We assume that a fixed gender binary has been a constant throughout human history. Dr Maya Corry argues otherwise, looking to the masters of the Renaissance to challenge our contemporary understandings of beauty, gender, and the ideal form.
Each summer, commuters getting the tube in London are greeted by a wave of adverts for fast fashion brands. They feature the young, beautiful stars of that year’s Love Island, primped and primed to capitalise on their nascent fame. The men are deeply bronzed (rarely are the show’s breakout stars black) and muscley, with square jaws and short, groomed hair. The women are toned and slender, with large (often fake) breasts and flowing manes of (often fake) hair. These are bodies moulded by surgical and cosmetic enhancements to conform to a strictly binary concept of perfection: there is zero chance of any of these ‘hotties’ being mistaken for the opposite sex. The ideal they embody is not new; with their taut six-packs and enviable waist-to-hip ratios they evoke classical statues, such as the Apollo Belvedere or Venus de’ Medici, that were revered during the Italian Renaissance. Yet beauty is a quality with a history. What we consider attractive shifts and changes over time, and much wider forces than personal inclination influence our tastes. Alongside dominant and hegemonic ideals, counter-cultural and subversive ones exist and flourish. Visual imagery has always played a central role in shaping notions of what it means to be a man or a woman, and what is beautiful. Even during the Renaissance, when Antique forms were universally praised, artists explored alternative concepts of perfection in their work. On occasion, they did so in startlingly curious ways.
An intriguing handful of images from this era depict beautiful bodies that seemingly reject binary gender categories. To the modern eye, it is difficult to tell whether these are young men or women. Museum curators and scholars have shared this confusion: a work catalogued as ‘Portrait of a Youth’ later becomes ‘Portrait of a Girl’; a single subject is identified as a woman by one art historian and a man by another. Original viewers would have been able to make this distinction with greater ease. Dress, pose and attributes all make a sitter’s sex apparent. Even so, the ideal of beauty on display is undeniably androgynous, with little to distinguish male from female subjects. These figures are universally young, with smooth unblemished skin, large limpid eyes, and flowing golden hair. In other examples (particularly in drawings produced by members of Leonardo da Vinci’s Milanese workshop), it is impossible to discern the sex of a figure: this is a truly fluid concept of perfection.
These images are surprising. A lot of excellent historical work has explored the binary and hierarchical nature of early modern attitudes to sex difference. Deeply misogynistic beliefs were commonly held and often expressed: as one scholar queried rhetorically ‘What pleasure worthy of a studious and expert mind’ could ever be supplied by ‘an inept, foolish and dull woman (which all women are)?’ Excessive femininity in a man was roundly condemned, with preachers, physicians and legislators all seeking to reify and police distinctions of sex. Yet coexisting with these rigid attitudes, playful, disruptive and fluid approaches to gender were expressed in a whole range of fields, including medicine, theology, art theory, literature, natural science (notably alchemy), social life and sexuality. Isolating these threads and weaving them together reveals new approaches to the pre-modern body; it becomes clear that some revelled and delighted in forms that today we might term genderqueer.
When we think about beauty in Western art history and the ‘great masters’ of the Italian Renaissance, we tend to assume that standards of male and female perfection were separate and clearly defined.
Early modern medical discourse routinely emphasised that gender was mutable. It was believed that all bodies comprised a balance of the four humours, which were themselves gendered. They shifted over time so that an individual’s humours could be entirely masculine, entirely feminine, or somewhere in-between, allowing for infinite variations of sex. Everyone at the time had some understanding of the humours, and it was widely known that young men were sanguine, possessing humours that were simultaneously feminine (moist) and masculine (warm). This mixture resulted in good health and a ‘becoming complexion’: a smooth face, golden hair, undefined musculature and soft grace that attracted both women and older men. According to this model, hints of androgyny in a youth indicated harmonious and proper corporeal organisation, and were a defining feature of arousing beauty. An association of sexiness with gender blurring crops up repeatedly in Renaissance culture. In numerous theatrical productions, cross-dressing and other kinds of gender play provided an erotic frisson. A desirable youth is said to have ‘something a bit feminine about his voice and manner’ and to embody ‘both sexes at once’; a heroine sneaking out to meet her lover is dressed ‘like a young gentleman’ (but would have been played by a youth, heightening the ambiguity of the figure’s gender). Early modern men were turned on by encounters with those whose gender presentation was fluid. The writer Pietro Aretino could barely control his lust for a favoured courtesan, La Zufolina, because ‘Nature has made you of both sexes, so that one instant you appear male and then all of a sudden female’. A winsome 16 year-old in female attire accompanied the artist Benvenuto Cellini to a ribald dinner. The boy’s seductive ability to pass as both sexes resulted in him being proclaimed the loveliest guest.
Artists were well aware of these realities. Writers on art recommended that painters and sculptors have a decent understanding of humoural theory and the relationship between the inner workings of the body and its outward appearance. Durer and Raphael certainly did, for they both produced paintings depicting four humoural ‘types’. Leonardo da Vinci owned a copy of Ovid’s perennially popular Metamorphoses, in which Bacchus was said to be ‘a boy, as pretty as a girl’. Perhaps Michelangelo was thinking of the same passage when he carved the young god of wine; the figure delighted the art theorist Vasari, who praised it for possessing ‘both the slenderness of a young man and the fleshiness and roundness of a woman’. The writer Lodovico Dolce similarly declared Adonis in a painting by Titian to be a ‘handsome beauty’, whose appeal was defined by his ‘share of femininity. . . something of beautiful womanhood’. In Renaissance paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, illuminated miniatures and even doodles we encounter figures whose gender is liminal, ambiguous or difficult to discern. While some of these representations are unsympathetic or even ‘monstrous’, the majority are not.
Bodies that complicated, obfuscated or transcended a sharply delineated gender binary were celebrated, and artists devoted themselves to attaining an ideal of beauty in their work that was undeniably, and joyfully, nonbinary.
Today, when we think about beauty in Western art history and the ‘great masters’ of the Italian Renaissance, we tend to assume that standards of male and female perfection were separate and clearly defined. Yet, as this brief account highlights, attitudes were more complex and diverse. In certain contexts, early modern people demonstrated an expansive capacity for thinking beyond rigid confines of sex. Bodies that complicated, obfuscated or transcended a sharply delineated gender binary were celebrated, and artists devoted themselves to attaining an ideal of beauty in their work that was undeniably, and joyfully, nonbinary. In our current moment, when genderqueer people are making such strides towards acceptance yet continue to face horrendous abuse and ridicule, this is surely an art history that is important to tell.