What a curious argument. I quote:
We discovered innumerable lands, we saw innumerable people and different languages, and all were naked.1 (Amerigo Vespucci, letter to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, 1500)
This essay proposes that we question the current understanding of the Italian Renaissance nude by examining contemporaries’ perceptions of nakedness. Despite the importance of the nude for the development of Western art, there have been few studies that consider how the revival of the nude form in fifteenth-century Italy was understood by people at the time.2 Most scholars, understandably, see the new fashion for portraying naked figures in the fifteenth century as a direct reflection of the enthusiasm for classical antiquity during this era. Without denying the crucial importance of antique precedents, I wish here to investigate another possibility: that travellers’ accounts of naked natives encountered on European voyages of exploration, particularly those to sub-Saharan Africa, influenced the creation of what has been called a ‘Renaissance anthropology’ – debates about the nature of mankind.3 This provided a new conceptual filter through which the nude figure was seen – and in some cases, these accounts may have directly affected the iconography of otherwise puzzling images.
The article has four main inter-related areas of focus:
- the increased nakedness of depictions of Adam and Eve from the early fifteenth century, placed in the context of Renaissance understandings of the development of early mankind – and an emphasis on nakedness as a symbol of human potential;
- a survey of Italian travel accounts that invoke stereotypes of nakedness as a symbol for peoples understood to have no civic society, religion or social differentiation;
- the increased presence of black Africans in Italian cities (particularly as slaves) over the course of the fifteenth century – with an analysis of Pisanello's Luxuria in this context;
- Florentine links with the Portuguese voyages to Africa, and descriptions of battling tribesmen, as a means of interpreting Antonio del Pollaiuolo's Battle of Naked Men, a seminal work in the development of the nude form.
I was specially caught by mention of Niccolo dei Conti, who visited India from Italy around 1439AD. He was the second Italian trader who visited India after Marco Polo (1295 or so). He seems to have married an Indian and travelled all over the Middle East, India and South East Asia. Amazing fella (hereis a great biography of the chap) but the interesting hypothesis is that the travel accounts from Africa and India helped to influence the portrayal of nudes in Italian art. I am not that close to all the various permutations of Italian Art, but it is interesting to note the time period after which nudes become common…how curious.