Saturday, January 24, 2009

Renaissance Florence Made Me Gay

Italy is not, and never was, a puritanical country. And those who've tried to make it such (see Savonarola) all came to bad ends. While contemplating the role of luminosity in the works of Masaccio and Fra Angelico, and Donatello's amazing capacity for transforming ideas into gripping drama, I was struck by how much sex there is all over the walls and monuments of Florence, even in the churches. And a lot of it is male same sexuality, most of it very passionate. Below is but a tiny sample. None of these works were for private enjoyment. They were all public.







This is probably a portrait of some young Florentine nobleman posing as St. Sebastian, Role playing as a saint or a classical deity was usually an excuse to pose partially (or completely)  nude.

Hell scenes are perpetually popular for the same reasons horror movies will always be popular; that dark instinctual thrill of eros meeting thanatos. The torments in most Medieval and Renaissance hell scenes are sexual, but these in this picture are strikingly so. They are all male sexual torments too. Imagine this in your church. And where is this? In the dome over the high altar of Florence cathedral.  


In Renaissance Italy, visions of salvation are also frequently sexualized. Even Our Lord has a very sensual physicality in many paintings and sculptures.  This sensuality becomes an article of sacramental faith in later artists like Titian and Rubens.
While it has never produced anything like the temples of Khajuraho swarming with copulating multitudes, Christian imagery is hardly sexless.
It never fails to amaze me how much the imagery of Christianity is banalized and bowdlerized to accommodate conventional modern tastes.

Why is it that major formative centers of Western Civilization like Renaissance Florence or Classical Athens are so full of homoerotic imagery?

Makes ya think!


June Butler said...

The Florentines were not afraid of the body. I remember the Donatello quite well. Thanks for the ass view of David.

The first time I visited Florence, I wondered why there were so many paintings of the saint with arrows in his body, but then I learned that St. Sebastian was the patron of the city.

Counterlight, I gotta tell ya, your pictures are not turning me gay.

Counterlight said...

The Donatello David was recently restored and placed back on view 2 week before I arrived. They found that it was once extensive gilded. Now, behind the original, there is a full sized replica gilded in places as indicated by the restoration. It's downright shocking. Not only is it homoerotic, It's campy. Liberace would have been proud to own it.

June Butler said...

Liberace was gay? I can just see a small version on the piano.

I think I'd like the worn David better.

Leonard said...

I loved the pictoral/pectoral gracias...made me think of Florence and certain enchanted evenings of days/daze gone by (the place reeks with quick lived romance and I was such an innocent)...I think I´ll paint tomorrow (thanks to you) I feel especially inspired (and a tad melancholy).

June Butler said...

Leo, Florence is, indeed, a place of enchantment. It's my favorite city in the world of those I have seen.

Anonymous said...

Mimi, to supplement the Donatello, I've posted two pictures of Michelangelo's David--from the rear and the side--that I took on my (one and only to date) trip to Italy, back in 1994.
You will notice that Michelangelo chose to portray one particular portion of the male anatomy significantly smaller than current erotic tastes demand.

While I liked Florence, it was Venice that I loved.

Counterlight, have you ever heard Berlioz' opera Benevenuto Cellini--which centers (in what I'm pretty sure is a very unhistorical way) on the casting of the Perseus? I've just gotten a recording of it (fairly new) on the LSO Live label, and (I've never heard it before) it got me in all the right spots.

Leonard said...

Grandmère Mimi, oh it´s so hard to not love em all. Almost everywhere I´ve traveled (repeatedly) I´ve adored...I´m sort of a nester so I like to stay at the same Hotels on every visit (when I was President of a import company, fashion biz, they paid first class everything...I got spoiled. I am a little spoiled but I love life and there is soooo much to drink in (I had to stop with the drinking part and started sucking in the surroundings instead)...I also LOVE PARIS...I´ve had Winter Snowy visits to Paris that are memorable...did the Primere Vision show always (fabric/color/fashion forecasting one year ahead)...warms my innermost glows.

Leonard said...

btw, I hate La Paz, Bolivia and could happily live without ever seeing Peru again!

Counterlight, sorry, I´m so happy you´re home and returned with such deeply moving visual messages for us...I got carried away.

You´re a champ.

Anonymous said...

My God, the color in that Bronzino "Limbo" is glorious! [Confession: never heard of him. Alas.]

This is one of those sotto voce thoughts, that I'm going to finally say aloud: sometimes I wonder, if the only TRUE "heterosexual males" have Two X chromosomes?

Like every (well, almost every) XY baby comes into the world, looks down between his legs, and the "Greatest Love Story Ever Told" is born anew?

Don't get me wrong: there is an anaesthetic beauty to the male form...'s that boys so love to, um, stick it in our faces (so to speak).

This artwork might not be turning you gay, Mimi, but to the extent that I'm of the Double X tribe, it IS doing so for me!

Rant off.

[I know I shouldn't expect female nudes from you, Doug, but God/dess do I yearn to see some now! (Noting the aforementioned Bronzino obliges, in a rather too chaste and/or static sort of way)]

Counterlight said...


Florence, like Classical Athens, was a very male dominated phallocentric place. Only Afghanistan under the Taliban kept their women more cloistered and subservient. There were great women in Renaissance Florence, but they were the exception that proved the rule.

Women usually fared much better with more opportunities in the Middle Ages, and would not begin to see anything comparable until the 18th century.

Counterlight said...

Bronzino could make everyone look hot, men, women, angels, and God. That's why he was so successful.

June Butler said...

JCF, I've noticed that many of the classical male nudes from Greece and Rome also have mostly small weenies, too. Maybe bigger was not always better.

Michangelo's David is out of proportion, when viewed head-on, isn't it? It's meant to be viewed from below. The head is too large for the rest of the body. What nice buns though.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Mimi... you, a Grandmother...


June Butler said...

Göran, I know. I'm a wicked grandmother, a thoroughly bad influence on the little ones.

I'm still stuck in the old ways of using kiddie terms for parts of the body. It's hard to get "penis" out. Of course, not having one makes it even harder.

Make what you want of that. All sorts of double entendres in there.

Anonymous said...

Of course, not having one makes it even harder.

As an FTM genderqueer, boy can I relate! ;-D

[Or {TMI disclaimer}, if "Hedwig" was angry about her inch, imagine how angry *I* am, w/ less! >8-X]

Counterlight said...

I was told in art school that there used to be a classical proportional norm for penises; same length as the nose.

No joke.

Thank God for modern art.

June Butler said...

CL, that's an arcane bit of information that is so satisfying to drop into a conversation. Opportunities don't often arise.

Anonymous said...

Opportunities don't often arise.

Not sayin' anything! [Does Grandpere need to "talk to his doctor about..."? ;-/]

June Butler said...

JCF, I never talk about such matters. That's private.