Renaissance erotica  

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Renaissance art, Renaissance literature, erotica, The Loves of the Gods, Venus, print culture, homosexuality during the Renaissance, anatomy and the nude in Italian Renaissance painting
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") is a list of publications which the Catholic Church censored for being a danger to itself and the faith of its members.
The Index Librorum Prohibitorum ("List of Prohibited Books") is a list of publications which the Catholic Church censored for being a danger to itself and the faith of its members.

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

In Europe, starting with the Renaissance, a tradition of producing erotica for the amusement of the aristocracy started, which had been virtually unknown during medieval times. The invention of the printing press led to the first mass-produced texts of erotica (Pietro Aretino) and the rise of print culture saw mass-produced erotic prints by the likes of Agostino Carracci in Italy and Hans Sebald Beham in the North.

The era was preceded by Medieval erotica and succeeded by 17th century erotica.

With a growing public sphere, it was only natural that censorship would increase. Thus we see the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the engraver of I Modi was imprisoned, the first book burnings took place and the fig leaf was introduced.




By the time of the Renaissance, the narrative and visual culture (in short popular culture) at hand to the Renaissance everyman encompassed European folklore, biblical history, classical mythology, the founding myth of Rome. Like in current times, the interests in these strains of popular culture included sensationalist prurience such as nudity and violence. All of these were used to explore and to establish a form of proto-psychology, in which for every situation a man would find himself -- strife, jealousy, anger, love -- man could refer to the corresponding god, hero or mortal.

Visual arts

erotic art

Venus vs. Nini

Venus of Urbino (1538, detail) by Titian. The frankness of Venus' expression is often noted; she makes direct eye contact with the viewer
Venus of Urbino (1538, detail) by Titian. The frankness of Venus' expression is often noted; she makes direct eye contact with the viewer
female nude, Renaissance art, love goddess, Venus vs. Nini, mythological painting

Venus and Nini are two terms of art to denote the female nude, the first is divine, the second is a mere mortal. They are illustrated here by the Venus (Giorgione) vs. Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian.

The Loves of the Gods

The Loves of the Gods

The Loves of the Gods (Italian: Gli Amori Degli Dei) are a subheading of a number of stories in Ovid's Metamorphoses. These stories of Greek gods and goddesses include Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaethon, Callisto, Apollo and Coronis (The Raven and the Crow), Mercury and Battus, Mercury and Aglauros, and Jupiter and Europa.

The Farnese Gallery

The Loves of the Gods is a fresco cycle completed by Annibale Carracci and his studio in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, completed in 1608. The fresco series was greatly admired in its time, and was later felt to reflect a change in aesthetic in Rome from Mannerism to Baroque.

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

The subject Leda and the Swan undoubtedly owed its sixteenth-century popularity to the paradox that it was considered more acceptable to depict a woman in the act of copulation with a swan than with a man. The earliest depictions show the pair love-making with some explicitness—more so than in any depictions of a human pair made by artists of high quality in the same period. The fate of the album I Modi some years later shows why this was. The theme remained a dangerous one in the Renaissance, as the fates of the three best known paintings on the subject demonstrate. The earliest depictions were all in the more private medium of the old master print, and mostly from Venice. They were often based on the extremely brief account in the Metamorphoses of Ovid (who does not imply a rape), though Lorenzo de' Medici had both a Roman sarcophagus and an antique carved gem of the subject, both with reclining Ledas.

The earliest known explicit Renaissance depiction is one of the many woodcut illustrations to Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a book published in Venice in 1499. This shows Leda and the Swan making love with gusto, despite being on top of a triumphal car, being pulled along and surrounded by a considerable crowd. An engraving dating to 1503 at the latest, by Giovanni Battista Palumba, also shows the couple in coitus, but in deserted countryside. Another engraving, certainly from Venice and attributed by many to Giulio Campagnola, shows a love-making scene, but there Leda's attitude is highly ambiguous. Palumba made another engraving in about 1512, presumably influenced by Leonardo's sketches for his earlier composition, showing Leda seated on the ground and playing with her children.

There were also significant depictions in the smaller decorative arts, also private media. Benvenuto Cellini made a medallion, now in Vienna, early in his career, and Antonio Abondio one on the obverse of a medal celebrating a Roman courtesan.

Raphael's stufetta

Raphael's stufetta

In 1516 Raphael and his followers were commissioned to decorate the bathroom of the Cardinal Bibbiena's Vatican apartments, the so-called Stufetta. Raphael painted the Story of Venus on the walls of the Stufetta.

Gothic art and Northern Renaissance

Gothic art, Northern Renaissance

Northern Europe developed an altogether different sense of eroticism, where erotic representations are often coupled with images of death.

Artist and Model in the Studio

Artist and Model in the Studio is the first work where the complex voyeuristic relationship between an artist and his model is explored.

Northern Mannerism

Antwerp Mannerism, Northern Mannerism, French Mannerism, Mannerism in the Low Countries , Rudolf II

Artists such as Jan Mabuse , Spranger and their mythological nude, biblical nudes.


Renaissance literature, Antonio Beccadelli, Antonio Vignali, Pietro Aretino

Whore dialogues

whore dialogues

"Whore dialogues" were a popular literary genre during the Renaissance. These are dramatic conversations between an older, experienced woman and a younger, inexperienced maiden. They combine sex education, medical folklore, and erotic literature. The most famous example of the Renaissance is the Ragionamenti (1534–36) by Pietro Aretino.

Pietro Aretino

Pietro Aretino

Pietro Aretino (April 20, 1492October 21, 1556) was an Italian Renaissance author and satirist who wielded immense influence on 16th century Italian art and politics and is generally cited as the earliest example of European erotica and hack writing. Today, he is best known for his poetry Sonetti lussuriosi and his whore dialogues Ragionamenti.

I Modi

I Modi (The Ways) is a famous, essentially lost collection of erotic engravings of the Italian Renaissance, first published in 1524 by Marcantonio Raimondi. I Modi were then published a second time in 1527, now with the poems that have given them the traditional English title Aretino's Postures, making this the first time erotic text and images were combined.

It is an illustrated book of 16 "postures" or sexual positions. Raimondi had published the I Modi once before, and was subsequently imprisoned by the Pope Clement VII and all copies of the illustrations were destroyed. Raimondi based the engravings on a series of erotic paintings that Giulio Romano was doing as a commission for the Palazzo del Te in Mantua. Though the two depictions were very similar, only Raimondi was prosecuted because his engravings were capable of being seen by the public. Romano did not know of the engravings until Aretino came to see the original paintings while Romano was still working on them. Aretino then composed sixteen explicit sonnets ("both in your pussy and your behind, my cock will make me happy, and you happy and blissful") to go with the paintings and secured Raimondi's release from prison. The I Modi was then published a second time, with the poems and the pictures, making this the first time erotic text and images were combined, though the papacy once more seized all the copies it could find. Raimondi escaped prison that time, but the censorship was so complete that no original copies have ever been found. The text in existence is only a copy of a copy that was discovered 400 years later.



Ragionamenti (1534–36; "reasonings", also called sei giornate) by Pietro Aretino is a series of dialogue between a seasoned prostitute and a beginner. Pippa is the beginner and Nanna is the experienced one. The first one is entitled Ragionamento della Nanna e della Antonia[1], the second Dialogo nel quale la Nanna insegna a la Pippa.


Hermaphroditus (Beccadelli)

Hermaphroditus (1425) is a collection of eighty-one Latin epigrams by Antonio Beccadelli , which evoke the unfettered eroticism of the works of Catullus and Martial, as well as of the Priapea.

François Rabelais

François Rabelais

François Rabelais (c. 1494 - April 9, 1553) was a major French Renaissance writer best remembered for Gargantua and Pantagruel and his relation to the grotesque. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher and critic, derived his celebrated concept of the carnivalesque and grotesque body from the world of Rabelais.

The Heptameron


The Heptameron is a collection of 72 short stories written in French by Marguerite of Navarre (1492-1549). It has the form of a frame narrative and was inspired by the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. It was originally intended to contain one hundred stories covering ten days just as the Decameron does but at Marguerite’s death it was only completed as far as the second story of the eighth day. Many of the stories deal with love, lust, infidelity and other matters romantic and sexual.

Book of Kisses

Liber Basiorum (Book of Kisses, first complete edition 1541) is collection consisting of nineteen poems by Johannes Secundus. Written in various metres, the poet explores the theme of the kiss.

The 'Basia' are really extended imitations of Catullus (in particular poems 5 and 7) and some poems from the Anthologia Graeca; Secundus situates his poetry, stylistically as well as thematically, firmly with the Neo-Catullan tradition. Variations on the central theme include: imagery of natural fertility; the 'arithmetic' of kissing; kisses as nourishment or cure; kisses that wound or bring death; and the exchange of souls through kissing. Secundus also introduces elements of Neo-Platonism and Petrarchism into his poems.

Portrait of Lozana: The Lusty Andalusian Woman

Portrait of Lozana: The Lusty Andalusian Woman

The Portrait of Lozana: The Lusty Andalusian Woman (original title in Spanish: Retrato de la Loçana Andaluza) is a book written in Venice by the Spanish editor of the Renaissance Francisco Delicado in 1528, after he escaped from Rome due to the anti-Spanish sentiment that uprose after the sack of Rome a year earlier. Published anonymously, the book contains a description of the life in Rome's underworld during the first third of the 16th century. It is considered a book descendant of Celestina (written some thirty years before by Fernando de Rojas) because of the literary scheme, the dialogued novel, and one of the earliest manifestations of the picaresque novel.

The Book of the Prick

The Book of the Prick

The Love Academy is a Latin novel by Antonio Vignale, written in the mid 1520s, first published in Napels in the 1530s. It was translated by Alcide Bonneau into French and as The Love Academy by Rudolph Schleifer (for Brandon House Library Editions).

The source text of the Olympia Press edition is the legendary book known as "La Cazzaria," which translates as "The Book of the Prick." Also known in English as "Dialogue on Diddling," as translated by "Sir Hotspur Dunderpate of the Maidenhead Academy."

Brantôme and Les Vies des Dames Galantes

Brantôme, Les Vies des Dames Galantes

Les Vies des Dames Galantes is a collection of anecdotes by French soldier and chronicler Brantôme (c. 1540–1614). These are part of posthumously published mémoirs and consist of biographical sketches of the "gallant" women of the European court life. Les Vies des Dames Galantes was quoted by Freud in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life with regards to the lapsus.

Themes include general promiscuity, older women, female infidelity and male cuckolds, chastity belts, a response to antifeminism and misogyny, forced seduction, succubi, Aretino's positions, excitement by visual stimuli by way of paintings, lesbianism (donna con donna), descriptions of the female intimate parts, thirty beauties of a woman, cunnilingus, fetishism, Magdalen's skull, sodomy, hermaphroditism and godemiches.

Be aware that the memoirs weren't published until the mid 17th century.

Print culture

print culture, erotic print, Index Librorum Prohibitorum

In terms of visual culture, a transformation came in Europe from the fifteenth century on with the introduction of the old master print and, slightly later, popular prints, both of which were actually much quicker in reaching the mass of the population than printed text.

Apart from the I Modi engravings by Raimondi, there was a growing tradition of erotic prints of which A Witch Riding on a Phallus, an etching after a now-lost design by Francesco Parmigianino, the Lascivie by the Carraccis and Woman with a Dildo by Raimondi are good examples.



The Lascivie (ca. 1590-1595) is a set of erotic prints by Agostino Carracci (Italian artist, 1557-1602).

It features Venus Punishing Profane Love, Satyr flogging a Nymph[2], ...

The prints rival I Modi in their explicitness.


With a growing public sphere, it was only natural that censorship would increase. Thus we see the first Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the engraver of I Modi was imprisoned, the first book burnings took place and the fig leaf was introduced.

Fig leaves

fig leaf

From about 1530, the developing reaction to Renaissance freedoms and excesses that led to the Council of Trent also led to a number of artworks, especially in churches or public places, being altered to reduce the amount of nudity on display. Often, as in the famous case of Michelangelo's The Last Judgement, drapery or extra branches from any nearby bush was used.

Bonfire of the Vanities

Bonfire of the Vanities

In 1497, followers of the Italian priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned pornography, lewd pictures, pagan books, gaming tables, cosmetics, copies of Boccaccio's Decameron, and all the works of Ovid which could be found in Florence.

Index Librorum Prohibitorum

book censorship, Index Librorum Prohibitorum

The first list of that kind was not published in Rome, but in the Netherlands (1529). Venice and Paris followed this example (1543 and 1551). The first Roman Index was the work of Pope Paul IV (1557, 1559). The work of the censors was considered too severe and, after the Council of Trent had remodeled the church legislation on the prohibition of books, Pope Pius IV promulgated in 1564 the so called Tridentine Index, the basis of all later lists until Pope Leo XIII, in 1897, published his Index Leonianus. The very first lists were the work of the Sacred Congregation of the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church (the Holy Office, later the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith).


Aretino and Ammanati show prudery.



The Borgias or Borjas were a Valencian-Italian noble family who became prominent during the Renaissance. They are remembered today for their corrupt rule when one of them was Pope. The Borgias have been accused of many different crimes, generally on considerable evidence, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by poison). The most famous account of their debauchery is described in the "Banquet of Chestnuts".

Gay love

homosexuality during the Renaissance

In 1601 Caravaggio painted the "Amor Vincit Omnia," for the collection of the Marquis Vincenzo Giustiniani.

List of works

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Renaissance erotica" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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