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Sex object? “Night”, 1555-65, by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (©Rome, Galleria Colonna, inv. Salviati 1756, no. 66)

Michelangelo unveiled his Last Judgment on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel in 1543, just before the Council started sitting. It was full of images of naked men and women, some of them very striking, although how anyone could think of them as “exciting lust” is difficult to understand, given that the nudes are mostly in twisted poses of agony as they realise they are going to hell, or attitudes of beatific contemplation as they recognise they are on their way to heaven. Senior Catholic churchmen in Rome were nevertheless deeply shocked by Michelangelo’s use of nudity — not, of course, for the effect it had on them, but for the effect that it might have on others. No one dared touch those frescoes while the great man was alive, but once he was safely dead, Pope Pius V gave orders that the nude bodies in his vast fresco be appropriately veiled. El Greco, who was in Rome at the time, offered to paint over the entire fresco, saying he would produce a version of the same subject that was just as good as Michelangelo’s, and much more decent. But the Pope turned down his offer, and El Greco left Rome for Spain.

As the Palazzo Strozzi show demonstrates, the reaction to nudity in art in Florence was less extreme than in Rome or Trent. The Medici family, installed as rulers in 1531 by Charles V after his army occupied the city and ended its republican government, was eager to comply with Catholic orthodoxy. But as patrons, they were also fond and tolerant of naked figures in art. Surprisingly, it seems that if anyone wanted to cover naked images in Florence, it was not the patrons, but the artists. For instance, the sculptor Bartolomeo Ammannati included two full-sized naked female figures for his ensemble The Fountain of Juno. It wasn't destined for a church or religious institution, but Ammannati nevertheless later became very concerned about his statues, which he thought were sinfully “lust-inducing”. When Duke Ferdinando Medici decided to place Ammannati's sculptures in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace — a place accessible to the public — Ammannati wrote to the Duke begging for permission to cover them up so that they would be “decent”. Duke Ferdinando refused: the nudes had to stay.

In 1552, Pontormo’s pupil Bronzino painted a huge altarpiece, Christ Descends into Limbo, for the Zacchini Chapel in the church of Santa Croce. Christ Descends into Limbo contains many beautiful figures, including several female nudes. Those figures were criticised by contemporaries for “excessive nudity and evident sensuality” which would “distract the faithful” — but not by the Medici. They seem to have approved wholeheartedly of the picture.

No one today is going to worry that the images in Christ Descends into Limbo are impermissibly arousing, or indeed that any of the images of women, or men, in the religious paintings on display in The Cinquecento in Florence might stimulate viewers in the wrong kind of way. But some people might find the images of women painted, not for the religious edification of the Medicis and other aristocratic patrons, but for their amusement and entertainment, unsettlingly close to pornography. Paintings such as Tommaso Manzuoli’s Fortitude, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio’s Night, Alessandro Allori’s Venus and Cupid, and Jacopo Zucchi’s Cupid and Psyche, or Giambologna’s sculpture Fata Morgana and his Venus Fiorenza, are certainly beautiful. But they also certainly turn their female subjects into sex objects. They were not created merely to arouse the male viewer. That was, however, part of their point, regardless of how many allegorical messages about the importance of continence and temperance modern art historians insist are buried in them.
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