In 1576, the Duke of Florence, hoping to garner favor with the Spanish king, sent the famously devout Philip II of Spain a Cellini sculpture of the Crucifixion. While beautifully carved, the sculpture was met with mixed reviews. The reason? Jesus was nude. Philip II ordered drapery to made to cover the genitals, and the sculpture was moved to a lesser location than anticipated.
This might lead one to think that Spanish art at the time was prudish, that it shied away from nudity. But this wasn’t the case — at least according to University of Vermont Professor of Art History Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, who delivered a lecture entitled “Uncovering the Uncovered: The Nude in Spanish Sculpture Collections.” This lecture was just one installment in “Whose Nudes? Painting, Collecting, Displaying the Body in Early Modern Europe,” a larger symposium held at the Sterling & Francine Clark Art Institute last Friday in conjunction with its current special exhibition, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado.
The symposium, according to the press release, “seeks to rethink and challenge issues relating to paintings of the nude by Northern and Southern European artists in the early modern period.” In addition to Helmstutler Di Dio, Hilliard Goldfarb from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Tianna Uchacz of Columbia University, Alejandro Vergara from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid and Katlijne Van der Stighelen of the University of Leuven, Belgium, all delivered lectures on subjects ranging from Rubens’s royally-commissioned nudes to Titian’s “The Rape of Europa,” the source for Rubens’ copy, which is in the exhibition. Clark curators led discussions.
At the time that the Spanish kings in Splendor, Myth, and Vision were collecting, the depiction of the naked body was seen as acting contrary to the values promoted by the Catholic Church, and nudes were therefore barred from being shown to an unrestricted public. Inside the salas reservadas, the private showrooms of royal and elite collectors, however, paintings of nudes flourished.
The relationship between the responsibility of cultural elites to uphold the strict moral code of the Catholic Church and their evident indulgence in works that exemplified the opposite is a nuanced one. These paintings seem more precious than simply a privileged form of pornography. Dirty, for sure, but delicious for something more than the depravity of its content. Perhaps their exclusivity, that they could be seen only in the backrooms of aristocrats’ quarters, or their content — moralizing for those highbrow enough to understand, tempting for those not, or so it was often said — add to their appeal.
That is not to say that nudity was categorically reserved for the elites; however, it was difficult to say what exactly made a nude acceptable or not for public display. Maybe medium: sculptures of naked bronze not painted to look like flesh precluded lust. Sculptures of marble looked similar to sculptures from antiquity, and could have been allowed for scholarly study.
Various excuses were also proffered, even among elites: a statue of Venus and another of the Youth of Magdalensberg, it was said, were Adam and Eve. The reason for their nudity, therefore, was to teach a moral lesson to viewers.
But this type of explanation is immensely difficult to reconcile with the works’ sumptuousness of flesh, that “pearly opalescence,” in the words of Goldfarb. If these were pieces of moralizing intent, they often hinted more at the nobility of the naked body than at that of the dogmatic Catholicism.
Titian’s “Poesie” cycle, painted for Philip II of Spain, for example, was often based on mythology, another explanation mechanism. Each piece in the series, all ambitious, large-scale and opulent, was based on some selection from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
They were not quite word-for-word depictions, however. Goldfarb points out some of the inconsistencies. Whereas Ovid describes Europa’s “trembl[ing] with fear and look[ing] back at the receding shore, holding fast a horn with one hand and resting the other on the creature’s back,” Titan’s Europa is dynamic, the other hand not resting but flung overhead, the shadow of the forearm casting a dramatic shadow from which the whites of her panicked eyes emerge.
What Titian has done, in effect, is flip the body, so that it lies not supinely, sedately, upon the back of the bull, but sprawls dramatically outward; her torso faces you, angled so you look up at her, a wrinkle of fabric drawing attention to the space between her spread legs.
Titian’s “Poesie,” Goldfarb said, is “more revivification than reconstruction.” And how did he revivify? By showing off, throughout the cycle, many angles of the naked body. From Danaë’s slumped, post-coital indolence to the frantic, love-struck Venus, depicted from behind clinging to the chest of Adonis, you see the revivification of flesh. Often the bending of textual truth underscores the vigor, the beauty, of the naked body.
“Whose Nudes?” explains, but also complicates. The salacious salas reservadas from the curatorial texts are no doubt already fascinating — but what of Helmstutler Di Dio’s underscoring of the presence of nudes in Spanish public squares? What of the point Uchacz brought up, the question of where, in Netherlandish art of the 16th century, all the male nudes are?
What this rich gathering of local and international scholars has given us is the gift of new angles to engage from, in the already dense playground of ideas in Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado.