Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 25, 2001
Bette Talvacchia Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture Princeton University Press, 1999. 320 pp.; 6 color ills.; 52 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (0691026327)

The series of erotic pictures known as I modi, or The Positions, from which this book takes its allusive title, acts as a catalyst for a study of the erotic in Renaissance culture that makes an unprecedented attempt to determine—in terms untainted by modern day squeamishness or purulent curiosity—the origins, proliferation, and circulation of erotic and obscene material in early sixteenth-century Italy. Bette Talvacchia’s painstaking reconstruction of the fluctuating borders between that which was considered an acceptable representation of the erotic (and therefore appropriate for wide circulation) as opposed to that which was decreed obscene and thus censured provides Renaissance scholars with the first truly sophisticated account of this important phenomenon. Taking Positions examines the most significant cultural permutations of the erotic genre in art, from the original, erudite drawings of I modi, meant for private viewing and aristocratic delight, to their scandalous, multiple production in engravings by Marcantonio Raimondi and their widespread "literary" success as illustrations in a volume of scabrous poems by Pietro Aretino. In spite of the destructive opprobrium of censorship that condemned all of Raimondi’s copperplates and permitted only copies or fragments of the original etchings to survive, the mechanical reproduction of I modi not only developed a new genre, but also opened up new commercial horizons for artists and printmakers who immediately reproposed toned-down series of erotic "positions," legitimated by references to classical mythology to further remove the depiction of sexual activity from the Christian present to a pagan past.

The cultural impact of Raimondi’s I modi and Jacopo Caraglio’s less culpable Amori degli dei was, however, to extend significantly beyond the production of erotic art or suggestive reading matter. In a culture where the body was perceived primarily as an agent of sin and only secondarily as an object of scientific inquiry, the use of female figures in positions taken directly from mythologized erotic encounters for the composition of anatomical plates in medical manuals demonstrates the important role of the print medium in rendering explicit a dialogue between two disciplines—art and medicine—that was self-evident in the Renaissance, although only recently retrieved by modern scholarship as an important aspect of early modern culture.

Although the chronology of sixteenth-century erotica has been noted by a number of scholars, Talvacchia’s particular contribution has been to reconstruct the material history of I modi through impeccable research, addressing questions of documentation, authorship, style, and form, and broadening this more canonical approach by integrating critical considerations around the issue of gender and the question of the impact of old and new media in Renaissance Italy. The book is divided into eight chapters and includes two very useful appendices containing both original texts and translations of Latin and Italian documents, as well as full-page reproductions of Pietro Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi (Venice, ca. 1526), also transcribed and translated by the author.

The first three chapters concentrate on the historical situation in which I modi and their reproduction in print came about, the particular relationships between Giulio Romano, Marcantonio Raimondi, and Pietro Aretino, and, above all, possible sources for the so-called Sixteen Positions in literary and artistic materials such as Ovid’s catalogue of amorous postures and erotic antique medals known as spintriae, which were assiduously studied by artists and humanists alike. Talvacchia convincingly demonstrates the probable motivations behind the original drawings, giving due credit to the competition with the antique that motivated artists such as Michelangelo, Raphael, and Giulio Romano, and to the visual sophistication of Giulio’s circle of patrons, who would have been both charmed by the virtuosity of his innovative compositions as well as transgressively thrilled by the unusual subject matter.

The next two chapters deal with the issue of the transposition of Romano’s elegant depictions of heterosexual intercourse into other media: the printed picture and the printed word. When discussing the transformation of these suggestive drawings into a series of prints, Talvacchia considers the development of erotica as a new genre in a new medium, examining the role played by I modi as a catalyst in the development of new conventions for explicit sexual representation in the visual arts within the context of the manufacture, marketing, and collecting of prints in sixteenth-century Europe. Of particular interest is the material attesting to the cultural and commercial success of Aretino’s Sonetti lussuriosi and imitators, whose circulation in France and Italy followed a variety of channels, commercial and otherwise, from "under the counter" sales in printers’ shops to tongue-in-cheek gifts in humanist and aristocratic circles. The Sonetti lussuriosi are then examined as a cultural product typical of the Renaissance, where antique paradigms are evoked to justify the production and consumption of frivolous erotica (genius can be permitted the creation of lascivious works as a form of recreation), and where picture and poem are associated in a particularly sixteenth-century art form in which art and letters vie for supremacy. On a less elevated level, the Tuscan tradition of bawdy and obscene poetry was a vernacular genre adopted by Aretino for his own cultural polemics and political satires, cunningly developed in his obscene sonnets where individuals are named and thus defamed, and where women are given a sexually empowered, erotic voice, and sometimes even a dominant role, at variance with current gender ideology. The transgression and thus the pleasurable titillation of the Sonetti lussuriosi lie as much in the shock value of the scabrous texts—both visual and verbal—as in the reversal of gender roles and the depiction of sexually enterprising and verbally aggressive women.

Talvacchia’s analysis of Aretino’s verbal representations of the Sixteen Positions leads into a discussion of the Renaissance discourse about the erotic in terms of the borderline between that which was considered onesto and that which was disonesto, in other words, that which was deemed acceptable and that which was not, a distinction that was to vary considerably, not only over time, but also according to different socio-cultural contexts and notions of decorum. Both the suggestive zucchini and split figs of the Villa Farnesina frescoes and the atti lascivi ma onesti depicted in landscape paintings purchased by Duke Federico Gonzaga of Mantua for his mother, Isabella d’Este, were considered acceptable depictions of sexually explicit material, while even ambitious and successful courtesans such as Veronica Franco or the lesser-known Julia Lombardo label themselves as oneste. When applied to literature and works of art, the concept of disonesto, one of the strongest of all words to indicate disapprobation, was to be further reinforced by the critical atmosphere of the Counter-Reformation and the cultural policies elaborated by the Council of Trent. Depictions of illicit carnal acts, be it on trick cards representing monks and priests engaged in sodomy or in paintings showing women on top, were accused of being disonesti, which implies the distinction between natural and unnatural sexual activity that informed both Catholic teaching about sexual sin and the application of both canon and civic law. Talvacchia proposes a reading of the terms onesto/disonesto in relation to the actual sexual practice deemed acceptable by the Church and those positions and "unnatural" pleasures considered sinful. Citing Brantôme, whose Dames galantes contain numerous references to the circulation of les figures de l’Arétin she points out the significance of his digression on "All of these forms and postures [that] are hateful to God" (116). Not only did Brantôme demonstrate a detailed general knowledge of the sexual sins described in confession manuals, but he was well aware that the erotic transgressions of married couples could be considered as threatening to the "natural" social and religious orders as were unmarried or same-sex unions.

I modi and the Sonetti lussuriosi earned the epithet disonesti precisely because their transgression lay in the representation of sexual sin at a moment in which the Catholic Church was clamping down on the private sphere, invading both the intimacy of conjugal life and the individual conscience with new models of physical and spiritual discipline. The outcome of this moral campaign was not, however, entirely to the detriment of I modi and its derivations. The final two chapters of the book document the impact of this new cultural genre of explicit erotic representation in "legitimate" or "honest" modes of cultural expression, namely Giulio Romano’s drawings of homoerotic embrace, meant for restricted circulation, and the various series of engravings representing the Loves of the Gods. Inspired largely by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, these series were drawn by artists such as Rosso Fiorentino and Perino del Vaga and etched by printmakers such as Marco Dente and Jacopo Caraglio (and, somewhat later, Giulio Bonasone). Talvacchia does a masterful job at sorting out the probable genesis and chronology of the early series of Amori degli dei, whose success was such that they were widely pirated by printmakers north of the Alps, such as René Boyvin and Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau. One perplexity remains here, however, and that is the author’s exclusion of the texts accompanying the Caraglio engravings, both in the reproductions scattered throughout the book and in the discussion of the series itself. If the importance of the association between text and image has been amply demonstrated in her discussion of Aretino’s "dishonest" Sonetti lussuriosi, what insights might be gained from an analysis of the "honest" verses written to accompany mythologized depictions of amorous encounters?

The trajectory of early sixteenth-century erotic art and its development into a cultural genre as traced by Talvacchia culminates with the study of a very unusual appropriation of erotically displayed figures in the medical illustrations of a manual of anatomy, De dissectione partium corporis humani written by Charles Estienne (Paris, 1545). A number of recent publications by historians such as Andrea Carlino and Katherine Park have pointed out the close association between the science of anatomy and the artistic representation of the body in Renaissance Europe, where depictions of the naked human body largely derived from a classical tradition in which the female form tended to be eroticized while the male was rendered in a more heroic mode. The convergence of the eroticized and anatomized body—a regular phenomenon throughout the sixteenth-century—is not immune from sado-erotic effects or deliberate compositional games where fine-art figures in elaborate interiors display box-like "windows" into the anatomical mysteries of their insides. Talvacchia examines in depth the debt of Charles Estienne’s anatomical prints to Caraglio’s Loves of the Gods, privileging an early moment in anatomical illustration that was soon to be superseded by Vesalius’s De humanis corporis fabrica libri septem (Basel, 1543). In order to represent the nude and "open" (therefore sexualized) female body, Estienne had recourse to the mythological discourse on female sexuality that permitted Renaissance artists to portray the eroticized body. The visualization of scientific knowledge thus had to pass through the visual conventions regulating the depiction of the human form before they could be reworked to act as vehicles for the new forms of knowledge.

The eroticism-mythology-medicine triad that Bette Talvacchia deconstructs in the imagery of the Renaissance thus challenges current categories of analysis and demolishes boundaries between traditionally distinct disciplines, revealing the anachronism of much scholarship on the erotic in Renaissance culture. This is a book that speaks to scholars working in a variety of disciplines in a clear, eloquent style, notable for its moments of wry and clear navigation among difficult concepts and thorny problems of chronology and attribution. Individual chapters will doubtless become part of standard course syllabi, while the whole will remain a model of interdisciplinary research in the arena of Renaissance studies.

Sara F. Matthews-Grieco
Syracuse University (Florence)

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