SINCE turning 250, the Royal Academy in London has certainly been letting its hair down and taken its kit off (see also Arts, 1 February), as if, five decades on, Hair had opened in the respectable halls of Burlington House. Wherever you look (spoiler alert), you are confronted with naked men and women, some unashamedly portrayed as objects for our desire: beefcake male dancers, Pirelli calendar girls. . . You can take your choice.
In the upper galleries is “The Renaissance Nude”, an exhibition that has come from the Getty in Malibu, LA.
I am sure that I am not alone in worrying that an exhibition that celebrates the body ends up in rooms still named for a family whose fortune has been revealed to derive from the exploitative sales of opioids, but that may be half the point. You won’t need to take a hit to enjoy the extraordinary range of this show, which broadly covers 1400 to 1530 in the Western canon of arts; and France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Italy. As with Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Spain is omitted.
The extensive catalogue, which comes out at 418 pages, will be a resource for years to come, but is almost too heavy for the train back home. We see some 80 paintings, sculptures, and medallions, and probably need to lie down afterwards. Here are some wonderful works by Perugino, Pisanello, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. The northern artists Dürer, Gossaert, Memling, and Simon Bening vie equally for our close attention.
Adam and Eve, Hercules and Antaeus, Pan and Syrinx, Apollo and Admetus, Bathsheba, bathhouses, the Three Graces (in a demandingly delightful Raphael drawing loaned by the Queen, in which the same model appears three times), and even the Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Armenian Christian soldiers at Hadrian’s behest provided opportunities for artists to celebrate the naked body.
Missing from this extensive repertory of naked people are perhaps only depictions of St Peter’s martyrdom, as it appears for instance in the Stefaneschi altarpiece painted by Giotto (Vatican) and most famously in Filippino Lippi’s mural for the Brancacci chapel in Florence, painted sometime after 1481.
Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, MadridAgnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533. Oil on panel, 87 x 76.5 cm.
Unceremoniously upended, the older apostle has been nailed to the cross that is being winched upright. The agony of violence is at odds with the stoic serenity of his gaze and is in stark contrast to the almost sublime nakedness of Adam and Eve painted by Masolino and by Masaccio half a century earlier in the same Florentine chapel.
The exhibition is staged thematically with a first section examining the relationship of the nude within Christian art while the second looks at the rediscovery of the Antique and the Humanist espousal of secular themes. The third draws on the actual theory and practice of studying anatomy and proportion; Michelangelo’s marked-up red-chalk drawing shows how carefully the draftsman measured the human form. We see much the same in a double-sided drawing of the neck and shoulder muscles by Leonardo (both from the Royal Collection).
The mature body, with wasted flesh, drooping breasts, and worn expressions of exhaustion gave artists the challenge of confronting mortality as such, and many of the works seem almost clinically scientific. A wood carver in Ulm sculpted an elderly female bather in painted boxwood in the 1480s, presenting us with an unabashed opportunity to contemplate the withering effects of old age. “Will you still love me when I am 64?” she seems to gulp. Once she was as attractive as Titian’s Venus Anadyomene.
Even more powerfully, Donatello’s carving of St Jerome, which dates from a decade earlier, confronts us with stark asceticism. It was commissioned for the city of Faenza, or possibly for the funerary chapel of the lord of Faenza (d.1468), with a companion sculpture of St John the Baptist, and may originally have been intended as a reflection on Youth and Age, the Two Ages of Man.
The statue has central place in the penultimate room and even after Parmigianino’s sketch of a laid-back naked youth modelling St Jerome, for his 1526 painting of the Virgin and Child with Saints for the Church of San Salvatore in Lauro in Rome (National Gallery, but irritatingly not on current display in Trafalgar Square), this is overwhelming. The helpless vulnerability and stark portrayal of an older man is both moving and awkward, enriched by the texture of the polychromed wood.
Donatello, who was no stranger to carving statues of young hunks, seems to be saying that a life of scholarship translating the Bible has scarred the scholar deeply. Maybe Jerome rarely saw the light of day from his monastic cell in Bethlehem. Maybe he should have got out more often, leaving his lion behind.
St Sebastian emerges as the emblem of Renaissance bravura and observation, a celebration of the anatomy learned from the recovery of classical sculptures.
Historically, St Sebastian was a Roman commander of some years who renounced paganism and paid the ultimate price for converting, much as Islamic State warriors have killed Muslim converts. In the hands of artists, he became the heroic nude of his day and was rarely depicted as a man of any seniority or age.
Sebastian is, of course, usually shown as an ephebic nude, often eroticised by the merest suggestion of a loin cloth. This is the Renaissance equivalent of all those bill-hoarding advertisements for men’s underwear. Why? Part of the answer, not much explored in the exhibition, was the votive nature of such images. Sebastian was often invoked against sudden death. In an age dominated by plague, with devastating and medically misunderstood effects, youthfulness came to symbolise vulnerability in the face of uncertain death.
Whereas a soldier might withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, a naked man, stripped of his armour, was defenceless. We see this first in the cast and gilded silver plaquette of The Virgin and Child with Saints, originally designed as part of the decoration of a cabinet of treasures once owned by the Grimani family in the early 16th century (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund. www.lacma.orgAlbrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving, 25.1 x 19.4 cm.
This small panel (5½ in. x 4 in.), designed by Moderno (1467-1528), contrasts the confident form of St George in full body armour with the rippling torso of the exposed Sebastian opposite, his hands tied behind his back to emphasise further his naked manhood.
The compact scheme of (?) Donatello’s portable bronze relief of the martyrdom (c.1445-50) displayed next to it in the first case immediately as we enter has the saint bound to a pillar rather than a tree, a similarity of composition which may explain why the scene was often paired with that of the Flagellation and of Christ at the Column. The companion piece from the Grimani cabinet also showed the Flagellation.
Two archers tread over one another as they shoot him at point-blank range, while an angel strokes the martyr’s face with a palm branch, raising his left hand to call upon God to intervene. Caravaggio used just such a telescoped composition for his painting of St Ursula, a century and a half later.
The plasticity of form and the sheer pliability of youthful flesh stands out in the 1497 silver and parcel-gilt reliquary of St Sebastian which may have been designed by Hans Holbein the elder for the Cistercians. This is the first object that we encounter and sets the theme for our exploration of raw flesh and gilded pleasure. On the plinth beneath the martyr, Abbot Georg Kastner commissioned smaller statuettes of St George and St Barbara, either side of the Virgin of Piety, sheltering those who call upon her intercession in her mantle.
I had hoped to see the Dresden Antonello of languorous Sebastian (1478/79) which is all that survives from a triptych, with St Roch and St Christopher, from the Church of San Giuliano in Venice. Instead, we get to see both the Cima full-length painting from Strasbourg and the slightly later swirl of a “portrait” by Agnolo Bronzino (c.1533) in which the young man strokes the arrowhead sensually and absent-midedly. Both are unusual, as in neither does the saint look heavenward, in intercession either for himself or for other devotees. Rather, both artists show him gazing fondly off-stage left, serene figures captured for a moment.
In biblical terms, the nakedness of Adam and Eve has prime place (look at the Dürer engraving and tell me that you don’t believe in Original Sin), while the stripping of Jesus at Calvary presents us with a second Adam.
Both narratives became a common artistic source for studies of the naked human form, some more devotional than others, and for an excursion that was not reliant upon direct knowledge of recovered classical statuary.
The Calvary cycle of deposition, lamentation, and entombment allowed artists to paint others admiring the naked body of the God made flesh. There is no image of the nativity in the entire show: babies are naked, not nude.
The curators are concerned with a developed interest in human anatomy from a medical and scientific point of view quite as much as an awe for a culture already exhausted 1300 years before to demonstrate an artist’s extraordinary versatility in rendering the body, both male and female.
The exhibition treads the narrow path between over-emphasising the erotic nature of such images and dehumanising the delight that many do take in the contemplation of naked bodies, whether their own or those of others. We would be wrong to presume the innocence of any previous age, but we would also be making a mistake to see so many images out of context.
“The Renaissance Nude” is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1, until 2 June. Phone 020 7300 8090.