November 15, 2013 § Leave a comment
How to see naked men
Seeing naked or near-naked men in the Renaissance does not seem to have been very difficult. I should point out that looking at naked people is not, necessarily, erotic. Indeed, the word for naked, nudo, in Italian had pejorative connotations, as suggested by the definition of “nudo” in John Florio’s 1611 English/Italian dictionary: nude, naked, bare, discovered; also poore, beggarly, and deprived of.
Near nakedness in Italian renaissance cities was rather more common than you might suppose. Poor people sometimes couldn’t afford many clothes, and the clothes they had were worn and tattered. This could pose a problem of accidental genital display. In fact, several Italian states passed sumptuary laws specifically disallowing the public display of genitals. Thus in Lucca, in 1342, it is forbidden for people over 14 to be seen publicly naked. Similarly, in 1375 in Aquila, short doublets are banned because they allow the genitals to remain uncovered.
Some occupations also required workers to be near-naked. Sometimes for comfort – labourers may have stripped to their underwear in the hot Italian summers, and swimming and fishing were also activities that were done naked or near-naked…
Other jobs, such as dying and curing leather, involved some workers standing naked in vats of urine as part of the process.
Certainly in northern europe, these workers would walk near naked to and from work – in an age where clothing was relatively expensive, and washing was time-consuming, it would be foolish to risk dowsing a set of clothes in wet and smelly substances.
So although male genitals were certainly taboo, it seems they were sometimes seen – and near-naked men dressed in just their underwear was likely to have been a relatively common sight in the renaissance city.
How to see naked women
Female public nakedness or near-nakedness was much more unusual, and much more connected to transgression and public shame. There is some evidence in some cities that prostitutes, for example, would bear their breasts publicly. According to Michele Savonarola, in Ferrara, prostitutes were allowed to keep their breasts partially or totally uncovered in order to tempt men from the greater sin of sodomy. The Ponte delle Tette in Venice also seems to have been a location where prostitutes would show off their breasts to passing trade.
There were also races in Ferrara and Rome where prostitutes would run through the city naked. This would take place at carnival time in Rome and on the Palio di San Giorgio in April in Ferrara and be closely related to marking the marginal positions of these groups. There was also a ritual humiliation of adulterous women in Ferrara called the scopa where they were made to run naked through the city; in 1356 in Florence legislation was passed to punish female servants who broke sumptuary laws with being flogged naked through the city. read more
PHOTOGRAPH: Martha Rosler