet is dispersed and at least one ship sinks.

In fact the read of the poem is informed that this storm has been whipped up by Juno queen of the gods. She hates Aeneas and is his steady foe. She cannot forgive the Trojans for the snub when Paris awarded the apple of beauty to Venus. This long-standing grudge is why we see her visit the home of Aeolus, gods of the winds, and ask him to whip up a storm to shipwreck Aeneas, which he promptly does.

But we also see Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who was impregnated by Aeneas’s father Anchises, rushing to confront Jupiter, king of the gods, and tearfully ask how he can let his wife massacre her son and his colleagues. Jupiter calmly tells her to dry her eyes, he has no intention of letting Aeneas drown, and it is now that he reveals what the fates have in store for the Trojan prince (as I outlined above).

And as he speaks he gets his brother Neptune, king of the seas, to abate the storm, and gently blow the remainder of Aeneas’s fleet towards the coast of north Africa, referred to here as Libya. Here the Trojans gratefully anchor, come ashore, dry off, go hunting, shoot some deer, build fires, eat and drink wine and recover their strength.

And here Aeneas is visited by his mother in the guise of a local woman who assures him all will be well and tells him about the nearby town of Carthage, just now being built by exiles from Tyre. Venus-in-disguise tells the rather complicated backstory of this people. Tyre is a rich city on the coast of Phoenicia (what is now Israel) ruled by king Pygmalion. He has a sister, princess Dido. Dido marries a rich man Sychaeus. But Pygmalion is jealous of Sychaeus’s wealth and murders him while he worships at an altar. For a while no-one knows who committed the crime and Pygmalion hypocritically comforts his sister.

But then the ghost of Sychaeus appears to Dido, reveals the truth, warns her to flee her brother, and shows her the burial place of a huge secret treasure. She gathers her friends and supporters and the many people opposed to the ‘tyrant’ Pygmalion, they dig up the treasure, load it onto some ships and sail away forever.

Now she and her people have arrived at the other end of the Mediterranean, made land, settled and Aeneas and his crew have arrived just as the Tyrians are laying out and building a new ‘city’, a city the narrative refers to as Carthage.

You don’t need to be a literary critic to spot that both Aeneas and Dido are in similar plight, both refugees from distant lands in the eastern Mediterranean, forced by tragic events to flee their home cities, and now trying to build new lives, and new cities, in the west.

All this is explained to him by Aeneas’s mother, Venus who, having intervened to save Aeneas from the storm, now appears to him in the guise of a local maiden. She has wrapped Aeneas in a magic cloud so he and his companion can walk up to the new city walls and watch the Tyrians building Carthage.

Then she disappears the cloud and Aeneas is welcomed by the Tyrians. Their queen, Dido, welcomes Aeneas and his men to a lavish feast. Venus waylays Aeneas’s son as he comes from the beach where they’ve all landed towards the city, makes him fall asleep in a copse of trees. And gets her other son, the god Eros, to take on Ascanius’s form, and be introduced to Queen Dido, and sit on her lap during the feast (!) and deliberately make her fall in love with Aeneas. Because we all know how this love affair will end Virgil describes her as poor Dido and ‘doomed’ Dido.

Homer is always full of a kind of metallic energy. Even when his heroes weep, they do so in a virile, manly way. But in his treatment of Dido Virgil displays a completely different sensibility, sympathetic and sad.

Back at the feast, Dido asks Aeneas to tell them about his adventures. He has already told them he has been wandering for seven years since the fall of Troy. Reluctantly, Aeneas agrees.

Book 2 The fall of Troy

Aeneas’s story. He cuts straight to the final days of the 10-year-long siege as the Greeks cut down mighty trees to make the enormous wooden horse. Then strike camp and sail away leaving it alone on the plain in front of Troy. The Trojans come out to admire it. The priest Laocoön warns them all that it is a Greek scam but at that point a Trojan patrol returns with a Greek captive. He tells them he’s called Sinon and, after incurring the enmity of the mighty Odysseus (here called Ulixes) he was chosen to be the human sacrifice the Greek fleet needed to set sail (just as it had required the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigeneia in order to set sail from Greece, 10 long years ago).

Sinon tells them he managed to escape the night before he was due to be killed and has hidden. Now they can kill him or spare him as they please. But he is a plant left by the Greeks to give a false explanation of the horse. He says it is a peace offering to the gods to let the fleet sail. More precisely, it is atonement for the incident when Ulixes and Diomede stole the Palladium from the temple of Pallas Athene in the citadel of Troy. Since then she has persecuted them and their chief priest, Calchas, ordered them a) to return to Greece to worship the gods, atone for their sins, rearm and return to renew the siege, and b) to build this enormous horse as a peace offering to Athena. Sinon warns that if the Trojans damage it at all it will bring down the wrath of Athena on them. If, on the other hand, they take it into the city and venerate it, then Athena will bless them and, when the Greeks return, allies from all across Asia will rally to their cause and they will defeat the Greeks in a final battle.

The Trojans are still hesitating when an amazing thing happens. The priest of Neptune, Laocoön, is sacrificing to an altar by the shore when two might sea snakes emerge from the waves and envelop his two young sons. Laocoön goes to their rescue and tries to fight them off but the snakes strangle all three to death and then slither into the city and up to the citadel of the goddess Venus.

Well, that decides it for the Trojans who set about dismantling part of their walls (the horse is too big to go through the city gates) in a kind of mad frenzy. Aeneas tells the story with much regret and sorrow at their foolhardiness, but they were whipped on by the scheming gods. The priestess Cassandra warns against letting the horse in but, of course, she was doomed never to be believed.

That night the Trojans hold a mighty feast to celebrate the end of the war then pass out on their beds. In the middle of the night Aeneas is woken by the ghost of Hector, looking grim and broken and bloody as he was after Achilles dragged his corpse round the walls of Troy, tied by the ankles to his chariot.

Hector’s ghost warns Aeneas to flee and sure enough, now he is awake, he hears screams and smells smoke. While they were asleep, Sinon snuck out to the horse, undid the pine bolts which secured its secret trap door, the Greeks inside the horse lowered themselves by a rope to the ground and set about massacring the guards set on the horse, while a contingent went and opened the main gates to the Greeks who had a) silently sailed back from where the fleet had hidden behind the offshore island of Tenedos and b) swarmed across the plain, till they were massed outside the gates.

Now the Greek army is pouring into the city determined to kill every man, woman and child. Hector’s ghost tells Aeneas all his lost, to gather his family and companions and flee, and predicts that, after long wanderings, he will found a new city.

But if you think about it, Virgil can’t depict the legendary founder of Rome as a coward who turns and bolts. Instead Aeneas leaps from his bed, grabs his armour, runs into the street, and rallies other warriors he finds emerging from their homes. They form a troop and roam through the streets taking on Greeks. They massacre one group of Greeks and put on their armour. This allows them to mingle with other Greeks before turning on them and many, the narrative assures us, they sent down to Orcus (hell), many fled back across the plain, and some even scuttled back up inside the horse.

Then a huge fight develops around the figure of the priestess Cassandra who is being dragged bound and gagged by Greeks from her temple. Aeneas and his band rally to save her but a hornet’s nest of Greeks counter attack, and they are even struck down by some Trojan brothers because they are wearing Greek armour.

He doesn’t mention Cassandra again but shifts the focus to the battle round the palace of Priam. Trojans are reduced to tearing down their walls and roofs to throw down on the Greeks climbing siege ladders. Aeneas enters the palace by a secret back passage and makes his way to the top of the tallest tower where he joins Trojans loosening the masonry to send huge blocks of stone falling on the Greek attackers.

Aeneas knows his audience will want to know how King Priam died. He gives a vivid, heart-breaking account of the old man buckling on his armour and heading for the fight, how his wife Hecuba tries to persuade him to desist, how Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, chases and kills Polites, one of Priam’s sons, right in front of him. How Priam defies him, harmlessly throws his spear, reproaches Pyrrhus for being a shame to his noble father. But Pyrrhus doesn’t care, grabs Priam by his long hair, drags him over to the altar and thrusts his sword up to the hilt in Priam’s side. Then his head is hacked from his body which is left to rot on the shore, unknown and unmourned.

Aeneas looks around and realises all his companions are dead i.e. he has done all that honour demanded. Now his thoughts turn to his aged father Anchises, his wife, Creusa, and son, Ascanius.

He spots Helen hiding in a temple, cause of all this death and destruction. Shall she survive and be taken back to Sparta to live in luxury, waited on by Trojan slaves? In a burst of fury Aeneas rushes forward to kill her but suddenly his mother, the goddess Venus appears. She tells him the war is not really Helen or even Paris’s fault. It is the gods. And she strips away the fog which clouds his mortal vision and shows him Neptune shaking the city’s foundations, Juno opening the gates and egging on the Greeks, Pallas Athena taking command of the citadel, and Jupiter himself leading the gods and supporting the Greeks. No mortal can stop this. As the Sibyl says, much later, in book 6:

You must cease to hope that the fates of the gods can be altered by prayer. (6.376)

Venus now orders Aeneas to collect his family and flee. But Anchises refuses to leave the city he has lived in all his life, determined to die in his house. Aeneas remonstrates, the old man refuses, so Aeneas says he’ll buckle back on his armour and die defending him rather than leave him. But Creusa throws herself in front of him and tells him his first duty is to his family.

At this tense moment there are signs from heaven. A heatless flame settles on Ascanius’s head and there was a peal of thunder and a star fell from the sky, a meteorite crashing down into Mount Ida.

This persuades Anchises to leave, so Aeneas puts a lion skin on his shoulders, tells the household slaves to meet them at a hill outside the city, puts his father on his shoulder, takes little Ascanius by the hand and Creusa follows behind as they set off through the dark side streets of the burning city.

It was then that his father heard marching soldiers’ feet and told Aeneas to run and Aeneas was overcome by irrational fear and bolted and somehow his wife Creusa got left behind, He never saw her again.

I stormed and raged and blamed every man and god that ever was. (2.745)

He puts his armour back on and runs back to the city, through the same gate they exited, trying to retrace his steps, going first to his house then to the palace of Priam, finding death, devastation and flames everywhere.

But then Creusa appears in a vision to him, calmly telling him that this is the wish of the gods and destiny. He is to sail far away and come to rest in Hesperia by the river Thybris in a land of warriors and take another bride. It is for the best. Their gods will protect her. She promises she will never be led away a slave for some Greek wife, although what her exact fate is is left unstated. He goes to put his arms around her but she fades like a phantom.

Anyway, this, like the account of Aeneas’s brave fighting, are obviously both designed to show him to best advantage, full of patriotic, familial and husbandly loyalty, but at every step overpowered by fate and destiny and the will of the gods. Now, sadly. Aeneas returns to the mound where his father and son are waiting and is amazed at the sheer number of other survivors who have gathered there. From now on he is to be their leader.

[Maybe worth pointing out the number of ghostly and visionary appearances: Dido’s husband’s ghost appears to her; Hector’s ghost appears to Aeneas; Creusa’s spirit appears to him. Although ostensibly about fighting there is a good deal of this otherworldly, visionary, shimmering quality about much of the story.]

Book 3 The wanderings

Aeneas is still talking, recounting his adventures to Dido and her court. He describes how the survivors built a settlement not far from ruined Troy, in the lee of the Ida mountains and built ships. Then set sail. This is described very briefly, in successive sentences. The lack of detail is very characteristic of Virgil. Unlike the hard-edged detailing of Homer, Virgil’s habit of skipping over details (for example, not telling us the outcome of the battle over Cassandra) creates a kind of shimmering, dreamy quality to the poem.

They sail to Thrace and begin to lay out foundations for a city but when Aeneas pulls up trees to decorate the altar he’s going to sacrifice on, he is horrified when they and spurt blood. Then terrified when a voice speaks and declares himself to be the spirit of Polydorus, sent by Priam to Thrace with a treasure, to be raised there, far from war-torn Troy. Now he tells Aeneas he was murdered by the king of Thrace who simply stole the gold.

Aeneas tells Anchises who responds that this is no place to stay. So they rebury the body of Polydorus with full rites, and set sail, letting the gods decide their final destination. They sail onto the island of Delos, dock in the harbour of Ortygia, and are greeted by King Anius.

Aeneas prays at the temple of Apollo, asking what he should do. A booming voice replies he must seek out the land of his ‘ancient mother’. Father Anchises interprets this to mean Crete, where the founder of Troy, Teucer, first came from.

So they sail and row from Delos via Naxos, Donusa, Olearos, Paros, through the Cyclades to Crete, where they land and begin to build a settlement Aeneas calls Pergamea. Things are just beginning to thrive when the settlement is struck down by a great plague and the crops wither in the fields.

One night the household gods are bathed in sunlight and speak to him, telling him again the prophecy that he will sail the seas, come to a peaceful land, and found a race who rule the world. The Greeks call the land Hesperia but it has been settled by the Oenetrians who have called it Italy after their god, Italus.

When he tells Father Anchises the latter remembers that Troy had two founders. One was Teucer from Crete but the other was Dardanus from Hesperia. They misinterpreted the message from Apollo and mistakenly came to Crete. So now they pack ship and set sail for Hesperia/Italy.

For three days and nights a black storm descends, blotting out the sky. Then it lifts and they sail into the harbour of the Strophades. They see fat cattle and goats and storm ashore, kill some and are feasting when they are attacked by the foul harpies, birds with the faces of girls, bellies oozing filth, talons like birds, which tear the food from their hands.

The harpies’ leader, Celaeno, perches on a pinnacle of rock and announces a prophecy which Jupiter gave Apollo, and Apollo gave her, and she is now giving the Trojans. They will settle a new land but not until they have passed through a famine which makes them gnaw their tables. (The prophesy is fulfilled at 7.116 to 130.)

So the Trojans abandon the feast and the land, take ship and scud over the waves to the island of Leucas. Here they performed rites of purification and then held games. They stayed here till mid-winter, when Aeneas pinned a shield taken from a Greek on the temple doors and they set sail again.

They dock at Chaonia and walk up to the city of Buthrotum. Here they are astounded to come across Andromache, wife of the great hero Hector, making ritual sacrifices for her dead husband. She tells them that she survived the sack of Troy and was taken as wife by Pyrrhus to whom she bore a child. But Pyrrhus dumped her on fellow slave Helenus (one of the sons of Priam) in order to marry Hermione. But Orestes loved Hermione and so murdered Pyrrhus. At his death some of Pyrrhus’s land descended to Helenus. He built a settlement there, a new Pergamum, and here Andromache lives.

At which point Helenus arrives and, amid much weeping by everyone, escorts them to his city which is a miniature copy of Troy in all aspects. They stay for some time. Eventually Aeneas asks the priest Helenus to answer his questions: should he set sail, will he come to the promised land?

So Helenus sacrifices some bullocks and then gives Aeneas the latest in the line of prophecies, first of all warning it won’t be a short voyage, but a long one fraught with adventures. He will recognise the place to build his city because he will find a sow suckling 30 piglets. He must make it a priority to worship Juno and try to win her over. He must make time to visit the prophetess at Cumae. He must avoid sailing through the straits of Messina, which are terrorised by Scylla and Charybdis.

Helenus gives them gifts of gold and ivory and silver, and blesses them as they set sail. They sight Italy and sail into harbour. They sail on past Tarentum in the instep of Italy. They sail past the gulf of Scylla and Charybdis and make shore in the land of the Cyclopes, a peaceful harbour but in the shadow of the fearsome Mount Etna who belching black smoke darkens the sky.

Next morning they are surprised to see a wretched filthy man in rags come running towards them. He announces he is Achaemenides, one of Ulixe’s crew. He describes how they were captured by the Cyclops which ate some of their comrades, drank and fell asleep and how, in the night, they conspired to blind him. But they sailed and left him behind. He has just about survived for three months, since then. But he warns them to flee.

At that moment they see blinded Polyphemus appear with his flocks on the side of the mountain and run down to their ships and set sail, rowing for all they’re worth. Polyphemus hears them and lets out a road which shakes the earth and brings all the other cyclops to the shore to rage at them, but they are clear of harm.

They sail down the east coast of Sicily past Syracuse. Then along the south coast, ticking off all the settlements and sights till they come to Lilybaeum. They put in at Drepanum but here Aeneas ‘lost’ his father Anchises. There is, as so often with Virgil, no detail, no explanation, just a focus on Aeneas’s loss and sadness.

When they set sail from there to head north and east to the Italian coast the great storm described at the start of book 1 was stirred up and so they were blown to the African shore which the Tyrians are settling. And with that, Aeneas’s recital of his story comes to an end.

Epicurean rest

It is noticeable that Virgil/West phrase the very end of Aeneas’s recital with ‘Here he made an end and was at peace.’ When I read Virgil’s Georgics I was struck by how much he told us he was struggling to complete the poem. He had to ask his patron, Maecenas, for help and support, he kept telling himself ‘onwards and upwards!’, he wrote with relief about reaching the end of each of the four books. Then the very opening of book 4 describes how Dido fell in love and ‘love gave her body no rest or peace‘.

It was only when I read the Georgics that I became aware for the first time of Virgil’s adherence to the teachings of Epicurus. In the blurb to the Penguin edition, I learn that Virgil lived most of his adult life in an Epicurean colony near Naples.

Epicurus’s teachings are above all designed to cultivate freedom from stress and anxiety in his followers. Peace of mind and spirit. So these references in the Aeneid to peace of spirit, or lack of it, acquired, for me, two deeper resonances. On one level, Virgil uses the word ‘peace’ to mean an end to the gruelling torment of writing this long, demanding poem, which comes over as being a huge ordeal for him. But the word also means far more than it does to you or me – for the Epicurean Virgil, ‘peace’ represents the nirvana, the blessed state sought for by his philosophy. When he says his characters achieve ‘peace’ or, conversely, are deprived of ‘peace’, it isn’t in the casual way that you or I might use the word, but has this much deeper resonance, referring to a philosophically idealised state of complete detachment from all sources of strife or worry.

Looked at this way, the entire poem represents a kind of vast detour from man’s ideal condition of rest or stasis, into a world of strife and anxiety. It helps to explain Virgil’s sad and doleful tone, lamenting the endless destiny of man to be troubled – by duties, responsibilities, the need to work, to eat, to love, to be a social animal – all of it endlessly distracting from his best, optimum state of complete Buddhist detachment. Hence Virgil’s insistent tone of lamentation over humanity in general, continually remarking on the sadness of their poor mortal existence.

It was the time when sleep, the most grateful gift of the gods, was first beginning to creep over suffering mortals… (2.270)

I guess there’s a third interpretation which is literally to do with rest after physical labour. This harks back to the many images in the Georgics of the sheer amount of physical labour involved in human existence. How many times in that long book did weary shepherds, farmers, goatherds, horticulturalists and livestock herders and outdoor workers greet the end of the day, the westering of the sun, as a welcome sign of the end of their day’s labours. Well, that tone is repeated again and again in the Aeneid. Night and, with it, sleep, represent welcome oblivion for animals and humans exhausted by their labours.

It was night and weary living things were peacefully taking their rest upon the earth. (4.522)

It was night and over the whole earth the weary animals, all manner of birds and all manner of flocks, were already deep in sleep.. (8.28)

Over the whole world the creatures of the earth were relaxed in sleep, all resting from their cares, and their hearts had forgotten their labours… (9.226)

Contrasting with the mellifluous descriptions of restful sleep are the hard descriptions of the scenes of fighting and the days of war (especially in the harsh, second half of the Aeneid, which I’ll be discussing in a later blog post).

Bitter grief was everywhere. Everywhere there was fear and death in many forms. (2.369)

Aurora meanwhile had lifted up her life-giving light for miserable mortals, bringing back their toil and sufferings. (11.184)

As an English poet wrote, 1,600 years later:

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas,
Ease after war, death after life does greatly please.


Roman reviews

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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