The Sensual and the Sexual in the Art of the Renaissance and the Baroque

$110 Limited inc GST / $99
The Sensual and the Sexual in the Art of the Renaissance and the Baroque

<p>The sensual aspects of a work of art are essential to its capacity to captivate us as viewers. In the early-modern period these qualities were both admired and censored. We will examine this


If there isn't a class to suit you, please the waiting list.

The sensual aspects of a work of art are essential to its capacity to captivate us as viewers. In the early-modern period these qualities were both admired and censored. We will examine this cultural tension within both religious and secular works of art, the beginnings of mass-produced pornography and the visual embodiment of gender within works of art within the period.


  • Marcia B. Hall and Tracy E. Cooper, eds., The Sensuous in the Counter-Reformation Church, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).
  • Stuart Lingo., Federico Barocci: Allure and Devotion in Late Renaissance Painting, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
  • Ian Frederick Moulton, ed., Eroticism in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Magic, Marriage, and Midwifery, (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2016)
  • Berthold Hub and Angeliki Pollali, Images of Sex and Desire in Renaissance Art and Modern Historiography, (Routledge, 2018).
  • Lynne Lawner, I modi : the Sixteen Pleasures: An Erotic Album of the Italian Renaissance, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
  • Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity, (Manchester University Press, 1997).
  • Bette Talvacchia, Taking Positions: On the Erotic in Renaissance Culture, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).
  • Sara F. Matthews-Grieco, ed., Erotic Cultures of Renaissance Italy, (Routledge Press, 2010).
  • Michael Rocke, Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  • James M. Saslow, Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).
  • Margot and Rudolf Wittkower, Chapter 7 “Celibacy, Love, and Licentiousness”, Born Under Saturn: The Character and Conduct of Artists – A Documentary History from Antiquity to the French Revolution, (New York: Random House, 1963).


  • Art and Ambiguity – the Sensual and the Erotic: We will examine the subtle tension between the role of sensuality within religious iconography and the piety of the early-modern period. This will be understood within the context of the top-down approach of the Counter-Reformation church, which attempted to both clearly define the boundaries of the sensual and to censure its expression. This cultural tension was often central to some of the most significant religious experiences of late medieval and early-modern saints, where matrimonial and even quasi-erotic metaphors of being wedded to Christ were not uncommon. We will examine comparative examples of this, such as the numerous depictions of the mystical marriages of Saints Catherine of Alexandria and Siena to Christ, as well as the famous seventeenth century sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s sensually charged depiction of the mystical experience of the Spanish Saint Theresa of Avila. These will be seen comparative to secular works, such as the painter, Correggio’s classical depiction of the priestess, Io, in a state of climactic orgasm, copulating with the Greco-Roman god, Jupiter. In addition to examining the cultural tension between the religiously sensual and the outright erotic, we will consider with caution, the later imposition of psychoanalytical interpretations to such works of art and the possible tendency to overly simplify and anachronistically impose modern assumptions and perceptions of the “sexualised image” upon earlier visual culture.
  • The Engraver Marcantonio Raimondi and the Early Mass-Production of Pornography: In 1524, the engraver, Marcantonio Raimondi, famous for his prints after works by the painter, Raphael, published a series of scandalous engravings that vividly depicted sixteen sexual positions. The I Modi or The Ways / Positions, as they were called, were based on paintings by Giulio Romano, one of the leading pupils of Raphael. The prints of copulating figures were contextualised within a very thin visual veneer of scholarly respectability, in the guise of classical gods and historical figures. Following their publication, Raimondi was imprisoned by Pope Clement VII and copies of the work destroyed. The poet, Pietro Aretino, who assisted in organising the release of Raimondi, later had the images republished with his own accompanying and extremely lewd sonnets. This caused a further moral outcry which resulted in Aretino having to flee the city of Rome. In this class, we will analyse both the influence of Raimondi’s prints, their iconography and broader relationship to other works of art within the early-modern period.
  • Homosocial Behaviour and Experience in the Renaissance: In this class, we will aim to understand how same-sex attraction functioned within the context of the early-modern city of Florence. We will look at the role of the city’s “moral police”, the Officers of the Night, who between 1432 and 1502, charged more than 17,000 men with the crime of sodomy, convicting around 3000. Among those charged included the young twenty-four year old artist, Leonardo da Vinci. These large numbers will be seen to reflect the context of a broader homosocial culture that promoted the segregation of the sexes, as seen in the image of men bathing, by the late sixteenth century painter, Domenico Passignano, in his work, The Bathers at San Nicolo. From this broader context, we will examine homoerotic works of art by both Florentine and other Italian artists, including Michelangelo, Bronzino, Cellini and Correggio.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Gain awareness for the cultural constructions of sensuality, eroticism, sexuality and gender in the early-modern period.
  2. Visually identify iconography that broadly encompasses both the sensual and the erotic within the visual arts of the early-modern period.
  3. Gain an appreciation for both the cultural synthesis and the perceived contradictions one might be presented with, when seeking to understand the relationship of the sensual and erotic within the context of religious and secular art of the period.