The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milanby Maya Corry

Gender & History



Gender & History ISSN 0953-5233

Maya Corry, ‘The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milan’

Gender & History, Vol.25 No.3 November 2013, pp. 565–589.

The Alluring Beauty of a Leonardesque

Ideal: Masculinity and Spirituality in

Renaissance Milan

Maya Corry

During the last two decades of the fifteenth century, numerous religious artworks were produced in Lombardy depicting beautiful young men in an idealised, androgynous manner (Figures 1–3). Leonardo da Vinci, who lived in Milan from 1482 until 1499, was the originator of this type, and it is repeatedly found in the work of the ‘Leonardeschi’, those artists who were working in his ambit in Lombardy. Large numbers of these images were produced, often in small-scale panels intended for personal devotion: these paintings, featuring Christ, John the Baptist, the Annunciating Angel and saints, were evidently much in demand.

Despite their popularity, the beauty of these youths and its potential impact on beholders has escaped direct analysis by art historians. Their loveliness has often been perceived to be discomforting, even ‘repulsive’ and ‘grotesque’.1 This has partly been due to the assumption that it reflects Leonardo’s sexual tastes. It has similarly been argued that the Leonardeschi’s repetition of this ideal type can be attributed to shared sexuality, or thoughtless imitation.2 The complaint of lack of originality and creativity has dominated the literature on Leonardesque artists, severely limiting the range of questions that has been asked of their output. Discussion has generally been restricted to questions of attribution, dating and painterly techniques, with little or no analysis of the meanings of their works, or how original viewers would have interacted with them.

I will argue that investigation of the repeated appearance of the idealised youth in Lombard art can lead to fresh insights into the histories of gender, religion and the body in this period. Religious iconography that found popularity among numerous

Milanese devotees cannot only have reflected Leonardo’s personal sexual tastes. The abundance of these paintings must testify to more than demand for works which, through unthinking repetition, paid homage to the Florentine master (who was not at this point in his career as celebrated as he would later become).3 By moving away from an exclusive focus on the canonical figure of Leonardo, these paintings can be approached anew – as functional devotional images, rather than footnotes in the history of art.

The idealised type that appears in these artworks is youthful, male and adorned with an epicene loveliness. In order to conceive of how original viewers might have © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA. 566 Gender & History

Figure 1: Marco d’Oggiono, The Young

Christ, c.1490–95, Fundacio´n La´zaro Galdiano, Madrid. (Attributed by the Fundacio´n

La´zaro Galdiano to Boltraffio.) By permission of Fundacio´n La´zaro Galdiano. Madrid. interacted with these paintings, it is necessary to investigate contemporary ideas relating to beauty, gender, age and the body. I will begin with an exploration of medieval attitudes towards the pulchritudinous youthful male form, and its religious significance.

Early–modern perceptions of both masculinity and spirituality, including those of the educated layman, would have been deeply informed by these earlier currents.

The relationship between masculinity and spirituality was imbricated. In late fifteenth-century courtly Milan, beliefs about the body, gender and somatic beauty had religious implications, and vice versa. This contiguity between the sacred and the secular shaped the representation of the divine male body in the religious imagery under consideration. Thus far however, this relationship has received surprisingly little historical attention.4 In part, this can be attributed to the enduring influence of traditional historiographical narratives of secularisation.5 Particularly in investigations of the realm of the court, explorations of power, conspicuous consumption and cultural and social life have often assumed that these were areas largely untouched by religious conviction. To some extent, parallel trends in art history are similarly to blame for the failure to take seriously the spiritual role of Leonardesque images. Hans Belting’s model of transition from the medieval era of the cult image, to the birth of ‘art’, has proved extremely powerful.6 It has led Renaissance art historians to acknowledge or investigate with less frequency the ways in which fifteenth- and sixteenth-century religious artworks continued to function as mystical signifiers, going beyond naturalistic representation.7 © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd

Masculinity and Spirituality in Renaissance Milan 567

Figure 2: Studio of Leonardo da Vinci, St

John the Baptist, c.1490–1510, Ashmolean

Museum, Oxford, WA1937.102. By permission of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

Figure 3: Marco d’Oggiono, Cristo benedicente, c.1490s, Galleria Borghese, Rome, inv 435. By kind permission of the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico,

Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo

Museale della citta` di Roma. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons Ltd 568 Gender & History

In this article, I will explore the manner in which the devotional efficacy of these images depended on the deliberate evocation of both spiritual and secular attitudes to beautiful male bodies. This will encompass examination of the role of corporeal sensation in religious worship, and in interactions with images. The centrality of artistic constructions of gender will be considered. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which these artworks implicated the viewer in the creation of meaning.

Through investigation of the repeated appearance of the idealised youth in Lombard iconography, fresh insights into the histories of gender, religion and the body in this period can be gained.