Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 22, 2019
James Grantham Turner Eros Visible: Art, Sexuality and Antiquity in Renaissance Italy New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 464 pp.; 340 ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300219951)

Can sex be a muse, a creative stimulus for art? This question forms the basis of James Grantham Turner’s evocative Eros Visible: Art, Sexuality and Antiquity, a book that examines the erotic revolution that swept across the Italian art world between 1500 and 1563. The leaders of this movement are a group of well-known artists, writers, and patrons who sought pleasure in variety, delighted in matters of the flesh, and broke traditional boundaries for the sake of novelty. Rather than the loyal bonds of marriage, this book is dedicated to the exciting thrill of concupiscent love or sexual desire, which ranges from playful promiscuity to self-indulgent lust. This is the realm of the adulteress, the mistress, the courtesan, the sensuous studio model, and the young male lover. Mothers and children, beware!

With deft skill, Turner organizes a graphic collection of sexual imagery and traces the lascivious exchange of bodies and poses between drawings, paintings, sculpture, and hard-core prints. While previous studies of Renaissance eroticism have isolated and objectified the genitalia in a manner similar to burlesque poets, Turner returns the erogenous zones to both the body and the mind, paying particular attention to the formal union of coitus and the array of emotions aroused by representations of it. In line with Albertian theory, the body’s gestures and positions replicate as well as stimulate the motions of the mind. Turner’s argument is persuasive, and like a professional lover, he seduces the reader with provocative descriptions of visual intimacy. He introduces us to the sensuality of the sixteenth-century studio, a place where the creative and the erotic intertwined master, pupil, and model. In this context, Parmigianino’s titillating drawings become more than orgiastic fantasies; they are documents of the studio’s urgent sexual energy. The numerous acrobatic poses that appear in these drawings and other mannerist art works, as Turner reveals, were achieved using a set of props—disks, pulleys, and blocks—that stretched and supported the bodies of nude models. In several prints from Jacopo Caraglio’s Loves of the Gods series, naked females sprawl languidly across beds, using the disks to keep from sliding off their precarious mounts. The inclusion of these objects increases the lifelike quality of the representations and, therefore, their sex appeal. 

The reader of this text should be prepared to encounter numerous hard-core images of sex, including adultery, sodomy, ménages à trois, orgies, masturbation, and detachable phalluses. Following an engaging introduction, the book’s first chapter establishes the ties between libertine sexuality, freedom of expression, and creative prowess. Here, Turner argues for a turn-of-the-century shift in values that sought to frame sex as a positive, creative expression rather than a negative, degenerative act. In theoretical writings, studio drawings, and vernacular letters of the period, erotic desire is foregrounded as a natural and proper response to art. The book’s subsequent six chapters are divided into two parts: 1) a discussion of the Venus, Mars, and Vulcan myth as an impetus to visualizing coitus and 2) an analysis of the Cnidian Aphrodite, its variants, and its aroused viewers as a framework for artistic engagement with multiple positions and multiple love objects. Other amorous mythological figures make their appearance within this structure, including Pygmalion, Narcissus, Eros, Bacchus, Ariadne, and the satyr.

Turner initiates his examination of Venus and Mars’s adultery in chapter 2, using the myth to explore the artistic urges behind and techniques for depicting sexual intercourse. Turner’s mastery of language is on display at the beginning of this chapter as he weaves together the ideas of Vulcan’s art “capturing” Venus and Mars with art’s “captivating” power, the artist as “capturing” sex in motion, and the viewer as being “caught looking” (88). Like Apollo’s bright light, Baldassare Peruzzi’s terretta fresco of the affair on the façade of Agostino Chigi’s villa uncovered this illicit coupling for all interested viewers. In chapter 3, Turner argues that this flagrant portrayal of Venus and Mars along with the rediscovery of ancient sexual positions inspired the sequential representations of coitus found in Giulio Romano and Marcantonio Raimondi’s Modi. Turner proposes that several copulating positions be added to the standard sequence of the collection, including a salacious frontal portrayal of a woman rocking a cradle while being penetrated from behind. Chapter 4 extends analysis of the Venus, Mars, and Vulcan myth into Venetian painting, adding to it the motif of the mirror. In these scenes, the looking glass is both an optical metaphor for the mirroring of desired objects upon the heart and a practical tool for showing multiple views of the nude body simultaneously.

In chapter 5, Turner examines the different forms of desire present in ancient viewers’ responses to the Cnidian Aphrodite and argues that these stories served as formative examples of art’s ability to titillate, arouse, and even ravish the viewer. While this connection has been made before, Turner explores the nuances of the stories in relation to a large number of sixteenth-century works. He identifies a “family of Cnidian variants” that appear in drawings by Fra Bartolomeo, Raphael, Marcantonio Raimondi, and Michelangelo (224). He reveals the prevalence of copies and fragments of Praxiteles’s Aphrodite in the studio setting and argues that patrons chose to be depicted with Cnidian statuettes in order to assert their keen aestheticism. In his explication of Lucian’s Erotes, Turner connects Callicratides’s description of a “sweet smile” on the backside of Praxiteles’s goddess with the surprising illusion of an actual smile, formed by the sculpted dimples in her lower back and the diagonal indentations of her hip joints.

Building on these Cnidian stories in chapter 6, Turner argues for a connection between multiple views of the body and multiplicity in sexuality. Here, he focuses on the liminal figures of the hermaphrodite, androgyne, and bisexual in the context of suggestive writings by Pietro Aretino and Ludovico Dolce. The chapter expands the scholarship of Patricia Rubin and Michael Cole, who draw attention to the artistic mastery of the rear view. Turner highlights the verbal-visual associations that existed between the phrases tondo/sfera and the ennobling spherical shape of the young, round buttocks. He dedicates chapter 7 to an extended analysis of the visual dialogue between the complex poses in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling frescos and figural positions in the Modi. He then illustrates how poses from the erotic prints show up in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. While some of the quotations are exact, others are vague. One wonders if this method of art history is still productive; however, awareness of the dialogue allows for a more nuanced understanding of the critique that Michelangelo later received with regard to the boldly posed nude figures of the Sistine Chapel’s altar fresco. 

Considered closely, the collection of erotic art that Turner gathers in this book is astonishing, ranging from exterior wall paintings to studio drawings, from sacred frescos to promiscuous prints. In his organization of the material, Turner avoids distinguishing between public and private viewership, a boundary that the sexual characteristically oversteps. He also privileges the creative when discussing lascivious concepts and circumvents negative emotions, such as envy, mistrust, resentment, or anger, which often lurk in the shadows of uninhibited pleasure or the lustful gaze. Though he avoids these emotional perils and the trigger issues of rape, violence, and disease, Turner does offer a few perspectives on the moral problems with and psychological causes of venereal excess. At several points, he references the writings of early church fathers, who correlate deviant sexuality with a lack of love for God and who connect inordinate attachment to images of the flesh with idolatrous worship. He also examines the hypersexual psyche. In the context of two Modi prints, two of Aretino’s sonnets, and the myth of Narcissus, Turner reveals that the sexual predator uses the female body to raise not only his cock but also his ego. Whether viewed from the front or the back, her erotic regions become a mirror of his own virility and prowess, a reflection that boosts his small and dark ego. In the words of Turner, “the dedicated—and aging—sex addict sees himself in the moment of arousal as ‘mirroring himself,’ as ‘more beautiful than Narcissus’” (361). Indeed, Eros Visible will encourage all readers to reflect upon the proclivities and pleasures surrounding visual representations of sex, opening up stimulating conversations about gender and sexuality in sixteenth-century Italy.

Rebekah Compton
Assistant Professor of Renaissance and Baroque Art History, College of Charleston