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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Nude Males  
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Nude male figures reveal that conceptions of gender and sexuality had broadened considerably during the Hellenistic era (approximately 330-150 B.C.E.). The Apollo Belvedere (a marble copy of the bronze original of 300 B.C.E.), one of the most influential ancient statues, exemplifies the treatment of the male nude, which became increasingly frequent in the Hellenistic period. Elongated proportions, smooth flesh, and graceful pose distinguish this statue from such earlier classical works as the Tyrannicide Monument.

At the opposite extreme of the Apollo Belvedere is the Farnese Hercules (a Roman copy of a Hellenistic original of approximately 330 B.C.E.), notable for its exaggerated muscularity and bulky proportions. The legends of both Apollo and Hercules included numerous same-sex encounters; thus, as in modern "gay" culture, "feminized" and "ultra-masculine" figures equally could be associated with homoerotic desire.

The charismatic and powerful leader, Alexander the Great (d. 323 B.C.E.), is known to have been deeply devoted to his soldier-companions. His love for his advisor and companion Hephaestion is celebrated in a Hellenistic relief (preserved in a Roman Syrian marble copy, approximately 200 B.C.E.), which shows the nude Alexander standing next to the clothed figure of his lover.

Ancient Roman artists produced numerous copies of Greek nude figures for wealthy patrons, but the Romans were less likely than the Greeks to employ full nudity in public images of national leaders and heroes. Although not illegal, same-sex love was no longer commonly associated with patriotic virtue or with the education of young men.

Nevertheless, the Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 C.E.) sought to promote devotion to his lover, Antinous; after his accidental death (d. 130 C.E.), the Emperor commissioned numerous (partially clothed) statues of the beautiful young man for display throughout the empire.

Same-sex love also was celebrated in the famous sculptural group variously identified as the Ildefonso Group and as Castor and Pollux (Madrid: Prado, date uncertain), which depicts two nude, athletic figures casually embracing. However, outside the imperial court, men who favored the passive role in same-sex intercourse were generally regarded as an inferior class, and a variety of derogatory terms were devised to refer to them.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the decline in the valuation of same-sex relations, a vibrant homosexual subculture emerged in the physical and social "fringes" of Roman cities. Quickly and cheaply painted scenes of lively nude male figures engaged in a wide variety of sexual activities covered the walls of bathhouses (such as the House of Jupiter and Ganymede, Ostia, Italy, 184-192 C.E.), which served as gathering places for men who were attracted to other men.

The Warren Cup (first century C.E.), an exquisitely executed silver vessel, deserves special mention, as it depicts beautiful and dignified figures breaking the taboos that normally limited same-sex experiences in Rome. In violation of the principle that citizens should assume only "active" sexual roles, one side of the Warren Cup shows a citizen lowering himself onto the penis of a "foreign" worker; the evident eagerness with which he seats himself on the penis also challenges limited notions of "top" and "bottom."

Early Modern Art

As part of wide-ranging efforts to impose uniform "moral" standards, homosexual acts were made illegal throughout Europe during the medieval period. Regarded as an incitement to lust, nudity of any kind was discouraged in the visual arts.

Not surprisingly, men who were attracted to other men played a major role in reviving the classical theme of the nude male figure during the Renaissance; only a few of these major figures can be noted here.

For example, Donatello, whose attraction to young men is well documented, created the first life-size nude male statue since the ancient Roman period: the bronze David (1430s). In an elegant contrapposto pose, directly based on ancient Greek works, David stands with one foot on the head of the slain Goliath.

Emphasizing the erotic implications of this statue are the feathers of Goliath's helmet, which extend all the way up David's legs to his crotch. The educated Renaissance viewer certainly would have understood the implications of the triumph of Eros depicted on the helmet. Although stripped of his garments, David is shown wearing a hat, popular among young working class youths in Florence. The intense naturalism with which the adolescent body is depicted suggests the artist's careful (and admiring) study of his apprentices.

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