“They Were Fruitful…”, Part 2.3: Italiana (e l’ignudo)

As you may have noticed, much classical and Renaissance art frequently portrays nude men, women and children. The two examples at left are from the lobby of the Florentine hostel in which I stayed.

So, I have entitled this closing section “e l’ignudo” (…and the nude). This can be an awkward artistic experience for those of us accustomed to public nudity being illegal and artistic depictions of nudity being accompanied by an “R” rating.

I will confine my musings about the moral implications of all of this to my mind and possibly a later post. For now, I will just comment on a few aspects of the nude are that I found surprising.

Many works of art portray historical or mythological figures, and portraying them nude is often inaccurate. For instance, above is a copy of Michelangelo’s David. While David did not wear Saul’s armor, I suspect he wore something because his culture was even less tolerant of nudity than ours, as one of his wives once reminded him. Also, Wikipedia mentions, “the statue seemed to portray an uncircumcised male, whereas the historical King David was undoubtedly circumcised.”


Above is Jason, captain of the Argo, holding the mythical golden fleece. Again, I suspect he wore something when defeating the strange monster crushed beneath his feet, and I hope he struck a more dignified pose when triumphantly displaying the fleece.

Of all the nude mythical figures, the most annoyingly inaccurate was the one of Perseus shown at left. Film fans among you may remember him as one of the heroes of the film Clash of the Titans. Stargazers among you may recognize him as a constellation. He is depicted here holding the severed head of Medusa. According to myth, she could turn people to stone with a single glance. By depicting a nude Perseus, this marvellous bronze sculpture omits the tool that made his defeat of Medusa possible. He was able to attack the monstrous woman using a highly polished gold shield to watch her reflection rather than look at her directly. That shield is conspicuously absent from this sculpture.

The only figure I saw who was portrayed as inaccurately clothed was the crucified Jesus. He is the central figure in this unfinished wooden sculpture by Michelangelo. Roman crucifixion victims were stripped nude to further humiliate them as they were tortured to death. No evidence indicates that Jesus was exempt from this practice. In the case of Jesus, the Roman soldiers “cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves” (Luke 12:34).

I saw nude angels, biblical heroes, mythological figures, and others, but the body of Jesus, whether on the cross or shortly thereafter, always had a loin cloth similar to the one seen here. I am not sure why he received this special treatment when so many other characters were inaccurately portrayed nude.

Nudity can be an accurate or at least appropriate depiction of some figures. For instance, above is Venus of Urbino by Tizian that resides in the Ufizi. Another sculpture of the goddess, which is in the Bargello, is shown at left. Since she is the pagan Roman goddess of sexual love and the mother of Eros, from whom we derive the English word erotic, sensually nude portrayals seem fitting. However, I must admit that I had to take care not to stare for too long.

Some very strange nude works of art are stuck in my memory from this trip. I shall now endeavour to lodge them in yours.

According to the label, this is Pan and Olympus. Pan, as you can see, is not quite human.

Another odd sculpture was displayed in the Bargello in several sections. One section is shown above. It seems quite ordinary until one sees the next pieces, which are shown below.

The woman in the center is the source of water for this fountain. I leave the reader to discover where the water left her body.

The plaque shown above is a drawing of how all the elements of this fountain were originally arranged. Like all other nude sculputres I saw, male genitals were shown in full detail, but the women’s were non-existant. That seems somwhat unbalanced.

The translation of this explanatory text was made by my friend and colleague Gabriele.

The “Fountain” was commissioned by Cosimo I to be realized by Bartolomeo Ammannati in 1556 for the south side of the “great room” (the Hall of the Five Hundred) in Palazzo Vecchio. The statues were completed in 1561 and four of them were later moved to the Lanzi’s Lodge (Loggia dei Lanzi) while waiting to be placed in the palace for the wedding of Francesco I (1565), but in fact they were never moved to the palace. Francesco I ordered the statues be moved to his villa in Pratolino, were the “Fountain” was installed. In 1588, the Granduca (great duke) Ferdinando I, anticipating his wedding with Cristina di Lorena, moved the “Fountain” again, this time to Palazzo Pitti, on the terrace of the courtyard. From here, in 1635 the statues were moved to the garden of the Casino di San Marco, to finally come back to Boboli in 1739, in the occasion of the celebrations for Francesco di Lorena. While they had been arranged each in a separate location in the Boboli garden, they have been finally reunited at their arrival, at different times, to the Bargello Museum.

I was surprised by this dry historical commentary. No part of this exhibit acknowledged that this sculpture seemed to belong in a scene from Animal House rather than in an art museum. Maybe I am just being prudish.

To conclude this entry, I share the greatest irony observed in Italy. As you can see, before entering the cathedral in Pisa, visitors are warned that food, smoking, and excessively revealing clothing are not allowed inside.

The guidebooks had prepared me for the cathedral dress code, and since all of my clothing was formal for the conference, I had no reason to worry. When visitors arrived with too little clothing, I was surprised that code was enforced with blue smocks.

Since I was in a church, a proper dress code seemed natural. However, the large paintingns hanging from the wall defied this logic. The great irony is that the dress code was enforced upon the visitors but not upon the artwork!

I suppose you could call it a double standard!

So ends my series of entries about my visit to Italy. I thank God for the opportunity and hope you enjoyed reading about it.

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One Response to “They Were Fruitful…”, Part 2.3: Italiana (e l’ignudo)

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