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European Art: Renaissance  
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Particularly obscene, overt imagery circulated in prints, which reached a wider market. Today they are sometimes extant in only one or a few copies, suggesting their over-use and deliberate destruction, both voluntary and through institutional censorship.

Hans Sebald Beham and his brother Barthel issued and reissued engravings of naked women touching each other with lewd gestures of genital contact. In the first three decades of the sixteenth century, Marcantonio Raimondi's erotic oeuvre included several suggestive male couples, and an engraving of a woman masturbating with a dildo. Variants and a copy in reverse exist of a School of Fontainebleau print showing aristocratic women erotically engaged while at the baths.

The Rebirth of Classicism

"Renaissance" refers to the "rebirth" of classicism. New energy devoted to archaeology, antiquarianism, humanist scholarship in the secular world, and the appropriation and adaptation of classical form had a fundamental impact on erotic culture.

Art historians debate the precise influence of Neoplatonism on the visual arts, yet little attention is paid to the central element of male-male desire in the writings of Marsilio Ficino, a key proponent of the syncretistic philosophy. More generally, the revitalization of classicism greatly expanded the vocabulary and framework of fantasy.

Mythological narratives, for example, provided avenues for the depiction of same-sex desire. Two of the most popular were the tale of the shepherd boy Ganymede swept into the heavens by amorous Jupiter, and the seduction of the nymph Callisto seemingly by her beloved mistress Diana.

Desire was coded in classicized terms: a poet praised Donatello's St. George as "my beautiful Ganymede"; Cellini likened a model to Antinous, the beloved of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Since ancient myths dealt with transforming metamorphoses, and were situated in timeless realms, they were apt vehicles for erotic dreams and for giving visual form to what was ostensibly taboo. Generic classical allusions justified the representation of idealized naked bodies in motion and intimate contact, seen in outright erotica but also in more mainstream formats such as allegory and pastoral.

The ancient heritage of same-sex desire was frequently invoked, sometimes as an explanation for corruption and sometimes as a model to be emulated. Accused by a rival of being a "dirty sodomite" in the presence of Duke Cosimo I de' Medici, Cellini cleverly retorted that he had neither the power nor knowledge "to meddle in such a marvelous matter," for the "noble practice" was the affair of the god Jupiter with Ganymede and "the greatest emperors and the greatest kings."

During the years he worked at Cosimo's court, Cellini produced three marble sculptures of what he called Greek "fables" when referring to his own love for youths. Each statue represented a beautiful youth with his male lover (Apollo and Hyacinth, Ganymede with Jupiter's eagle, Narcissus captivated by his reflection).

These subjects were generally recognized as ones inflected with homoeroticism, as were, in certain manifestations, such figures as Eros/Cupid and Orpheus. Beefy Hercules was feminized under Omphale's sway, or enjoyed genital contact while wrestling with Antaeus.

Religious Representations

An erotic component in any image did not exclude other effects and themes. Religious representations included Christ's adored body, ephebic St. Sebastian penetrated by arrows, same-sex kissing in Paradise, pious women bonding intensely, or witches seducing women. In some of Michelangelo's drawings men grapple in close embrace, eroticizing the soul's struggle between opposing forces.

Renaissance imagery might appear to condemn non-normative sex or treat a non-erotic subject such as the feminine personification of Virtues, but it was possible for viewers to take the works in other, imaginative directions. The issues of multivalence and alternative reception require more study, and are especially important in relation to female viewers.

Women as Viewers of Art

Many images representing erotic activities between women were made for a presumptively male audience. Nevertheless, in palace interiors (such as one at Fontanellato frescoed by Parmigianino, or the French king's villa at Fontainebleau decorated by Primaticcio and others) women were expected to see scenes of naked women bathing together and touching each other during their toilette, usually in the context of propounding chastity (not having sex with any man other than one's husband).

Women were understood to find sensual pleasure from looking. Titian's close friend Pietro Aretino published in 1534 an obscene scenario in which nuns at an orgy were aroused by pornographic illustrations and had sex with each other. Around 1585 the minor French aristocrat Brantôme described noblewomen enjoying erotic books and paintings, and another chapter concentrated on "woman with woman" (donna con donna) sex.

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