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The Renaissance nude is brought to our attention in all its glory

by Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent

Agnolo Bronzino painting of Saint Sebastian
Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c. 1533. Oil on panel. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Michelangelo’s monumental mural of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel was celebrated as a triumph when it was finished in 1541. But its vast array of nudes proved too much for the pontiff, Pope Pius IV, who shortly after Michelangelo’s death in 1564 ordered draperies to be painted over some of the nudity.

This famous story dates to just after the period covered by the Royal Academy’s exhibition, The Renaissance Nude - the years between 1400 and 1530 - but it illustrates something we rarely think about today: the omnipresence of the nude in Western art, especially Renaissance art. This exhibition explores how and why the nude was elevated to such a pivotal role in the art of this period.

It’s a terrific exhibition and encompasses far more in the three rooms of the RA’s Sackler Wing of Galleries than imaginable. With around 90 works on display, in a variety of media - paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts - they show the artistic developments in northern and southern Europe, and offer a pleasing balance between male and female nudes.

Featuring works by artists including Lucas Cranach the Elder, Albrecht Dürer, Jan Gossaert, Bronzino, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo da Vinci, the exhibition examines the emergence of this dynamic visual tradition from a variety of perspectives. Themes include the nude in Christian art, humanism and secular subjects, artistic theory and practice, the idealised form, and the role of Renaissance patrons.

The naked body was depicted in the Middle Ages but not as much as in the Renaissance when religion and artistic production were intricately linked. Biblical episodes such as Adam and Eve, and the Passion of Christ - notably, images began to emphasise Christ’s humanity - and stories of the saints such as Saint Sebastian offered the ideal vehicle for artists to show how they could depict the human body.

Albrecht Dürer engraving of Adam and Eve
Albrecht Dürer, Adam and Eve, 1504. Engraving. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Art Museum Council Fund.

Albrecht Dürer’s iconic engraving of Adam and Eve is a highlight of this part of the show, as is Cima da Conegliano’s luminous depiction of Saint Sebastian. Paintings of the martyr usually show him suffering, tied to a tree and studded with arrows, but the Venetian artist has the young man standing, idealised like a Greek god, seemingly unaware of the single arrow that pierces his unblemished thigh.

The section called Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes is devoted to depictions of mythological stories and the rediscovered study of classical antiquity. Here we see how artists chose to explore human impulses through scenesof drunkenness and deception, lust and seduction and so on, andthe celebration of ideal beauty by way of Olympian deities such as Apollo and Venus.Titian’s masterpiece Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’),c. 1520, shows the Roman goddess of lovenot so much rising from the waves on a seashell (as in Botticelli’s famous painting) but much more naturally as if she had just gone down to the sea for a bathe and is now wringing out her long red tresses.

In the Renaissance artists began to study classical sculpture to inform their ideas of the body. Littering their studios with practice drawings, they tried to master anatomy and a body’s ideal proportions (linking that to the ideal proportions of architecture), and draw the human form in an array of poses. A key work is a sheet of Leonardo’s detailed studies of The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck, c. 1510-11, covered with annotations in his characteristic mirror script.

A wooden sculpture of Saint Jerome by Donatello has pride of place in the Beyond the Ideal Nudegallery. Polychrome wooden sculptures were common in the Renaissance. The 1460s statue shows the saint beating his chest with a stone - it is the very picture of gaunt human frailty yet it also shows strength, the strength of belief, a stark visual reminder of his religious commitment.

The final section, entitled Personalising the Nude, highlights the role of Renaissance patrons. Here we see some extraordinary works as patrons like Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, one of the few female patrons of the time, make demands on the commissionedartists. Some call for a degree of personalisation of the naked subject, as in the unusual half-length image of Saint Sebastian by Bronzino, who paints an overtly sensual painting that in truth is a disguised portrait of a youth with curly locks, so pretty he could be mistaken for Cupid, who erotically strokes an arrow and probably was the lover of the male patron.

Raphael drawing of The Three Graces
Raphael, The Three Graces, c. 1517-18. Red chalk on paper. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Some patrons interfere, resulting in altogether peculiar works. Pietro Perugino’s Combat between Love and Chastity is one. Isabella d’Este who ordered this for her studiolo at the Castella di San Giorgio at Mantua issued so many instructions to Perugino for this picture results in a clash between goddesses - Minerva, Diana, Venus, among others, accompanied by a host of putti, up a tree, on a swan, in the lake, and nymphs and fauns - that it is a challenge to unpick the allegory’s meaning. Presumably the putti are symbols of love, but the result is, laments the curator, “the rich person wins and art loses.”

Voyeurism plays its part in many images. Religious and mythological works offered many an opportunity for guilt-free enjoyment. And not only for the male gaze, for images of the beautiful young naked Saint Sebastian surely appealed to men and women, and while Pollaiuolo’s1470s bronze statuette of Hercules and Antaeusis, a superb demonstration of the Florentine artist’s knowledge of anatomy, the writhing muscular bodies are also magnificently sensually rendered.

And argue the curators, while German artist Hans Baldung Grien’s 1513 woodcut of the naked Phyllis riding the Greek philosopher Aristotle around the garden (in retaliation for his criticism of his son, her lover Alexander’s spending too much time with her) no doubt is satisfying to the male gaze, it also serves to show her independence and power.

These artworks have an intricate web of artistic, social and cultural meanings behind them. This is an exhibition where it really is worthwhile to hire the audio guide to get those extra nuggets of information from the Royal Academy and Getty curators.


The Renaissance Nudeis organised by the Royal Academy of Arts and the J. Paul Getty Museum. Showing until: Sunday 2 June 2019.


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