2023 Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America, San Juan, Puerto Rico
IAS-Sponsored Session

Transgressing the Socially Controlled Body of Early Modern Italy II: Public Persona and the Body

Organizer: Rebecca Marie Howard, University of Memphis

Organizer and Chair: Caroline Koncz, Angelo State University

Centuries beyond the early modern period, bodies continue to be controlled and held to certain socially

fabricated and problematic expectations. Social and gendered standards placed on early modern persons (realized through the issuing of sumptuary legislation, conduct literature, and clerical/state legislation, to name only a few sources), are often the forces behind artistic depictions of period bodies. The papers in these panels thus seek to consider how social constructs impacted early modern artists’ renderings of figures, either from life, history, and/or fiction. Speaking to the theme of the socially constructed and controlled body in early modern Italy, papers will explore subjects such as transgressive and/or confirmative depictions of bodies; defining, performing, and/or blurring gender roles; transgressive dressing; cross-dressing; and the nude or the body undressed. Discussions of such policing of early modern bodies may reflect contemporary efforts that further attempt control over the bodies and lives of certain individuals.


Kendra Grimmett, University of Pennsylvania
Emulating ‘The Courtier’ in ‘The Honeysuckle Bower’

From 1600 to 1608, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens served as a court artist to Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. During those formative years in Italy, Rubens learned and adopted the decorous comportment of an ideal courtier as described by Baldassare Castiglione in Il Cortegiano, first published in 1528 but still popular in the seventeenth century. In 1609, one year after returning to Antwerp, Rubens painted himself and his wife Isabella Brant in The Honeysuckle Bower (above). In addition to representing himself as a capable and loving husband, I argue that Rubens fashions himself as an effortlessly graceful, Italianate courtier, embodying the concept of sprezzatura in the arrangement of his clothing and the position of his shapely equestrian’s calves. This paper considers how Rubens’s time in Italy informed his understanding of masculinity and his depictions of the ideal male body—including his own body.

Kathleen Peters, Oglethorpe University
‘Carnevale’ and a Tridentine Indictment of Crossdressing Men

In Tridentine Italy, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo’s Discorso contro il Carnevale bitterly denounces the inappropriate liberties practiced at Carnival, with its disruption of social norms and transgression of social boundaries. This Borromean position is reflected in Chapel XIII of the Sacro Monte di Orta, “Saint Francis led through the Streets,” the textual basis of which concerns Francis’ humility. However, in the theatrical staging of the terracotta diorama and accompanying frescos, Francis is led through a visual swarm of Carnival celebrants, many of whom are liminal figures: drunks, a short person, a Jewish prisoner, the physically impaired, a costumed King of Carnival, and several crossdressing men. The crowd presents a world turned upside down. This paper explores the history of crossdressing men in Renaissance Italy and the Catholic Church’s response though the deployment of soft power: i.e. didactic instruction on sin and penance through the visual program of Chapel XIII.

Claudia Lazzaro, Cornell University
Duke Cosimo’s Breasts

Duke Cosimo de’ Medici wears ancient Roman armor in Baccio Bandinelli’s little discussed marble bust in the Metropolitan Museum. Unlike its Roman imperial models and his Bargello version, the duke’s muscle cuirass appears to represent a bare torso with ribs, substantial pectorals, areolas, and nipples. It recalls the muscular anatomy and ambiguity between body and armor of Michelangelo’s Duke Giuliano. However, Bandinelli’s bust is a recognizable portrait and the anatomy implies the duke’s own robust body. A living ruler portrayed nude was a performance of masculinity and a sign of power precisely because it was audacious and transgressive, as both Mussolini and Putin were aware. That the bust is seemingly, but not actually, a naked torso parallels sixteenth-century concerns with appearing versus being. A conspicuous breast with nipple also appears in other portrayals of Cosimo and serves as a sign of and abbreviation for the nude body of the ruler.

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