Ganymede in the Renaissance: Homosexuality in Art and Society
In 1557 Benvenuto Cellini, who was then living in his native Florence, was convicted of sodomy, and after a brief spell in prison had his sentence commuted to house arrest for four years. It was in this period of enforced inactivity, when his attempts to win major sculptural commissions were increasingly unsuccessful, that he wrote, or rather dictated, the greater part of his autobiography, as well as making the marble Crucifix which is now in the Escorial. Both of these works are masterpieces; but it is the autobiography that has proved to be the basis of Cellini’s posthumous fame, in a way that he probably neither anticipated nor wanted. For the picture of the sculptor that emerges from this book, which is by far the most remarkable self-portrait of its period, hardly conforms to modern preconceptions of a great Renaissance artist.
Cellini, as he reveals to us again and again, was vain, violent, ill-educated, and often small-minded, seemingly devoid of the kind of high seriousness and moral authority with which his great contemporary Michelangelo managed to impress everyone who knew him. Because today, perhaps more than ever before, we tend to subscribe to the ancient idea that every artist portrays himself, our appreciation of Cellini’s output as a sculptor has been fatally compromised by the autobiography. It is, after all, the best possible refutation of the notion, so often propounded by museum curators and academics, that the art of the past is somehow morally uplifting. That is surely one reason why scholars have often tended to deny the veracity of Cellini’s narrative, and why it is all too easy to dismiss his work as a superficial exercise in virtuosity. This impression is only strengthened by the fame of the one extant example of his activity as a goldsmith, the celebrated saltcellar in Vienna, which, because of its medium, can hardly escape being regarded as a gorgeous trinket, a tour de force of craftsmanship, but unworthy of serious consideration as a work of art.
The physical appearance of Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s new book might at first seem to confirm such prejudices, for it is an unusually lavish and glossy production. Everything that Cellini made is illustrated in full-page color photographs, and the plates take up as many pages as the text. They are mostly of very high quality, although the black-and-white photographs by David Finn do not fully survive enlargement to such dimensions, and the marvelous relief on the base of the Perseus has been cropped by an insensitive designer. There are still more illustrations in the text, but here unfortunately the publishers have served the author less well. There is no excuse for showing Bronzino’s celebrated Allegory in the National Gallery in London defaced by the overpainting that was removed in 1958, or for reproducing the wrong drawing by Michelangelo. But these are minor shortcomings in a book that displays the full range of Cellini’s output in a way that does justice to its exceptional quality.
If that were all the book did, it would be a welcome, if expensive, achievement. But its real importance lies not in the seductive packaging but in the text. This is certainly the best account of the subject that has been written, and it amply fulfills the author’s intention of reestablishing Cellini’s reputation as one of the foremost sculptors of his generation. Pope-Hennessy has been interested in Cellini ever since he published an edition of the autobiography almost forty years ago. Since that time a mass of documentary evidence has come to light which has confirmed the essential accuracy of Cellini’s own account of his career. In his new book, therefore, Pope-Hennessy has been able to retain the basic structure of the autobiography, while adding his own generally very perceptive analyses of the works of art themselves. Sculpture is a much more difficult medium to write about than painting; but here the task has been carried out with remarkable success, and no one should again be tempted to belittle Cellini’s achievement. In particular, his works in marble are given the kind of sustained and sympathetic attention which in the past has generally been reserved for his most famous statue, the bronze Perseus.
Even with the evidence provided by the autobiography and by documents, there still remain a number of questionable works associated with Cellini. Pope-Hennessy takes a cautiously expansionist position; but few of the controversial attributions he argues for are likely to command general support. The bronze Satyr recently acquired by the Getty Museum seems entirely acceptable, as does a small figure of Juno in a private collection; but I find it difficult to believe that Cellini was responsible for the statuette of Neptune in the North Carolina Museum of Art. Pope-Hennessy argues that this was made by Cellini in connection with his attempts to win the commission for a colossal marble statue of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, a work subsequently executed by Ammanati. But while Cellini certainly made small bronzes as sketches for larger figures in the same medium, it is hard to see what purpose these might have served in the case of marble sculptures. Moreover, the figure itself, with its heavy torso and rather insubstantial legs, incongruously balanced on a pair of sea horses which are swimming in opposite directions, could hardly have made an effective composition in marble.
Fortunately, this and other works of debatable authenticity are minor productions which have scarcely any bearing on the sculptor’s real achievement. And impressive as that achievement is, it is not really of a kind that particularly conforms to modern taste. It is significant that Pope-Hennessy himself constantly stresses the naturalistic aspect of Cellini’s art, seeing him as self-consciously placing himself in the tradition established by Ghiberti. In some of the best passages in the book, such as the discussion of the saltcellar and the Nymph of Fontainebleau, he emphasizes the way in which Cellini’s figures are based on close observation of living models and on a remarkable understanding of anatomy. But at the same time Pope-Hennessy tends to minimize the ways in which the sculpture conformed to the aesthetic ideals of Cellini’s own day, ideals which are now generally characterized under the term “Mannerism.” Unlike the word “Renaissance,” which has a good sixteenth-century provenance, and was indeed first applied to the visual arts in Italy by the painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari in 1550, “Mannerism” is a relatively modern coinage that has never fully escaped from its original, pejorative associations.
When the art of the mid-sixteenth century was first reassessed in the early part of this century, it was most often regarded as a quasi-expressionist reaction against the balanced perfection of the High Renaissance, and in particular as a response to the political and military instability introduced to Italy by foreign invaders after 1494. In the past thirty years this idea has been replaced by a new conception of Mannerism as an art of extreme self-conscious stylishness and artifice, a sort of Art Nouveau avant la lettre, and largely devoid of expressive power. In this last respect, current opinion seems to have been influenced more by the actual achievements of the Mannerists than by the ideals articulated in the critical writing of the period. But whatever its basis, such a view of Mannerism hardly fits the account of himself that Cellini provides in the autobiography; and this is surely one reason why his work does not receive much attention in scholarly discussions of sixteenth-century art. Cellini’s refusal to consider his own works in the kind of terms that Vasari, for example, employs so readily and with such brilliance in his Lives of the Artists and his evident reluctance to participate in controversies about artistic theory have made him seem untypical of his time. This is essentially the view that Pope-Hennessy has maintained in the present book. He has given us a sculptor acceptable to modern taste, but out of sympathy with the prevailing attitudes of his contemporaries in Florence not just on a personal level, but also in his ideals.
Pope-Hennesy’s largely convincing defense of the basic reliability of the autobiography certainly gives this attitude a degree of credibility. However, it is questionable whether the autobiography itself really provides a full picture of Cellini’s own artistic preoccupations. It was, after all, an account of his life, and in particular a justification of his conduct, not a critical assessment of his work. But Cellini spent his life in a milieu in which a particular view of the nature of artistic activity was taken for granted. All Florentine artists of the sixteenth century, for example, accepted the notion of the preeminence of disegno, the idea that the task of the sculptor or painter was to give visible form to images conceived in the mind. They all believed that their job was not to imitate nature, but to improve on it, and that the most challenging subject was the human body. To represent this successfully it was necessary to have complete mastery of anatomy; but in no sense was their art naturalistic.
Again, Florentines were particularly responsive to the difficulties of art, whether of a purely technical kind or those involving the representation of figures in complex poses or extreme foreshortening. This of course could, and often did, lead them into empty and stereotyped displays of virtuosity (and the term maniera, from which “Mannerism” is derived, was first used then in this pejorative sense); but unless we accept the positive evaluation of virtuosity which underlies so much of what they did, we cannot understand their artistic intentions. Moreover, Cellini’s work certainly shows that he was profoundly affected by these ideals. The importance he placed on technical brilliance, on stretching the possibilities of his medium to their limits, and on capricious, fantastic invention, informs everything that he did. And it is this aspect of his achievement that Pope-Hennessy tends to underplay.
Implicit in the notion that the artist must improve on nature and must display his skill in the most difficult challenges of his art is the idea that the real test of his ability lies in his treatment of the human body, the most perfect of God’s creations, made in his own image. This explains why the art of the sixteenth century, especially that of the middle decades, when such ideas were circulating most widely, is centered on the representation of the nude, and particularly the male nude. It is in this period that the figures represented by painters and sculptors lost their clothes; and in many parts of Europe they were never to recover them. Nudity, whether partial or complete, was what principally came to distinguish the world of art from the world of real life, as it could be seen to have done in antiquity; and this as much as anything accounts for the popularity of subjects drawn from classical mythology, because these provided a pretext for nudity in a way that the most common themes from Christian or secular history did not.
The insistent display of nudity in art has often aroused criticism, especially in Protestant societies, on the not unreasonable grounds of indecency; and the most common response has been the claim that art is of its nature uplifting, and that any complaint that it is indecent is mere philistinism. But in general scholars have been reluctant to concede that such a simple, if seemingly inadequate, response could have been widely acceptable in the Renaissance. Instead, they have argued that the representation of mythological subjects was commonly justified on the ground that these were allegories, that for example the frivolous and usually lascivious stories from Ovid that were so popular with artists and patrons conveyed moral or philosophical lessons. It is even claimed by some that such allegorical meanings were more than mere pretexts for the depiction of pagan themes, that these stories were represented not because they were attractive in themselves and gave the artists marvelous opportunities to produce masterpieces, but principally because of their allegorical significance.
The problem of public attitudes to mythological themes in art is particularly acute in the case of a subject like the Rape of Ganymede, since here the story is not merely concerned with love, but with Jupiter conceiving such a passion for an attractive boy that he had him carried up to heaven by an eagle. The theme was a popular one in sixteenth-century art, illustrated by artists as varied as Michelangelo, Correggio, and Cellini himself, whose output also includes other major statues of a strongly homoerotic character, notably Apollo and Hyacinth and Narcissus; and it is certainly worth asking how it was that such works came to be collected and openly displayed in a society in which the practice of male homosexuality was officially condemned. This is what James Saslow has set out to do in Ganymede in the Renaissance.
He argues entirely convincingly that the sexual dimension of the Ganymede myth was not merely generally recognized, but was actually emphasized by Italian Renaissance artists, whereas in Northern Europe in the seventeenth century this aspect was suppressed. He also suggests that the specific type of sexuality with which the story is concerned, pederasty, was regarded as the standard form of male homosexual activity in sixteenth-century Italy. This is less easy to substantiate; but it certainly seems to be the case that public comment on the subject was particularly centered on this aspect, and that prosecutions almost always involved men whose sexual partners were children or adolescents. To a certain degree, therefore, representations of Ganymede may provide an indication of Renaissance attitudes to homosexuality; and it is no coincidence that these images were both more explicit and more common in the first half of the century than in the less permissive climate after the Council of Trent, as Saslow demonstrates with tact and intelligence.
When he turns to the problem of how such images could be made acceptable within a conventional morality, his arguments are less convincing. This is partly because he limits his discussion to representations of specifically homosexual episodes from classical mythology, since he is mainly concerned to explore Renaissance attitudes to homosexuality as such. But it is by no means obvious that the justification advanced for these subjects would have been essentially different from that invoked for any of the other popular themes derived from Ovid. After all, if Jupiter’s behavior on this occasion did not conform to Christian notions of morality, the same could be said of almost every episode in the Metamorphoses. The pagan gods were consistently disreputable in their conduct.
I have suggested that one line that could have been taken is that subjects from mythology simply belonged to the domain of art, and therefore needed no further justification, except perhaps antique precedent, of which there was no lack. The theme of virtually all mythological stories, it might have been said, was the power of Love, one of the favorite themes of European literature; and at the same time these stories provided ideal opportunities for artists to give of their best. This kind of thinking surely lay behind a famous request from the learned Annibale Caro to Giorgio Vasari for a painting: “Provided there are two nude figures, a male and female (which are the most worthy subjects of your art), you can compose any story and any attitudes you like…. Should you want to know my inclination I would think that Adonis and Venus would form an arrangement of the most beautiful bodies you could make, even though this has been done before.” Moreover, it was widely accepted that such figures should be erotically stimulating. One of the commonplaces of Renaissance art criticism was Pliny’s anecdote about the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles, which so aroused a young man that he left a permanent stain on it.
The Rape of Ganymede might not seem a subject that could be accommodated particularly well within such a scheme of ideas, because children and eagles were artistically less challenging themes than adult nudes. But this problem was often overcome by showing Ganymede as an adolescent, not much younger than Adonis. Moreover, the story had certain special attractions for artists. Not only was it particularly suitable for ceiling paintings, it could also provide variety in representations of the loves of Jupiter, and it was an obvious theme for Cellini, for example, to have chosen when he was faced with the problem of restoring a classical torso of an adolescent boy. Though the Rape of Ganymede evidently was a subject with a particular homoerotic appeal, its representation could therefore be justified on much the same grounds as other mythological themes. Saslow, however, argues that the most relevant consideration was the meanings that were applied to the myth.
The idea that the stories of classical mythology were allegories, whether of natural processes, moral truths, or metaphysical concepts, originated in antiquity, and during the Middle Ages even Christian interpretations were applied to the Metamorphoses in order to make the text acceptable to pious readers. In the later fifteenth century a further layer of allegorization was provided by Florentine Neoplatonists like Marsilio Ficino, who saw in classical mythology a covert representation of profound philosophical ideas. In common with many scholars from Erwin Panofsky onward, Saslow regards these latter types of meaning as being particularly important in the sixteenth century, though he is too sophisticated to suppose that they were necessarily taken seriously by people who commissioned works of art, recognizing that they might just have served as a pretext for subjects which provided satisfactions of a less respectable kind. In the case of Michelangelo’s famous drawing of Ganymede made for the young Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, however, he argues that the Neoplatonic meaning was of genuine relevance, and that it was intended as an allegory of the soul arisen to contemplation of the divine through the power of Love.
Given Michelangelo’s known familiarity with the commonplaces of Neoplatonism, which inform his poetry, his passionate feelings for Cavalieri, and his apparent refusal to give these feelings physical expression, it is plausible enough that he might conceive his own Ganymede within this scheme of ideas, even though this particular story had not previously attracted much attention from philosophers. But the notion that Neoplatonism might have had a more general relevance to representations of this myth or indeed of any other theme from Ovid is very difficult to substantiate. Not only are there very few instances in the sixteenth century when anyone is known to have applied such meanings to mythological painting or sculpture, it is also the case that printed texts of the Metamorphoses, whether in the original Latin or in Italian translations and paraphrases, rarely include such meanings, even though they do provide other, much more banal allegories, usually of a simple moral or historical kind. These are almost never mentioned today by art historians. In other words, the justifications given in the Renaissance for reading Ovid were not the same as those which are now commonly invoked for representing Ovidian subjects in art, not that either type, incidentally, adequately accounts for the gratuitous nudity of so many of the figures.
In disregarding this simple fact Saslow is merely following the dominant tradition in recent studies of Renaissance iconography; but his insistence on the sexual element in the imagery that he discusses is a welcome departure from prevailing scholarly prudery. In this respect his argument is complemented by Pope-Hennessy’s defense of the essential accuracy of Cellini’s autobiography. For in Cellini’s incomparable account of the artistic world of his day there is abundant evidence that the preoccupations of painters and sculptors and the criteria normally used to assess their work had much to do with the representation of the naked human figure, and very little with the high-minded abstractions of philosophers.