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Naked history

John Evans looks at the RA’s take on Renaissance nudes

15 March, 2019 — By John Evans

Antonio Pollaiuolo, Battle of the Nudes, 1470s, engraving, 42 x 60.9cm. © The Albertina Museum, Vienna

A depiction of St Sebastian c1533 by Agnolo Bronzino has the experts responsible for the Royal Academy’s new exhibition intrigued.

Used as a poster boy for The Renaissance Nude, nevertheless, this Sebastian is atypical, sporting only one arrow in his side and seemingly taking it all in his stride.

Agnolo Bronzino, Saint Sebastian, c1533, oil on panel, 87 x 76.5cm. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

The RA’s Per Rumberg and the J Paul Getty Museum’s Thomas Kren have brought together 90 or so works, including drawings, paintings, sculp­tures, prints and manuscripts, from north and south of the Alps, to examine the importance of the nude in the devel­op­ment of European art.

The show looks at how the naked body had a pivotal role in the period from about 1400 to 1530 in relation to Christianity, Humanism, artistic attitudes and mores.
Dr Kren said the body moved to the centre stage in the second half of the 15th century, and added: “You learned your trade as an artist by your ability to draw the body… the skilful representation of the adult body was really a measure of an artist’s success”.

Arranged thematically, there are five main show sections: how the Bible offered opportunities to depict the nude; how Humanism and secular themes – and the taste for Roman and Greek mythology – had an effect; the growth in life drawing and study of anatomy and proportion; examining the vulnera­bility of the human con­dition, Christ persecuted, saints martyred, even witches and furies; and, as a final theme, the Renaissance patron, particularly the Marchio­ness of Mantua, who commissioned the likes of Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino and Correggio.

Works by Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Dürer are loans from the Royal Collection Trust, and there are others by Raphael, Lucas Cranach the Elder and Jan Gossaert.
Titian’s Venus Rising from the Sea, c1520, from Edinburgh, is given prominence too.

Other highlights include two loans from the Albertina in Vienna, the first is an Antonio Pollaiuolo etching, Battle of the Nudes, c1470, the second a remarkable drawing, Luxuria, by Antonio Pisano showing a woman reclining, in a pose more reminiscent of a modern-day magazine, with the subject directly fixing the viewer with a stare.

As for Sebastian, often associated in the Renaissance with Apollo, he gave artists the chance to show their mastery of the male figure. But, we are told, Fra Bartolomeo’s version for the church of San Marco was moved and then sold by the monks, who were apparently fearful of its effect on the libido of the women who saw it.

To be fair, this exhibition does anything but to examine that side of the business. It is retrained and erudite and more powerful for that.

But the Bronzino Sebastian is still a mystery. It depicts just the upper body, there’s no blood, and he’s actually holding a second arrow. It’s more or less just a sensual portrait and he gazes wistfully to the side.

A fascinating show catalogue suggests “unclear” circumstances around production of the painting. Perhaps it was an image referencing Sebastian’s supposed healing powers at a time of plague, or perhaps just a mish-mash of Cupid and the saint for someone’s pleasure. Intriguing indeed.

• The Renaissance Nude, in The Sackler Wing of Galleries, RA, Piccadilly, until June 2, £16,


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