The presentation of the male figure in Greek antiquity makes clear that the male sex was considered special and superior. Men are presented nude, a marker of heroism, while women remained shamefully clothed well into the early 4th century BCE.
Strolling through the galleries of the Louvre Museum in Paris while looking at Greek vases, a viewer will also notice another pattern emerge: the love relationship between an erastes (older male lover) and an eromenos (younger male beloved), which was not only common, but copiously celebrated in visual imagery.
Male to male love was considered superior, for the male body was considered not only superior, but the only true gender, as women were believed to be deformed and inferior beings. This was certainly thought of as fact based on science and rationality.
As rational as the Aristotelian notion of moderation and temperance that distinguished certain philosophical tenets: “just enough” was the virtue upheld by the citizens (selected men). Looking at the marble sculpture of the Doryphoros by Polykleitos, in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, the spear bearer is shown in the contrapposto position that was achieved amid the century’s reflection on the importance of geometry and science in art. His facial expression holds no emotion. He is an idealized representation of man. The head is used as the unit of measurement (1:6) for the sculpture’s height, thus exposing the quintessential nature of a culture that believed in order to create perfect beauty a naturalist representation of the body, though not realist, was so grandly and methodically idealized.
In a society where only a male perspective had any validity, the only way to raise proper citizens of the polis was through the pederastic relationship. The process of socialization in Greek antiquity required that an older, active male figure (erastes) engage in an intellectual as well as sexual relationship with a younger, passive male (eromenos) and in the process pass on ideal civic virtues – man to man.
Around 480 BC the Briseis painter represented this relationship on a red-figured ceramic cup showing an Erastes (lover) and Eromenos (beloved) kissing rather roughly. This plate is on display in the Louvre Museum among others of similar subject. The wiser erastes is always depicted with a full beard to signify maturity while the naive eromenos’ is always shown with absolutely no facial hair.
Professor Liliana Leopardi currently teaches a number of Renaissance courses at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Her research focuses on ornament and magic. She previously taught at Chapman University, and while there she taught a course on imaging gender in ancient art.
“I see art history as a way to look into the history of humanity. Visual production, be it a sculpture, painting, or decorative arts, tells us something about the context in which it was produced… it is almost like having a literal window onto the past. As a viewer, one has a sense of what people thought, believed in, and even what they found beautiful,” says Leopardi.
She shares some art history tips with 429Magazine on works of art that suggest that the Greek notions of male to male love had a lasting impact even in the Christian era like the Renaissance.
Leopardi: At the Borghese Gallery in Rome there is a wonderful Hellenistic sculpture of a hermaphrodite today known as the Borghese Hermaphrodite. The representation of two genders in one body was particularly appreciated in the Hellenistic Mediterranean world, and 16th century patrons avidly collected any such piquant antiquities. The Borghese Hermaphrodite is unfortunately displayed against a wall, thus not allowing the viewer to fully capture the erotic nuances explored by the artist and enjoyed by its collector, but another exemplar of the same subject may be seen at the Musée du Louvre, where it is ‘exposed’ in such a manner to allow visitors to walk fully around the work. From behind, the figure appears to be a woman lying down because of her breasts peeking beneath an arm, but from the front the male genitalia suggest a much more complicated identity.
429Magazine: Where do you think this appreciation for hermaphrodites came from?
Leopardi: In the Renaissance and Baroque period, it may certainly be ascribed to a fascination with anything antique, and with the revival of classical Greek philosophy. Collecting an erotic work like the hermaphrodite satisfied both intellectual as well as sensual interests. We are not quite sure why it is that most of these works were produced in antiquity in the Mediterranean region, but they certainly suggest an interest in erotic exoticism.
429Mag: Where can we find another example of homoerotic ancient art?
Leopardi: Well, in Florence there is the magnificent David by Donatello, now at the Museo del Bargello, which was originally commissioned by the Medici family and used to stand at the center of their palace’s courtyard. Most scholars agree that this bronze figure reflects the period’s engagement in homosocial behavior. With the revival of Plato and Greek philosophy, Florence, too, begun to extoll the virtues of male to male love, to the point that in the 15th and 16th century Florence was known as the Sodom of Europe.
Since homosocial relationships among men were prevalent among the elite, it is not surprising that an appreciation for male beauty may be found in many works of art. The eromenos’ shape of Donatello’s David seems to have been cast with an eye to seduce its male viewer.
429Mag: What was the relevance of ancient images and sculptures during the European Renaissance?
Leopardi: Ancient works of art were highly sought after as they were the tangible markers of the greatness of a past that Renaissance humanists believed themselves to be heir of, and of course they also functioned as signifier of wealth and power.
429Mag: How did you get involved with art history?
Leopardi: I finished my undergraduate at USC in psychology and anthropology and after pursuing an MA in psychology, I ended up working in the Museum Publications department of the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was a great experience to be surrounded by beautiful objects and people who cared deeply about these artifacts; and it set me on the art history path. I was accepted into the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU, where I wrote my doctorate dissertation on the 15th century Italian artist Carlo Crivelli, focusing on his representation of ornaments. I was interested in what the possible symbolism they might have had why he insisted on representing them. I was trying to contextualize the artist.
429Mag: What can we learn from looking at how those aesthetic ideals from the ancient past bleed into contemporary times?
Leopardi: Perhaps the most important lesson is that ancient notions of gender construction and of sexual behavior tell us that human sexuality is much more fluid than we would like to acknowledge.