At first blush, the current show at the Kimbell doesn’t excite much in the way of anticipation. But although "Art and Love in Renaissance Italy" does include some of the ho-hum portraits and mediocre, jewel-encrusted objects one associates with "Treasures of…" shows, its bright spots are weirder, more wonderful and far more funny than one might expect. Like the best of its kind, this exhibit cobbles together salvaged bits of artistic output from another era to serve as a window on our modern souls, reminding us once again that people in Ye Olden Dayes were just like us: obsessed with the elaborate rituals that keep our species going. (In other words, gorgeous naked people, marriage, babies, domestic intimacy and nasty sex. And the occasional dick joke.)
Not a dick joke: Sandro Botticelli’s Ideal Portrait of a Woman, 1480-85, from the Städel Museum, Frankfurt*
Much of the show, and its excellent catalog, is devoted to the paraphernalia and documentation of courtship, marriage and childbirth. It’s mostly interesting, and often lovely (see Roberta Smith’s review in the NYT of the show as it appeared at the Met). Rather than dwell on those marriage portraits and charming pictures of babies, however, let’s just jump straight to the erotica:
Giulio Romano, Apollo on His Chariot (detail), 1527, fresco at the Palazzo Te, Mantua
Tragically, this image is only included in the catalog, not the show itself. I guess they wouldn’t scrape the most famous Mannerist fresco off its walls for us. But even better is the following, which is on view at the Kimbell:
After Francesco Salviati, The Triumph of the Phallus, from the British Museum**
Unfortunately, this little scan doesn’t convey the size and detail of the original, which is about 5′ long. But it’s exactly what you think it is.
For Renaissance Italians, for whom the iconography of the Roman triumphal frieze would have been part of everyday life, this startling bit of visual satire must have seemed hilarious. It’s bizarre and funny even today, and apparently came from the "museum secretum" at the British Museum, where it was hidden from view and only published in 2007. One supposes our contemporary sensibilities can handle it.
Here’s another doozy:
Attributed to Francesco "Urbini" (Urbino), Phallic-Head Plate, 1536, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The inscription on the banner says OGNI HOMO ME GUARDA COME
FOSSE UNA TESTA DE CAZI (Every man looks at me as if I were a
dickhead). It’s written backwards, and the backside of the plate
instructs the viewer to read it "like the Jews do" (i.e. right to
Apparently this riff on Arcimboldo was fairly common at the
time; according to the catalog, da Vinci and others were said to have
used the motif. Personally, I think the use of testicles-as-adam’s-apple is particularly effective in this version.
Anyhoo. If you can’t see the show, get the catalog: it’s entertaining reading, and packed with detailed research and funny anecdotes, to say nothing of the amusing efforts by curators to describe the bawdy imagery with a straight face:
After Francesco Mazzola, called Parmigianino, Cupid Carving His Bow, c. 1580s, The Prado, Madrid
Gazing seductively over his shoulder at the privileged viewer to whom he presents his shapely and ample rear end, Cupid wields between his thighs a large, erect knife… – from the catalog
So as not to go out on too ribald a note, let’s finish with something that leans toward the weird and wonderful, rather than the raunchy:
Here is good old Daphne, captured in the moment of turning into a laurel tree in this ode to chastity, frustrated longing and the pedestalization of the beloved. And so we humans go.
*All the images in this blog were scanned from the catalog. Apologies for the poor quality.
** This is a single image, but was printed across the catalog’s gutter —
hence the white line in the scan.