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Modern Bodies. Renaissance Attitude

Updated: Jan 8

The Romans believed that bear cubs were born formless. In a sense, the same can be said of women. I am thinking about this because I am thinking about breasts. Well, I am thinking of the image below in particular.

Picture Credit: The Guardian.


Last week a tweet showing a biological depiction of the female muscular system went viral. Neither the user nor the two hundred thousand odd who retweeted or liked the image, had seen anything like it before. Me neither. Why is this? For literally hundreds of years, scientific and medical education, together with research and treatment, has presumed the male body is the default. This means that the majority of scientific textbooks on anatomy, from secondary education upwards, focus heavily if not entirely on the male body. And for this, we can blame the Renaissance.

The European Renaissance sees a proliferation of artists depicting the nude form, a rambunctious tumbling of naked bodies arguably not seen again in such mass until the performance and shock art of the 1960s. Although many of these Renaissance bodies are female, they are far from being anatomically correct. The female body was and is an object shrouded in mystery.

It begins in the fifteenth century. In 1437 the artist Cennino Cennini writes, on depiction of the female form; ‘I will disregard, for she does not have any set proportion.’ One wonders, in an age of celebrity and the birth of the individual, where this understanding, this sheer dismissal can have come from. Perhaps Cennini can be forgiven. Having looked backwards into antiquity, he is unable to find any examples of research into the human female form.

Cennini would have looked to the work of Marcus Vitruvius. Vitruvius wrote the most important and only surviving work on antique architecture in the late first century BC (the name may be more recognisable in Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, c. 1490, a study of the human form using the writer’s system of canonical proportions). Vitruvius describes the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among the classical orders of architecture. This body, of course, is male. The work contains no instruction at all regarding the correct proportion of the female figure. This lack of discussion would have been telling for Cennini and his Humanist peers.

I, however, would like to believe that there was some. It seems improbable to me that the Ancient Greeks could have created the masterful wet-draped female figures of the Elgin Marbles, without at least some study of the form underneath the robes.

The Elgin Marbles. Picture Credit: The Art Newspaper

Moreover, one has to consider the world the ancients occupied, and the religion it was drenched in. Think of the gods- talk about the body beautiful! The physical attributes of the antique gods are so intrinsic to their characters, it seems improbable that the artisans wouldn’t have at least some understanding or previous study of the body in order to successfully depict them. One surely must have to understand a calf muscle to raise it to Herculean standards, or study an actual foot to sculpt its veins bulging through the skin.

It is the change in religion that scuppers our advances into human proportion and anatomy, rather than any ancient dismissal of the body. The Divine as a physical presence moves to something largely abstract (it’s the Holy Spirit, not the Holy Man). Christ, as the physical element to Christianity, has lost all the attributes previously understood to be intrinsic to the powerful. To look at, he is just a standard man.

From the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, Christian art is, however, full of the naked form, and certainly does not dismiss the nude female. There are all kinds of reasons we women are naked in Christian art, though it is mainly bad news for us if we’re caught naked in the Bible. We’ll either be a seductress, getting raped, Eve, or in Hell. Our actual forms are disregarded in the Renaissance, simply an abnormality of the male. We women have always been second best, you see. We were, after all, created from one of Adam’s ribs. On the plus side, this lack of care with female anatomy does give artists a good bit of licence with their proportions. In the current Royal Academy exhibition, The Renaissance Nude, there are women with breasts near their armpits, women with the muscles of a bodybuilder, women whose long necks flow, shoulder-less into their serpentine bodies. It’s like a Dove advert in there.

Some artists do try to work things out though. Albrecht Durer’s Four Books on Human Proportion (1528), shows one of the first and few artists either side of the Alps attesting almost equal interest in both genders. His illustration in the second edition of The Art of Measurement (1538), insinuates that the practice of the artist drawing from the at least partially nude model is well enough established to be a concern of the modern artist at this time.

Draughtsman Making a Perspective Drawing of a Reclining Woman. Picture Credit: Met Museum.

However, in general, there is a lack of pictorial evidence of artists using females modelling completely nude. Until around 1650, neither written nor visual sources are sufficiently convincing to reconstruct a studio practice of females posing in the nude on a regular basis (hence the sticking breasts on men conundrum- look closely at the Sistine Chapel). And you can’t blame them really. A fascination with the relationship between artist and model can be found in the legends of antiquity and are thus prevalent in the Renaissance- the model as seductress, the artist as the seduced. If you take your clothes off in front of any man who’s not your husband, you’re a whore. Luckily for the men though, even though it’s not looked well upon to get a woman’s kit off, it’s acceptable to cut her up.

The anatomical textbook De fabrica corporis humana is written by Andreas Vesalius in 1543. Given the time he is working, Vesalius has to adhere to religious morality and its high valuation of the human body. The bodies illustrated in this work, though dismembered, have been idealised- it’s the cast of Bay Watch stripped down and stuck on plinths. Vesalius goes as far as he can in epitomising the beauty of God’s creation. More than that, he classicises the dismembered forms (not only on plinths but placed in beautiful, bucolic landscapes), which allows the Fabrica to disassociate itself even more from the real, individual bodies that we each reside in. Vesalius’ torsos allude to the ongoing Renaissance discovery of fragmented antique sculpture (so, even during actual anatomical discovery, we women are depicted as inanimate objects). I am sure he had a pretty much equal number of male and female cadavers to work from (he tended to use the bodies of hanged criminals, and punishment is far from biased), but the work does focus heavily on the male form. Although Vesalius manages to diminish the act of violation in the text, it seems obvious there is still some kind of subconscious discomfort with displaying us dismembered in actuality (we are, after all, the weaker sex). This is coupled with the fact that, as women, we are supposed to be beautiful. Nobody looks great with their insides all over the place.



Female Torso. Picture Credit: Alamy.


This desired beauty is exemplified in Agnolo Firenzuola’s On the Beauty of Women (1548), a self-purported non-fictional document of a group attempting to define ‘the perfect beauty of a woman.’ Beauty, in the eyes of the men of the Renaissance, should be inherent within the nude female in the same way as it is in the figures of Diana or Venus.

This four-hundred-year-old unease with female anatomy has seeped into western medical training of today. But who can blame them, given how long it took to be cool with taking our clothes off in the first place, surely it’s going to take a few more years to feel comfortable seeing a woman without her skin on too?

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