A History of Erotica
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Eros is the oldest of gods, says Plato. He is the god of love, lust, blind passion and sexual reproduction. If an arrow from Eros's bow strikes a target, the victim falls immediately in love. Eros's parentage is significant: he is the son of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Ares, god of war. He is thus born out of beauty and belligerence, out of love and hate. Out of two opposites that are united nowhere else than in the most intimate space of the human psyche: the sexual act, and its abstraction: eroticism."--A History of Erotica (2011) by Jan-Willem Geerinck
"Man reveals his true nature in his fears and desires. Show me what he is afraid of, show me what excites him, I will tell you who he is."--Sholem Stein
This page A History of Erotica is a placeholder for a draft of an English translation of De geschiedenis van de erotiek: van holbewoner tot Markies de Sade by Jan-Willem Geerinck, published in 2011 in Dutch.
Table of contents
I am millions of years old. You don't believe me? Whatever. My provenance, you ask? There's so much to tell. And all is true. You pick the version which pleases you most.
Some argue that I was created ex nihilo, out of prima materia, the primal soup. In that scenario, I am a force of nature and I have no human attributes. Those who want to ascribe parents to me say that my mother was both a whore and goddess. My father? Muckrakers claim that not even my mother knows. Is it cowardly and disfigured technician with whom my mother at a young age was forced to marry? Is it the brave ambassador or the bloodthirsty warrior with whom she secretly had an affair? If I were to choose one of them, I would pick the latter. Anyway, they both regarded me as their child and as things go, I learned a lot from them. They are still alive. Just as my grandparents, about whom even wilder rumours circulate.
I was a happy child. Along with my raucous half brother Dionysus we raised hell more than once. But despite the fun we had, the number of souls we liberated, I soon became bored. My mother introduced me to the nine daughters of a friend of the family, a notorious flirt, a man for whom we had infinite respect. Together with my half brother and our good friends Logos and Sophia we decided to capture the volatile nature of our antics in words and pictures. You owe this book to them. I dedicate it to mortals like you, whose questions can only be answered by Gods like us.
Once I fell prey to my own arrows. I accidentally jabbed myself and fell in love with one of you - my mother played a dubious role in that affair - but I have long since forgiven her. My love for this mortal woman was brief, it disappeared as quickly as it had flared up. The fruit of our passion was one daughter, we named her Hedone, Greek for pleasure.
My name is Eros. This makes my mother Aphrodite (goddess of love), my father Ares (god of war), the nine sisters, the Muses and the mortal beauty I was in love with, Psyche. I am the god of love, usually depicted as a boy with bow and arrow, a childish Valentine figurine I still find hard to cope with.
In prehistoric times, I watch how cavemen paint their cave walls. They know not of my existence, although I keep their kind in existence with my well-chosen and expertly fired arrows. My written history begins with the Greeks. Although I have existed since all eternity, I then spend my golden days.
No one doubts my existence, I am honoured everywhere, my exploits are immortalized in poems and my image graces many a vase. I have never had it better. Our family falls on hard times in the Middle Ages. Competition comes from the Middle East. Everyone begins to rave about one God, who tolerates none of us in his vicinity. My mother and I suffer severe blows. We are the deification of the body and Christians abhor the body. My half brother Phobos, the god of fear, experience his heyday.
The muses are having the time of their lives during the Renaissance and with the help of Hephaestus, my mother's husband, they invent the printing press. Text and images glorifying my mother and me can now be mechanically reproduced. Our flame blazes across Europe. But our technical ingenuity are at the same time our downfall. The large numbers in which we are distributed make us the object of hostilities of a new class: the moral crusader and the censor. The body parts that serve for reproduction of your species are anatomically analysed. Our magical powers are apparently revealed. The past two centuries see Hephaestus and the muses seeking refuge in new technical trends: photography, film and the internet. During the sexual revolution, the censor has bury the hatchet. The result is the AIDS pandemic, for which only Pandora can have been responsible. Indeed, she who spread syphilis over Europe in the past. In the 20th century we witness further attempts by medical science and psychology to strip us from our lure. But neither of these sciences knows the answer to the mystery of eroticism, the mystery that keeps human kind alive and of which my mother and I are the treasurers.
Do you believe me now?
Eros is the oldest of gods, said Plato. He is the god of love, lust, blind passion and sexual reproduction. If an arrow from Eros's bow strikes a target, the victim falls immediately in love. Eros's parentage is significant: he is the son of Aphrodite, goddess of love, and Ares, god of war. He is thus born out of beauty and belligerence, out of love and hate. Out of two opposites that are united nowhere else than in the most intimate space of the human psyche: the sexual act, and its abstraction: eroticism.
The prehistoric caveman, who we imagine to be hardly in command of language, communicating with jolting sounds rather than words, experienced this act just as sacredly and profanely as 21st-century man. Just as elusive, ineffable, unnameable and indescribable as today's mortal. Yet he tries to give expression to what he feels, to convert the immediacy of his experience into a tangible and visible image. The male desire and the heaving and pumping of his pelvis, apparently at random, without anyone having ever taught him. The woman receiving his pelvic blows and undulating under his strength, still unaware that her pregnancies are the result of their frenzy. Their mutual obsession with the other, the sense of wonder that transcends the animalistic but never entirely succeeds in escaping it. This powerful cocktail of confusing emotions provides the first erotic images and the first erotic art, from its beginnings two-fold, with a male and female version.
The cave painting Shaft of the Dead Man in the French Lascaux depicts male eroticism, and the Austrian Venus of Willendorf figurine depicts the female variant. Both date back to thousands of years before Christ, long before the Greeks and Romans. The painting in Lascaux and the Willendorf statue are the icons of prehistoric erotica. The dead man symbolizes male aggressive sexuality, as dictated by the hormone testosterone, the hormone at the root of the two basic male instincts, so aptly described by American New Age philosopher Ken Wilber as "fuck it, or kill it." The two instincts which the cave dweller needed to reproduce their kind.
The dead man shows a recumbent male figure with an erect penis, drawn as a straight line, as a toddler would. Towering above him is a wounded bison whose intestines protrude from its body, next to the bison is a broken spear. Has the man conquered the bison before the fight became his fatal end? Is it the depiction of a dream vision? Impossible to answer that question, but the violent struggle of the man and his obvious sexual arousal are juxtaposed here in one image, and are both symbols of male eroticism. His excitement - which once put on fire, is sometimes extinguished after a few minutes - has far-reaching consequences for her. Her breasts become fuller, her mound swells, her belly gets bigger and her buttocks heavier, her nesting instinct requires protection. She is the pregnant woman, the Venus of Willendorf, the idealization of femininity, the incarnate womb, the embodied protector of the species. The mother goddess. The hunter of Lascaux and the mother of Willendorf are the archetypes of erotic art. They symbolize the irrationality of love, which despite of its apparent incompatibility of the aggressive male and protective female eroticism, results in its most brilliant moments in a miraculous and divine harmony between Venus and Eros, the protagonists in the history of erotica.
In contrast to our caveman, our Greco-Roman ancestor understands agriculture and literally reaps its fruits. The elite of this new civilization can read and write, paint and sculpt. One who masters the written word can compose a love letter, but just as well write erotic poetry, a novel or a book about sex education. And thus love becomes an art, practised by both gods and mortals.
Thanks to these skills, which produce cultural artefacts, our understanding of Greco-Roman love life is much more precise than that of prehistoric man. The Greeks are popularly known for the love of older men for young boys, called pederasty and for homosexuality, the love of men for men, in general. In fact, the term Greek love has became a byword for homosexuality, used well into the previous century. That kind of loving is also found in Roman society, but there the attitude towards homosexuals and pederasts is rather less positive, a Roman man had to be cautious not to be on the receiving end of this kind of love. From the Romans we especially remember their general debauchery, and the perversions of the decadent Roman emperors, handed down throughout history with famous examples the exploits of ruler Caligula and empress Messalina.
Supposedly, Greeks and Romans knew very little sexual shame. To prove this point the large number of utensils that are decorated in an erotic or sexual manner, like the grotesque penis-shaped oil lamps, are usually brought to the fore. Yet shame could not have been an unknown phenomenon in Greco-Roman times. It is noteworthy that the Greek and Roman terms for the genitalia, aidoion and pudendum, mean 'shame' in their literal translation. The corresponding goddesses Aidos and Pudicitia are deifications of modesty, chastity and shame. If the Greeks and Romans embellished their surroundings with -- to our eyes -- obscene objects, the truth is that these objects are not a sign of their general debauchery. The penis as ornamental element has a symbolic value. It stands for fertility and fertility is essential for our ancestor. Fertility for the crops he grows and fertility for his family, because that shall assure him of a carefree retirement. Sexually suggestive objects for everyday use are not about sex but about happiness. Just as a four-leaf clover in a locket around someone's neck or a horseshoe above the door. These do not betray one's interest in botany or equestrianism, they are simply signs trying to enforce luck. Thus for the Romans, the penis is simply is a sign of good fortune, a means to ward off the evil eye. Whoever is offended by this phallic object is sorely mistaken.
For the first time in history - and this fact cannot be stressed enough - man can have sex with a significantly reduced risk of pregnancy. He's mastered the mystery of reproduction and recognized the male role in it. The most popular method of contraception was coitus interruptus, first described in the Jewish Bible with the story of Onan, who preferred to shoot his seed onto the rocks instead of trusting it to the vagina of his wife, simply because he does not wish to beget children with her. The name Onan gives us later the term "onanism" which will both stand for "masturbation" and "premature withdrawal". Other kinds of of birth control methods can be found, similar to today's, including abortion. Love had become a game, a playful pastime that did not necessarily needed to have far reaching consequences. The first sexual revolution is a fact.
A study in ideal form
- ‘I'd rather die than use obscene and improper words; but when you, Priapus, as a god, appear with your testicles hanging out, it is appropriate for me to speak of cunts and cocks.’ Priapeia 28
- For some years we know that in antiquity it was the custom to paint sculptures in bright colours, which would undoubtedly have added to the lustre of this work.
The playfulness of the sexual act is accompanied by an aesthetization of the human body, a body that no longer serves merely for the biological role it was allotted. A body which can now be displayed for purely aesthetic reasons.
Eroticism became a study in ideal form. Examples are the pictures of the Parisienne of Knossos, the Venus Anadyomene, the Venus Kallipygos and the Barberini Faun. All four show near perfect people with ideal physiques and beautiful faces. The Parisienne is almost a real contemporary Parisian woman, including red painted lips, a slender neck and large eyes. Beauty is so important to the Greeks that when the famous courtesan Phryne during a trial where her life is at stake, suddenly stripped before the judges of the Areopagus, she was promptly acquitted. The judges could not believe that a woman with such perfect forms might be capable of wrongdoing. Her physical beauty cannot be anything else but a sign of God, the old judges agree.
Thanks to her beauty, Venus is privy to various favours. Venus the beautiful. In the arts it is enough to drop her name to make clear that she is a female nude. That nudity can take two forms: heavenly or earthly. Or to put it in the words of Plato: "Venus caelestis" and "Venus vulgaris." The first lives in the heavenly firmament and the second among the people. That dichotomy between the two Venuses will keep popping up in the depiction of the female nude. The heavenly Venus is respected, she's a beauty ideal, the unattainable goddess and she is thought of in flattering terms such as "artistic nude" and "erotic". The popular Venus is the object of pitying glances. She is the girl next door, available, rather than nude she is simply 'naked' and the word accompanying the pointing finger will more likely be 'pornographic'.
Venus came fully grown, nude and perfect in the world. She rises from the waves of the sea as the most beautiful of all women. Conceived and born when the genitals of the sky god castrated Uranus hit the silver foam of the sea after a long fall. Venus is white as the foam from which she was born, and amiable and lovely as a flower. When she comes ashore the grass shoots under her feet as she strides past. She was painted first in a lost work by Apelles, the greatest painter of antiquity. It is the beginning of a long tradition. The version of Pompeii is a copy of that work. On that mural she is shown lying in a scallop seashell and that is not by coincidence, the shell is a vulva symbol. Although the anonymous painter has has tried his hardest, I'm sure to depict her at her comeliest, he was only partly successful. Especially her legs are poorly rendered. They seem snapped like matchsticks. Her gaze is absent and directed towards the sky. The Venus Kallipygos is more sensual. It is a life-size marble statue of a woman who lifts up her dress and offers us a glimpse of her backside. It comes as no surprise that 'Venus Kallipygos' literally means Venus with the beautiful buttocks. " She glances over her shoulder: does she want to inspect her own buttocks? Or does she show her derrière, stealthily trying to tempt to us? In the second case we are reduced to voyeurs. Arousing such feelings is the prerogative of the Venus vulgaris.
What is the male sex symbol during this era? He is a faun, the marble Barberini Faun. This statue shows a very shapely young man leaning back, legs spread, so that his penis is clearly visible, his face squeezed into a contorted drunken ecstasy, as if he is offering himself to an imaginary partner. Has the drunkenness fuelled his desire? Will he still be capable to perform the deed of deeds? We do not know, but it may be that the sculptor asked himself that very question when he made the sculpture of this fleshly Adonis.
The caveman is alive and well
There are several archaeological finds from the Greco-Roman times, that even by today's standards could be called downright obscene. Objects such as Baubo  - an elderly woman shamelessly showing her vulva - seemingly display an unabashed erotic audacity. But it is a feminine sensuality meant to symbolize fertility, not eroticism. The chimes [image] in the shape of a flying penis does the same for male fertility, just as the the Satyr and the Goat  and the giant phallus of the fertility god Priapus on a mural in Pompeii [image].
The chimes consist of a hanging phallus upon which three other phalluses and two wings are mounted. From the shaft of the penis three bells dangle, which when stirred by the wind chime harmoniously. It served as a symbol of fertility and votive object, they were called 'fascina' (plural of 'fascinum'), where our word "fascination" is derived from.
I know of no bigger penis in a realist painting than the erection in the life-size mural of Priapus in Pompeii [image]. In a bizarre detail, this horny fertility deity holds a pair of scales in his right hand, with which he weighs his erection against a bag full of coins. His phallus clearly outweigh the coins. Money can buy anything but a big penis is even worth more, would seem the allegorical interpretation of this tableau. Our word "priapism," the medical term for a painful, persistent and non-sexual erection, reminds us of this well-hung deity.
The Satyr and the Goat is an anonymous sculpture of the god Pan, a satyr in Greek mythology, a faun in Roman mythology. He is the god of the forest, the patron saint of shepherds and their flocks and the god of animal instinct. He has the lower body and the horns of a goat - an animal that is still known for its sexual appetite - but a human torso, a long narrow face, a big nose and yellow eyes. He will later appear in Christian demonology, where the devil often sports horns and walks on hooves rather than feet. Pan has left traces in modern English. If he shows himself screaming in the woods, the nymphs run away and people panic. Fauns are -- in the polytheism of the Romans and the Greeks -- the horniest of gods, they known of no taboo, rape hordes of virgins and animals alike and generally lack any sense of shame. Next to sculpture, the majority of archaeological finds among the Greeks is pottery. An almost completely preserved plate upon which is depicted an orgy (Kylix with Erotic Scenes) is in the collections of the Louvre. Whether it is currently on display, I do not know. If you are visiting, just ask for it.
If the Priapus from Pompeii is the personification of the penis and virility, than Artemis of Ephesus  is the personification of the breast and the female ability to feed. In visualizations such as these, the mythological sexual characteristics are inflated to gigantic proportions in order to highlight their power and effectiveness. Quality loses out against size and quantity. Artemis of Ephesus is portrayed with three rows of breasts, although some modern scholars nowadays interpret them as deified testicles of a bull. The most famous version is a first century copy of a Roman original and is located in Izmir, Turkey.
Ovid and the loves of the Gods
In our monotheistic concept of God, God created man in his image and likeness, but in the polytheism of the Greeks and Romans the people created the gods in their likeness. Nothing human is alien to the gods and no one has described the gods better than Ovid (43 BC. - 17 AD). He made his début at the age of eighteen with his Amores, but had previously made a name for himself as a love poet.
He is wealthy and can devote himself entirely to poetry. His collection Amores are followed by the Ars Amatoria (The art of love) and his best-known work, The Metamorphoses. He can afford a luxurious and dissolute life in the cosmopolitan metropolis Rome and is a bona fide society figure. The poet marries three times, and is survided by his last wife.
Despite his success, and for reasons which remain unclear, he is exiled at the age of 51 by Emperor Augustus to the distant shores of the Black Sea. It is possible that the emperor considered the poet too light-hearted but others believe that a conspiracy theory was the reason for his exile. Although political subversion and sexual freedom often go hand in hand it is generally supposed that his exile was for political reasons rather than censorship. As an exile in a remote corner of the Roman world, languishing amidst what he called "the barbarians", the frivolous Ovid city man leads a desolate and lonely existence. Even his wife had remained in Rome. Without ever being rehabilitated, he dies in exile at the age of 60. His self-written epitaph reads:
- I that lie here, the bard of playful love,
- The poet Ovid, perished for my play.
- Oh passing lover, scorn not thou to pray
- That no ill chance my restful bones may move.
- Tristia tr. via Ovid and his influence Edward Kennard Rand
Fortunately, his oeuvre almost entirely survived. Two works are particularly relevant to our research. The Metamorphoses and the Ars amatoria. The Metamorphoses tells of the love adventures of the gods and the Ars amatoria is the first book of sex education. Neither uses explicit language, which in any case cannot be found in the work of Ovid, no direct references to mentula nor cunnus, the Latin terms for cock and cunt.
In the Metamorphoses, the gods are not depicted as exalted beings . Ovid describes them in a playful manner as ordinary mortals, with typical human foibles and amorous whims. The epic poem describes the creation and history of the world according to Greco-Roman mythology. Gods, demigods and mortals are constantly undergoing dramatic transformations (metamorphoses) and shifted into plants, flowers, trees, rocks, clouds, rivers and animals. Their bizarre behaviour is easily explained; many of them are indeed plagued by the arrows of Eros. Bewitched by love, they are not their ordinary selves.
Some of the more sexual stories are that in which the nymph Daphne is changed into a laurel tree to escape an impending rape by Apollo. Or the story of the hunter Actaeon who is turned into a deer after he had spied on the naked goddess Diana. As a deer he is torn to pieces by his own hounds. Serves him right.
Narcissus and Hermaphroditus
Narcissus and Hermaphroditus are well-known even today, they both live on in contemporary psychology and sexology. Hermaphroditus is a handsome deity worshipped by Salmacis, a nymph so in love with him that she first tries to rape him and when that fails desperately prays to the gods that they would be united forever. Her prayer is answered and they are fused in one body. If in one individual both male and female reproductive organs are found, the term hermaphroditism is used.
Narcissus is an equally a handsome young man who lives for the hunt. He has a made lots of hearts skip a beat with his exceptional beauty, but wants nothing of love and he rejects suitor haughtily and cruelly, a fate that would also befall the lovesick nymph Echo. One day his wanderings bring him to a sacred pond of crystal clear water. When he bends over, he sees his reflection in the water, but he thinks it is a beautiful water spirit that lives in the pond. He instantly falls in love with his own reflection and cannot bring himself to separate from this beautiful apparition which disappears whenever he tries to touch it. Thus he slowly withers away altogether. To him we owe the term narcissism, coined by Freud to denote a excessive self-love.
Zeus the proto-Don Juan
But the main character of the Metamorphoses, the Don Juan of the entire pantheon is Zeus / Jupiter himself, the king of the gods. He is married to his sister, the goddess Hera, the eldest daughter of Kronos. To her great sadness and anger Zeus can not resist other women. Hera was very jealous and tries in many ways to keep him from his amorous escapades. All too often in vain: we know of at least seventeen relationships with goddesses and twenty-six with mortal women. He fathered dozens of children with them.
His most famous conquests are those of Danae, Io, Leda, Callisto, Antiope, and Europe. Whenever he sets out to conquer a woman, he changes shape to increase his chances of success and to escape the watchful eye of his jealous wife. Depending on the woman he sets out to seduce, he has to be either sweet and gentle or tough and frightening, and accordingly changes his appearance. That this is efficient, is well-known to contemporary man.
With Danae he changes himself into a golden rain, and while she is caught in a tower, he lands comfortably between her legs through the bars of her prison. With Io he shifts into a cloud, with Leda to swan, with Callisto he passes for for the goddess Artemis, with Antiope he pretends to be a and with Europa he takes the shape of a white bull.
Zeus is a seducer, a conqueror, but you might just as well say that he abducts women, or kidnaps or rapes them. The multiplicity of meanings is caused by the Latin term raptio, which may mean any of the aforementioned. But that same ambiguity is also symptomatic of the nature of male-female love and the battle of the sexes described in the Metamorphoses. This theme of forced seduction is celebrated today in the 724 romance novels of Barbara Cartland, in which women chant "No, no, no", but inwardly cheer "Yes, yes, yes".
Zeus's last conquest is the one of Leda, the wife of a Spartan king. When he cannot convince her to give herself to him immediately, Zeus turns into a swan and overwhelms her. Ashamed of what has happened, Leda has intercourse with her husband the same evening, and after nine months she gives birth to four children, coming from one egg. Castor and Helen were the children of Zeus, Polydeukes and Clytemnestra of her husband. It is no coincidence that Ovid chose for a swan in this story, it's the only bird (along with ducks and geese) that has a penis. With a little imagination, the slender neck of a swan can even be taken for a penis symbol.
When gods lust after animals
Greco-Roman mythology includes a number of stories that speak of sexual love of man towards his different-footed counterpart. Sexual contact between humans and animals is an undisputed reality in present and past times. Rarely is it the object of beautiful art, except in the images of the hybrids that arise from such contact.
We have noted how Zeus turned himself into a swan in order to overwhelm Leda. There is also the story of Pasiphaë, the wife of King Minos of Crete. Her husband has insulted the god Poseidon, upon which the God punishes the couple by instilling in Pasiphaë a inordinate sexual desire for a beautiful white bull. Pasiphaë's lust is of such a magnitude that she just had to consume her love with the mighty beast, so strong is her lust. She asks the leading inventor Daedalus to build her a wooden cow, in which she hides and assumes the proper position in order to be mounted by the bull.
The transgressive nature of this story has prevented its depiction -- at least sufficiently explicit to be called erotic and to merit inclusion in this book -- in the arts for over centuries. A print that does not exactly leave little to the imagination but hints at the carnality of the scene, is by 17th-century publisher and artist Johann Ulrich Krauss. He insinuates the heart of the matter by showing Pasiphaë just before she takes her place in the wooden cow, in which back to back, belly to belly and groin to groin her wish will be fulfilled moments later. Only in Ovid's inexhaustible imagination could this communion lead to offspring some months later, when the famous Minotaur was born, a human figure with the head of a bull.
How to pick-up women?
Ovid takes ample pleasure in telling of the love affairs of the gods, but he also wants to give love advice to us plain mortals in his Ars Amatoria, an early sex manual. Ars amatoria (The art of love) is a poem in three books in which Ovid -- in his usual breezy style -- raises topics that people find so hard to put into words. He has Venus say, "... what you blush to tell is the most important part of the whole matter". Each volume ends with a bed scene. Ovid writes remarkable passages about simultaneous orgasm and his dislike of gay love. More than anything else the poems are a guide to the courtship of women and remarkably up-to-date - except perhaps in those passages on the use of love potions:
Remember that every woman can be conquered. Work on your character and develop your intellect. Take care of your hair. Be on good terms with her maid. Avoid harsh words. Choose beautiful but not too expensive clothes. Choose the right time. Be patient and be obliging. Be careful with make-up. Write her a letter full of flattery and promises. Win the sympathy of her staff. Groom yourself in private. Learn to be eloquent and persevere. Send small but precious gifts. Camouflage your imperfections. Stay as near to her as possible. Read her a love poem. Laugh and cry in a distinguished manner. Make the most of your appearance, but do not act effeminate. Let her take credit. Walk elegantly. Drink wine with moderation. Appeal to her vanity. Uncover an arm and or a bit of shoulder. Be friendly with her lover. Be her loving care. Learn to sing and make music. Make abundant oaths and promises. Do not go a away for a long time. Know thy literature. Praise and kiss her. Do not get caught in adultery. Practice your dance and play. Use gentle violence with her. Do not drink love potions. Do not participate in sports, but stroll in the city. Take the initiative, but be prepared to step back. Confess infidelity for a passionate reconciliation. Mingle. Make sure you look pale and thin. Know yourself. Beware of imposters. Beware of friends and relatives. Endure setbacks. Instil hope and fear by taking a short delay in answering a love letter. Adjust yourself to her. Do not be jealous rivals. Take care of your correspondence. Exercise discretion in love. Do not get angry. Gloss over her shortcomings. Do not be haughty. Enjoy a mature woman. Make eye contact and smile. Prolong love making and strive for a simultaneous orgasm. Look happy, not sad.
Fututa sum hic: I got laid here
Next to Ovid we find a whole series of writings that deal with "the beast with two backs" as the act of love is sometimes colourfully called. These writings range from obscene graffiti on the walls of Rome to the satirical poems of Juvenal, Martial, Catullus and Propertius, from the bedroom farces of Plautus and Terence to the picaresque novels Satyricon and The Golden Ass, from the Priapea (odes to the penis) and gossip to the whore dialogues of Lucian. In Greece the comedies of Aristophanes and Menander find favour with the public and there is the curious case of the Milesian tale.
- I'll fuck you up your ass and down your throat,
- you cock-sucker Aurelius and fudge-packed Furius!
- Just because my verses are tender doesn't mean
- that I've gone all soft. Sure, a poet should focus
- on writing poetry and not on sex; but does that
- mean they can't write about sex? If a poem is
- in good taste, well-written and sexy,
- it can tingle and stiffen even hairy old men,
- not just horny teenagers. You think I'm a wuss
- because I write about thousands of kisses?
- I'll fuck you up your ass and down your throat! --tr. Wikipedia
When man invented writing, he immediately used it for the loftiest as well as the basest purposes. The obscene graffiti, that can be found abundantly on the walls of Ancient Rome, falls in the latter category. If, as the early 20th century Austrian architect Adolf Loos argues, the degree of civilization of a country can be measured by the extent to which its toilets are smeared with obscene graffiti, Ancient Rome was not exactly the most civilized place on earth. Thus we read on the walls of Pompeii "fututa sum hic (I got laid here) and the walls of the gladiator academy carry inscriptions such as "Celadus makes the girls sigh." But that it does not always have to be of such a prosaic nature is proven by an inconsolable soul who leaves the following on a Roman wall:
- Now lovers come. For I am bound
- To crush Dame Venus' frame.
- With cudgel stout and right arm sound,
- A smacking blow I'll aim
- If she can break my tender heart.
- Why, Lovers, tell me pray,
- With cudgel cannot I make smart The goddess' head today ?
In praise of love
From the obscene graffiti on the walls of ancient Rome it is but a small step to the sometimes very cynical poems of Juvenal, Martial, Catullus and Propertius. Satirist Juvenal, who lived between approximately 60 and 135 AD is known as a misogynist. In his infamous Sixth Satire - also known as Against Women- he writes about the character flaws of the opposite sex: they are adulterous, nymphomaniac, pretentious, quarrelsome, rude, superstitious and know no restraint. Above all the sixth satire is a pamphlet against marriage. The poet advises men not to marry: "You might as well commit suicide or sleep with a boy." That same love-hate relationship to women is also evident in the amusing and often obscene epigrams of Martial (40 - 103? AD).
That the more lyrical Catullus (84-54 BC.), who thanks his Carmina Catulli is known as the Roman love poet, is sometimes challenged in his love encounters with women can be seen in the following lines of poetry, perhaps his most famous ones:
- I hate and love. Why so I cannot tell
- I feel it and endure the pains of hell
Although Catullus, just like Martial and Juvenal, sometimes deals with the bitter aftermath of a love relationship, his poems are more amorous:
- Let us live, my Lesbia, and love.
- As for all the rumors of those stern old men,
- Let us value them at a mere penny.
- Suns may set and yet rise again, but
- Us, with our brief light, can set but once.
- The night which falls is one never-ending sleep.
- Give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred.
- Then, another thousand, and a second hundred.
- Then, yet another thousand, and a hundred.
- Then, when we have counted up many thousands,
- Let us shake the abacus, so that no one may know the number,
- And become jealous when they see
- How many kisses we have shared.
--(Carmen 5 - WP translation)
But despite the occasional setbacks that the quest for love may engender, they all go for it (ervoor gaan), and Propertius (47-15 BC.) writes in his Elegies, "The humbler I behave in love, the more I have of her to expect." The 19th-century English poet Alfred Tennyson paraphrases the poet when he says: "Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."
The spectacle of love
For both the Greeks and the Romans, theatre is the main source of fiction, film has of course not yet been invented, and the first real novels remain to be written. It goes without saying that tragedy is not only diversion the ancients have a liking for, laughter was high on their wish-list. A large number of improper plays meets that demand.
The forerunner of Roman comedy writers was the Greek scribe Menander (342-291 BC), writer of comedies with evocative titles as The Grouch, Double Deceiver, The Hero, The Flatterer, Drugged Women, Drunkenness, The Man She Hated and The Possessed Girl, titles that would not look out of place on the cover of contemporary airport novels. Love and all its complications are about the only topic in these plays.
A century later, the Roman writer Plautus (250-184 BC) introduces the typical cardboard characters from classic comedy, stereotypical characters like the dirty old men and women of loose morals. In short, in this type of theatre, all women are whores and all men are stupid. Plautus transposes a lot of Greek comedies, including those of Menander, to a Roman setting, and does so in a scintillating Latin. The farces of Terence (c. 195-159 BC.) also hark back to indecent Greek comedies, but they are less frivolous and with greater psychological depth than in those of Plautus. He is best-known today for saying "homo sum, et nihil humanum a me alienum puto" (I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me).
Theatre in Greece originates as a feast in honor of the god Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), the god of wine and fertility, of ecstasy and the good life. The main companions of Dionysos satyrs and nymphs, the two archetypes of lust. A theatrical genre is even named after this lusty God, the satyr play. It was the custom that after three tragedies, one satyr play performed, consisting of mainly of jocular entertainment with a horny, elated, lazy and drunken character. One must imagine actors with huge strap-on dildos storming the stage like madmen, dispersing the seductive and screaming nymphs.
Proto-feminism and the first sex strike
The coarse humour I just described is amply surpassed by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes (446-386 BC) in his play Lysistrata, which has a witty, smart and significant sexual plot. Lysistrata concerns a company of Athenian ladies who use a sex strike to force their men to lay down their arms. Under the leadership of the militant Lysistrata - a name which means "she who disbands armies" - these women occupy the treasury of the Acropolis to financially drain the war. They do not yield until peace finally exists among the Greek city-states.
"Let us wait at home with our faces made up and then advance to greet our husbands with nothing on but our little tunics. . . then, when they are panting with desire, if we slip away instead of yielding, they'll soon conclude an armistice, I can tell you ... So no more legs in the air."
But, retorts a woman "if our husbands drag us by main force into the bedchamber?" Then you should "hold on to the door posts" answers Lysistrata. And when another woman asks "and if they beat us?" In that case, advises Lysistrata "yield to their wishes, but with a bad grace; there is no pleasure for them, when they do it by force." "Because," Lysistrata concludes "there's no satisfaction for a man, unless the woman shares it." Which is a surprisingly modern advice, remembering that the play was written about 2,500 years ago.1
Ode to the penis
But sex strike or not, the penis would not be held down so easily. He is only too eagerly praised in 95 of most obscene epigrams that ever saw the light of day, the so-called Priapeia. The author and the origin of these poems are quite unclear, but we do know that they are fully dedicated to the stiff fertility god Priapus, and his principal tool the phallus. This collection was not translated until the second half of the 19th century.
- Though I be wooden Priapus (as thou see'st),
- With wooden sickle and a prickle of wood,
- Yet will I seize thee, girl! and hold thee seized
- And This, however gross, withouten fraud
- Stiffer than lyre-string or than twisted rope
- I'll thrust and bury to thy seventh rib.
Gossip and tall tales
There's lots of gossip in the Roman Empire. There are many things to gossip about: there are the exploits of the mad emperors Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus and Elagabalus, whose adultery, debauchery, malignancies and perversities herald the end of the empire. But it are primarily the women Cleopatra and Messalina who make tongues wag. Cleopatra supposedly fucked her way to the top via the beds of many an influential man.
And of Messalina it is said that she is so horny and insatiable that she rents a room in a brothel where under the pseudonym Lycisca she gives herself to complete strangers. Juvenal describes in his sixth satire how Messalina challenges the well-know Roman prostitute Scylla to engage in a veritable sex competition. Whoever pleasures the highest number of men within a certain time, is the winner. After 24 hours Scylla gives up, making Messalina the undisputed winner with a score of 25 men. Then she is "tired but not satiated, still burning with the rigid tensions of her vulva". An average of one man per hour is not a bad score. The current record -- established in 2004 and still standing at the time of writing this book -- stands at 919 men in one day. Pliny the Elder (ca. 23-79 AD) may have had the nymphomaniac Messalina in mind when he raises the issue of the collapse of 'modern morality' in his Naturalis Historia, complaining that "the human race has invented every possible form of perverted sexual pleasure and crimes against nature, while women have invented abortion. How much more guilty are we in this respect than animals?" Based on this statement Pliny can justifiably be called a moral crusader. We will encounter his type more frequently in the following pages of this book.
The first whore dialogue
In Antiquity the tradition of the whore dialogue is born and in time it will become a genuine literary genre. The whore dialogue is a mixture of sex education, medical folklore and erotic literature, and usually takes the form of an experienced older woman who reveals the mysteries of physical love to a younger girl. Since it is In Antiquity, there are no women writing in the field of eroticism. There are no women writers, except for the Greek 7th century BC poet Sappho. So it are male authors who write the whore dialogues. They avail themselves of female personae, from temple harlots to stale street walkers to nubile ingénues who wound up as orphans in a brothel to successful Madames. Why was the whore so popular and would her voice sound with such clarity and frequency throughout the history of erotic literature? The answer is simple. Like no other she understands the male psyche, having slept with so many of their kind. "All men began as flecks of tissue inside a woman's womb. Every boy must stagger out of the shadow of a mother goddess, whom he never fully escapes....Women have it. Men want it. What is it? The secret of life..." (footnote: the metaphor we use here is by American professor and author Camille Paglia from 1984.)
Lucian of Samosata (c. 120-180 AD.), a Greek-speaking author from ancient Rome, writes the oldest preserved whore dialogue, the so-called Dialogue of the Courtesans in the second century AD. Its most famous dialogue is that between the young Corinna and her mother Crobyle:
- "Well, Corinna, you see now that it wasn't so terrible to lose your virginity. You have spent your first night with a man. You have earned your first gift, no less than a hundred drachmas. With that I'll buy you a necklace."
What follows is lots of advice, about how she should dress from now on, how she ought to behave and that she should not attract young, but also older men. They may not be as attractive and virile, but they pay better. The view of women is obviously a very cynical one, but that is not to uncommon to the Greeks. There is an obvious misogynistic tradition in Greek literature. Hipponax writes in the sixth century BC on woman the following lines: "Two happy days a woman brings a man: the first, when he marries her; the second, when he bears her to the grave." The Romans are generally much more friendly towards the opposite sex.
The two "novels" of the Romans
The novel as we know it today has not yet emerged in Antiquity. Precursors exist in the form of frame tales and they can all be safely called licentious. We qualify them for convenience as "novels" because they are written in prose and consist of a certain length. The text by Petronius, nowadays known as Satyricon (1st century AD.), is only partially preserved. The only fully preserved novel, The Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius (c. 123-175 AD) is thematically very similar to the picaresque novel that will rise to the fore in the 16th and 17th centuries. Racy passages with sexual overtones are found in abundance. The Golden Ass (the work is confusingly called Metamorphoses officially) is an imaginative and humorous story about the adventures of one Lucius who experiments with magic and accidentally turns into a donkey, without however losing his human faculties of mind. In this unwanted disguise he hears and sees a lot of unusual things. Within this frame story, we get several short stories, the longest and the most famous is that of Cupid and Psyche. Before Lucius turns into an ass, he and a friend experience some adventures as human beings. In one of the first stories, his travelling companion is killed by witches. The witches ponder if they will let Lucius live, since he is a dangerous witness. They spare his life, but take revenge with a cruel and humiliating punishment: "and then they strid over mee, and clapped their buttocks upon my face, and all bepissed mee until I was wringing wet" leaving him "on the ground like one without soule, naked and cold, and wringing wet with pisse."1 Poor soul.
Fortunately, our hero fares much better later in the book, when he has a very pleasant and intimate encounter with a maid. This provides one of the earliest passages in world literature in which the game of love is described realistically and explicitly.
Passage awaiting translation:
- De meid ‘rukte zich alle kleren van het lijf ... en zei: “neem me, neuk wild”. ... Ze klom op het bed en liet zich beetje bij beetje op me neerzakken, haar ruggengraat golfde van de snelle stoten en geile bewegingen en met haar wellustige geschommel deed ze me heerlijk klaarkomen.’
The Satyricon is also a frame story, in which the protagonist Encolpius, along with his brother in arms Ascyltus and their lust slave Giton, get caught up in a series of adventures. Just as Odysseus roams the seas to escape the wrath of Poseidon, this trio is propelled by the vagaries of the fertility god Priapus. Among the numerous fragments of this "novel" that have been preserved, the meal of Trimalchio (Cena Trimalchionis in Latin) takes centre stage, due to the accurate characterization of the wealthy parvenu Trimalchio and his friends. Another fragment, the widow of Ephesus illustrates the prosaic and transitory nature of human love.
A very pious and recently widowed woman decides to starve herself to death while mourning at the grave of her husband. Not far from where she is slowly killing herself, a rather handsome soldier is guarding the crucified corpses of some robbers. The widow and the soldier start to chat and despite her grief, she increasingly starts to like the young man. After a while she succumbs to his charms but their happiness is suddenly disrupted. While making love on the grave of her deceased husband, one of the crucified men is stolen. The guard faces a severe punishment, but the widow has a cunning plan. She wisely proposes to exchange the body of her husband to take the place of the crucified corpse. Petronius borrowed the story of the Greeks, where the genre was known as the 'Milesian tale.'
2 Footnote: A frame story is a narrative technique where one story is the frame for a series of embedded stories. For example, different characters tell each other stories that happened in the past, as flashbacks. The best-known of these frame stories are 1001 Nights, Boccaccio’s Decamerone and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
The scent of musk and the sultry East
No one today will deny that the art of storytelling comes from the Orient, the Far and the Near East. The primeval story of the Orient is undoubtedly the tale, or should I say tales, of The Thousand and One Nights, but that The Nights, as the work is also briefly known, are essentially a collection of highly erotic stories, is rarely appreciated. Admittedly, its most popular stories, Aladdin and the magic lamp, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves are more adventurous than sexual. For hundreds of years however, the erotic reputation of The Nights was so widespread that the stories were associated with sultry nights, dark princes, eunuchs, harems and white slaves, rather than with flying carpets, magic lamps and distant voyages.
In the West, there is an idea that the art of love in the East is more sophisticated than ours. Whether this is true, cannot be said with certainty. After all, what is sophisticated and how can we look into the bedrooms of countless couples who make love every night in the East? Do they make love like we do or is their business conducted in a more tantric way? Hard to ascertain, difficult to refute. We owe the image of the supposed oriental sexual sophistication to the Kama Sutra, a work that was written in the third century in India in Sanskrit and which shows similarities with the aforementioned Ars amatoria of Ovid, but is much more common and better-known. The Kama Sutra discusses in great detail every conceivable subject in the field of eroticism and teaches a husband to please his wife and so win her love.
The forty chapters of the Kama Sutra are collected in seven volumes. They instruct on love in general and on its place in life, the division into types of women, sexual union, on various sexual position and techniques, on courtship and marriage, on the wife and the wives of others, on prostitutes and finally on how to make yourself attractive. For 21st-century man, the Kama Sutra rings synonymous with complex sexual positions. The book will only be legally available in the sixties of the previous century.
When fiction is a matter of life and death
The erotic masterpiece from the East are the tales of One Thousand and One Nights. Nowhere in antiquity does one find lyrical passages on bulging breasts and swelling pudenda such as these :
- "She hath breasts like two globes of ivory, like golden pomegranates ― beautifully upright, arched and rounded, firm as stone to the touch ― with nipples erect and outward jutting."
- "She hath thighs as unto pillars of alabaster, and between them there vaunts a secret place, a sachet of musk, that swells, that throbs, that is moist and avid."
Eroticism is the raison d'être of the The Nights, up to the point of life and death. The Nights is a frame story. The premise of the frame story is sexually in itself and concerns a love affair between King Shahryar and the young virgin Scheherazade, a love story with a rather unusual beginning. One day the king discovers that his wife is unfaithful. He has her executed, declares all women adulterous and in an act of revenge decides to 'marry' a virgin every night and coldly execute her the next morning. His Grand Vizier is ordered to provide him with a constant supply of maidens, but after a while the supply is depleted. Scheherazade, the virgin daughter of the Vizier, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly accepts the offer. In order to escape execution Scheherazade tells the king a story on their 'wedding night', after he has had his 'carnal will' with her. But clever Scheherazade stops abruptly, just before the denouement. She promises him to tell the end of the story the following night. The curious king has no alternative but postpone her execution and save her life for the time being. The following night Scheherazade tells him the end of the story, and again tells him the beginnings of the next story, and again stops with a cliffhanger. The king grants her one more night. Scheherazade keeps this routine up for thousand and one nights, ending each night with a prelude of a new story. Meanwhile, she bears him three sons. When the stories finally come to an end, the king has sincerely come to love Scheherazade, he pardons her and she becomes his wife.
There is no better story to illustrate the vital importance -- and I mean this literally -- of fiction and the art of storytelling. If Scheherazade's storytelling skills would not have been up to par, she would have lost her life after the first night. But the opposite happens, night after night the king is fascinated by her every word. Her sweet voice and exciting stories transform the embittered and vengeful king to a loving husband.
The erotic tales of Thousand and One Nights conquered the entire Mediterranean, the cradle of Western civilization. They later appear in Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The archetype of the older, dim-witted and often impotent husband and his young, attractive, smart and manipulative wife, which are a staple in medieval literature, surfaces here for the first time. Exemplary is the story of the Simpleton Husband, a story of exactly one such woman and her schlemiel of a husband who is openly unfaithful to him and makes the poor fellow believe he is seeing ghosts:
"There once was a silly and ignorant man very rich, and whose wife was in love with a handsome young man. Every time the husband was absent, the lover came to her and so it was quite some time.
[Insert story of Simpleton Husband here]
In another striking passage of the nights is the moment when Shah Zaman, Sultan of Samarkand and brother of King Shahryar inadvertently witnesses the aforementioned infidelity of his sister-in-law and her attendants, described in this orgy scene:
- "Shah Zaman drew back from the window, but he kept the bevy in sight espying them from a place whence he could not be espied. His brother's wife and twenty slave-girls walked under the very lattice and advanced a little way into the garden till they came to a jetting fountain amiddlemost a great basin of water; then they stripped off their clothes and behold, ten of them were women, concubines of the King, and the other ten were white slaves. Then they all paired off, each with each: but the Queen, who was left alone, presently cried out in a loud voice, "Here to me, O my lord Saeed!" and then sprang with a drop-leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms round her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her. On like wise did the other slaves with the girls till all had satisfied their passions, and they ceased not from kissing and clipping, coupling and carousing till day began to wane; when the Mamelukes rose from the damsels' bosoms and the blackamoor slave dismounted from the Queen's breast."
Especially amusing is a footnote to this passage, written by 19th century English orientalist and translator of the Thousand and One Nights Richard Francis Burton,
- "Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts. I measured one man in Somali-land who, when quiescent, numbered nearly six inches. This is a characteristic of the negro race and of African animals; e.g. the horse; whereas the pure Arab, man and beast, is below the average of Europe; one of the best proofs by the by, that the Egyptian is not an Asiatic, but a negro partially white-washed. Moreover, these imposing parts do not increase proportionally during erection; consequently, the "deed of kind" takes a much longer time and adds greatly to the woman's enjoyment. In my time no honest Hindi Moslem would take his women-folk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there and thereby offered to them. Upon the subject of Imsák = retention of semen and "prolongation of pleasure," I shall find it necessary to say more.
The male member, the "Long John", I mean the penis, occupies a prominent place in The Nights. "Ali with the Large Member" is a story about a boy who is constantly humiliated by his mistress. When one day his friend calls out to him with the words 'Ali with the large member', within earshot of his mistress, she suddenly looks at her servant in a different light. But even at the time of The Nights people realized that the benefits of a large penis are but relative. "If the length of the penis were a sign of honor, then the mule would belong to the (honorable tribe of) Quraysh," remarked the ninth-century Afro-Arab philosopher al-Jahiz.
Some of the stories in A Thousand and One Nights are older than the Christian era, others are more recent, as far as one can state this with any certainty. Their influence is felt in the popular Medieval chivalric romance Floris and Blancheflour, a story featuring sultans and white slaves in which bizarre plot twists, the idea of liebestod and virginity tests directly refer to the stories from The Nights, although they might as well have been lifted from a contemporary South American telenovela of questionable merit.
Blancheflour ("white flower"), a white and deeply devout Christian girl, is kidnapped while on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. She is raised as a lady-in-waiting to a Muslim king in Spain. There she develops a close friendship with the son of the king, Floris ("belonging to the flower"). When the king and queen discover that this friendship has turned into love, they decide to intervene, for fear that their beloved son Floris would marry this "pagan' girl. They devise a ruse to thwart the forbidden love between the Muslim Floris and the Christian Blancheflour. He is sent by his parents to study abroad. While he is away, Blancheflour is sold to white slave traders. A fake grave must convince Floris of Blancheflour's death.
When Floris returns and finds out that his beloved Blancheflour has died, he wants to commit suicide, so great is his grief. Then his parents decide to tell him the truth and the boy goes in search of his beloved. During his search he discovers that Blancheflour, along with 140 other women, is held in the "tower of maidens" of an emir in faraway Babylon.
Each year the Emir chooses one of the women to be his new wife and he has his previous wife killed. Floris learns that his Blancheflour has been chosen to be the future wife of the emir. The 'tower of maidens' where Blancheflour is kept is heavily guarded, but the inn-keeper where Floris staying, tells him about the weak spot of the tower guard: he is obsessed with chess and money. Floris challenges the tower guard to a few games of chess, all of which he purposely loses, so he owes the man a lot of money. But Floris wins the last game. In return the tower guarded promises Floris eternal fidelity of which Floris makes crafty use immediately. The guard smuggles Floris inside the tower in a basket of flowers.
The two lovers are once again united, but when the Emir catches them in bed together, he wants to pierce them with his sword. During the trial that follows the emir and his advisers are so impressed at the willingness of the young lovers to die for one another that they persuade the emir to spare their lives. They marry and on their wedding Floris learns that his parents are deceased. The lovers return to Spain together, where Floris succeeds his father as king, and he and his subjects are baptised to become devout Christian people. Blancheflour gives him a daughter with a deformed foot. Bertha with the Big Foot will later be the mother of the legendary Charlemagne.
The Middle Ages
The Middle Ages: Sex is dirty, but the flesh is weak
We are in the Middle Ages, an era somewhat unfairly known as dark times. Significant technological progress has been made, but art and literature remain reserved for the elite. The biggest influence on our sexual mores comes from Christianity. From the 4th century, the Judeo-Christian faith becomes official state religion of the Romans and is steadily gaining in popularity.
The Judeo-Christian world-view introduces three new concepts in sexuality. First there is the idea that marriage is exclusive and indivisible, in which men lose the right to arbitrarily divorce from their spouses.
Secondly there is the notion of original sin, a direct consequence of the Fall. In the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are the first humans in the paradisical Garden of Eden, but God has forbidden them to eat from the apples from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. At the suggestion of a snake - a symbol of Satan - they eat from this forbidden fruit. As a result, they gain knowledge of good and evil, and they are expelled from Paradise. Since Eve is the first to fall for the seductive words of the serpent, women get the blame for the fact that all at once, all mankind becomes mortal and possessed of a sinful nature. Another consequence is the fact that both occupants of paradise suddenly are ashamed of their nakedness and try to cover their genitals with a fig leaf.
Thirdly, the notion of virginity as a moral ideal arises, allowing sexuality within marriage as a concession to the inherent weakness of the carnal man which is - unfortunately - necessary for reproduction. These three new developments have their merits and advantages. The protracted virginity and the indissolubility of marriage itself provide for a stable society, in which children know where they come from and generations of families can now work long-term projects.
In summary, Mary gives birth to Jesus as a virgin, flesh is weak and should be chastened, and celibacy is the highest ideal. The demonization of sexuality by Christianity can also be considered its specific achievement. It gives sexuality its aura of forbidden fruit, and regular sex becomes exquisite eroticism. Predictably, Christianity failed to stamp out all relics of the pagan polytheism. Rest assured, there is sexuality in the arts of the Middle Ages, although one has to scrape the skin of official historiography.
The medieval arts are totally dedicated to the new Christian morality, painters work on behalf of the Church and writing is equivalent to the 'Scriptures'. And these writings are carefully passed on to next generations by the patience and skill of literate copyists of the clergy, monks who copy manuscripts - literally, "hand written" - in desolate monasteries. Copying a book can take years. To make multiple copies at a time, one reads the original to a room of copyists who scratch letters with feathers dipped in ink. The world of a copyist is beautifully described in the novel The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco in 1980.
Boccaccio and Chaucer
Although they do not belong to the clergy, both the Tuscan Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) and the Londoner Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400) are part of the medieval Christian manuscript culture. Born to merchant families, they are educated and become bureaucrats, but their passion is writing and poetry. Boccaccio completes the Decameron in 1353 and Chaucer works tirelessly for the last years of his life on The Canterbury Tales, two as frame stories conceived collections of stories which are considered the crème de la crème of Western literature.
Both books hark back to Ovid's Loves of the Gods, but also to a medieval culture of debauched tales: farces and comedies, sotternies, fabliaux and boerdes (the daring tales of itinerant minstrels), dirty jokes and contes en vers, an amalgam of oral culture which is being put to paper for the first time. In fact, the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales are on the same footing as the Arabic Thousand and One Nights. We find the theme of the Simpleton Husband from the Thousand and One Nights by Boccaccio in the story of Lydia and Pyrrhus and in Chaucer's in The Merchant's Tale. In folkloristic morphology, the science which concerns itself amongst other things with the thematic subdivision of folk tales, the story is catalogued as "AT 1423" or "The Enchanted Pear Tree".
Very remarkable is that Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales momentarily interrupts the misogynistic literary tradition which has dominated since ancient times, with a strong woman-friendly tale in which a man finds out "what a woman really wants," and becomes all the better for it. Furthermore, we note that the eroticism in these two story collections manifests itself as a persistent undertone, as a slight itching on the skin after frolicking for too long in the corn in summer, an undertone that never quite reaches the surface, as was the case in Greco-Roman times.
The Decameron is a frame story of the 14th-century Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. The title literally means "Book of ten days. The compilation contains hundreds of stories that ten guests at a country estate outside Florence tell each other during the Black Death of 1348. The guests are seven young women and three young men. The frame story is packed with symbolic and allegorical references. The seven young women represent the four cardinal virtues - prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude - and the three religious virtues - faith, hope and love. The men represent the Greek tripartite division of the human soul: reason, anger and greed. Every day one of the ten people is the leader of the company and thus determines the subject of the stories of the day. The themes range from "stories of adversity that still have a happy ending" to "stories of how women manage to cheat their husbands'. Each day begins with a brief introduction to the topic and ends with a conclusion. The themes are mostly derived from older Italian, French and Latin sources.
In the course of history the work meets with unavoidable resistance from moralists. Thus in 1497 the preacher Girolamo Savonarola condemns it to be burnt because of its supposed immorality. The Church in general is altogether unhappy with the book, not only because of its sexual explicitness, but especially due to the way the clergy are portrayed. This gives rise to edited and expurgated versions. The Decameron faced this kind of opposition until the 20th century, which significantly contributed to the popularity of the collection.
A story that only rarely is included in the expurgated version of the Decameron is the remarkably bold Alibech and Rustico [image]. Alibech is an aspiring female hermit who is apprenticed to Rustico, an older experienced ascetic. She knows nothing of the ways of life, and he is benefiting from her naive ignorance to put his 'resurrection of the flesh' -- his devil who painfully teases him -- in her 'hell-hole'. A story that deserves some elaboration.
Almost immediately after Alibech becomes a disciple of Rustico, he gives her precise instructions. "Do like me," he says. He undresses, she follows his example and soon they are standing face to face, eye to eye, stark naked. She asks, "Rustico, what is that I see on thee which thrusteth forth thus and which I have not?" "This is the devil thereof I bespoke thee" he replies. "and see now, he giveth me such sore annoy that I can scarce put up with it" "God be praised," said the girl, "I fare better than thou, in that I have none of yonder devil." "True" confirms Rustico. "But thou hast other what that I have not, and thou hast it instead of this." "What is that?" asks Alibech; and he, "Thou hast hell, and I tell thee methinketh God hath sent thee hither for my souls health, for that, whenas this devil doth me this annoy, and it please thee have so much compassion on me as to suffer me put him back into hell, thou wilt give me the utmost solacement and wilt do God a very great pleasure and service." The young girl replies in good faith: "Since I've hell, put your devil in it." He puts her on his little bed so he can easily put his devil in the damnation of her hell. Since it is the first time that she is putting a devil in hell, it hurts a little at first, but soon the young girl develops a taste for it and she has to open the gates to her hellhole six times before the devil's head is subdued.
No lack of eroticism in the late medieval Decameron, it would appear. The foundation of this kind of literature is of course the cliché, the characters are one-dimensional and the psychology is that of a child. Alibech is the perfect example of the ingénue stock character, an unspoiled and naive girl. This infantile psychology and the childish magical thinking is prevalent in the totality of Medieval literature. Psychological realism in Western literature is at that time entirely in its infancy. But the depiction of every imaginable human passion, flaw and folly is new and are a harbinger to the Renaissance. The Decameron is sometimes called the human comedy, contrasted with La divina commedia, the divine comedy of Dante Alighieri.
That some passages are difficult to digest for the censor, can be inferred from the fact that Charles Balguy, the 18th-century translator who was one of the first to venture a translation of this story, left the sexual awakening of Alibech untranslated. He excuses himself with these words: "The translators regret that the disuse into which magic has fallen, makes it impossible to render the technicalities of that mysterious art into tolerable English; they have therefore found it necessary to insert several passages in the original Italian."
We find in the Decameron the same misogynistic tone that was so prominent among the Greeks. Unlike today, woman in the Middle Ages was perceived more licentious than man. Today, men are said to chase their dicks, but in medieval times, woman was the weaker sex, weak not because of a lack of bodily strength, but because of their inability to resist worldly pleasures. Thus we read - again in the Decameron - that "whereas a single cock is quite sufficient for ten hens, ten men are hard put to satisfy ten women." And flipping a few pages further in the book, we hear Calandrino - one of the narrators - say about his wife, "this woman's going to be the death of me... with her insatiable lust..."
The Decameron is full these kind of sarcastic remarks about women. Moreover, there is an epilogue in which women are explicitly warned not to read the stories that might displease them. And yet paradoxically, the Decameron is primarily directed towards women, more than a few passages begin with the salutation: "most notable damsels." Nearly 700 years ago, Boccaccio had already understood that the the pastime of reading fiction is largely the province of women.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories chronicled in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer. They are again part of a frame story that deals with a group of travelling pilgrims. Each day one pilgrim, in order to pass the time and for education and entertainment, tells four stories. The topics vary widely and concern matters such as love, betrayal, greed and adultery. The group of storytellers, described in minute detail, consists of people from all walks of life: a mother superior, a monk and a pardoner travelling side by side with a sailor, a miller, a carpenter, a bailiff, a squire, a forester and a knight.
Chaucer 'lends' stories from Ovid's Metamorphoses, but the tales feature obvious parallels - more than with any other work - with Boccaccio's Decameron. Like the narrators in the Decameron, the journey which Chaucer describes so admirably, is an attempt to escape the Black Death. Like the Decameron, The Canterbury Tales end with an apology to the female readers. In addition, one quarter of the stories in The Canterbury Tales has an analogous story in the Decameron published forty years earlier. In those days, the notion of copyright clearly did not exist yet. Stories belonged to everyone and made their way via the Silk Road to practically anywhere in the world.
The tale of the miller: Kiss my ass
A drunken miller tells a story of adultery, the tale of the young apprentice miller Nicholas, who wants to spend the night in the bed of the adulterous young wife of his old boss John Alison. To achieve their plan, the two succeed in getting John to leave his home. They make him believe that a flood is coming. The old man decides to spend the night in a tub hanging from the roof of his mill. Now the two can consume their passion undisturbed. Absolon, a man from the village who is also after Alison, has heard that John is not around. He kneels by the window of Alison and asks for a kiss. In the dark, Alison sticks her behind out of the window and lets Absolon kiss it. Angry because of this humiliation, he returns with a hot iron from a forge and ask again for a kiss. This time Nicholas sticks his buttocks out of the window and Absolon burns the hot iron on his cheeks. Young Nicholas cries loudly for water, which wakes John, who, thinking that a flood has come, cuts the ropes of this tub and falls to the ground. The village runs out and finds John hurt and bruised on the ground. He explains what just happened to him and becomes the laughing stock of the village. This is yet another story of a horny old man with a cunning wife.
The story of the wife of Bath: do you want me pretty and unfaithful or ugly and faithful?
In the story of the unnamed wife of Bath, Chaucer shows himself at his most woman-friendly and points us men in the right direction on how we should treat women, although the male audience is sniggering in the background while doing so. Following the sound advice of the female narrator, men can best be accommodating and give to women "what they want most." The narrator knows the male species through and through. She's been married five times, which was very unusual at that time. On this trip she is actually looking for her sixth husband, who probably will be the travelling clerk.
The story begins with a knight who rapes a woman. As punishment he is forced to travel and is given one year an a day to learn "what women really want". The answer to this question is difficult to get by and on the very last day of his quest he asks a witch for help. She gives him the answer but -- quid pro quo -- he has to give something in return. Upon which the ugly witch tells the knight that what women really want is to be the masters of their men. In return for this precious information the witch demands that he marry her, our knight agrees half-heartedly. Once married, she gives him a choice: do you want me pretty and unfaithful, or ugly and faithful? The knight, having learned his lesson, lets her choose, and she, happy with the power she wields over her husband, decides to be both pretty and faithful. And they lived happily ever after.
The story of the clerk
The clerk, who is fancied by the wife of Bath, tells us a story that is remarkable for its devastating mental cruelty towards women. His story is about Walter, the Marquis of Saluzzo, a bachelor who is invited by his subjects to marry in order to secure an heir. He decides to marry a poor peasant girl by the name of Griselda, accustomed to a life of pain and hard labour. After Griselda has given him a daughter, Walter decides to test her fidelity. He orders an officer to take away her baby, the child is supposedly murdered, but in reality secretly hidden elsewhere. Griselda does not offer resistance and goes through this ordeal with opposition. When a few years later she bears her husband a son, Walter repeat his cruel ritual. After many years, which Griselda spends in loneliness without her children, Walter devises the ultimate test. He forges a papal bull that annuls their marriage and allows him to leave his wife. He lets Griselda know that he will remarry and demands of her that she prepares the festivities of his marriage with his new bride. Again she concedes. Secretly, he brings back her children and introduces their own daughter as his new bride. Only then, after many gruesome years of horrible ordeals, he confesses the masquerade to Griselda, and again they live happily ever after.
We have rarely encountered so much misogyny in one text. Taking away a woman's children, supposedly killing them, divorcing her, asking her to prepare for the new marriage: women have killed their husbands for far less and been acquitted. This fragment is typical of the misogyny in medieval literature, which connoisseurs have dubbed "medieval anti-feminism" and against which the French writer Christine de Pizan will so so violently react when she wrote The Book of the City of Ladies (Le Livre de la Cité des Dames, 1405) a couple of years after Chaucer's text was disseminated.
Bawdy, farcical and ribald
We may assume that Boccaccio and Chaucer were avid readers and eager listeners, constantly on the look-out for stories to fill their collections. They obviously have an almost unstoppable source, since medieval oral culture is very rich in what are now generally known as fabliaux, a genre in which all that is bawdy, farcical and ribald is featured. This literary production is also called the 'joyful wisdom' or 'gay science' by the minstrels, troubadours and jugglers who considered it their philosophy. They roamed medieval Europe in the name of courtly love, but also tried to seduce the wife of a knight, with a bawdy jest.
All these bawdy and ribald farces have been largely ignored by history, as often happens when historians disapprove of something. History books feature what we like to remember, not what we want to forget. If it is the victor who writes history, he does not use a frank tongue. The chronicler of service is apparently always more prudish than his corpus. The scabrousness of medieval literature is all too often and too eagerly covered up with the cloak of love, courtly love. But rest assured: courtly love is not always courtly and under the tenuous fabric that covers it, we find lust and debauchery. Was medieval love courtly and refined or obscene and course? Both. As Johan Huizinga, author of the authoritative The Autumn of the Middle Ages (1919) puts it:
- "Reality at all times has been worse and more brutal than the refined aestheticism of courtesy would have it be, but also more chaste than it is represented to be by the vulgar genre which is wrongly regarded as realism." tr. Frederik Jan Hopman (1877-1932)
'Realism,' Huizinga calls it, but 'coarse eroticism' is not lacking in these stories. Realistic, coarse erotic stories about long penises, talking cunts, rings as chastity belts, children of snow and a wicked seducer who lets a small wheel do the work for him.
The caveman (still) isn't dead
In the 13th-and 14th-centuries, travelling troubadours roam France and tell fabliaux, short, usually bold and humorous stories. Fabliaux are close to the dirty joke on one side and to primitive wisdom literature on the other. Favourite subjects are cheated husbands, greedy clergymen and stupid peasants. The topics are tailored to the audience and tales about stupid peasants are told to the clergy and stories about greedy clergymen are told to the peasants. Humour is a main ingredient in all fabliaux. To this day, humour is used to render thorny and unspeakable subjects -- such as sex -- palatable, it is, as it were, the sauce that makes something non-digestible a gourmet meal for the mouths of a broad audience. But humour in these stories is also used as mockery, a way to make fun of people ("te kakken zetten"), even to make them look bad. These two components, the irreverent mockery and social lubricant, are the raison d'être of the fabliaux. They are also the literary primordial soup of the Middle Ages, dished, spiced and seasoned by Boccaccio and Chaucer, whose works, although often considered part of the Renaissance, are thoroughly medieval.
The Ring that Controlled Erections
One could fill an entire book with stories and images of big and stiff penises. Every man desires such a weapon, many women want to feel it. The clergyman with greedy fingers in the story "The Ring that Controlled Erections" just can't get rid of it. In the very first lines of this short narrative poem we are introduced to the narrator and the risqué subject:
- Haiseau has yet another thing
- to tell. A man once owned a ring
- which, when worn, by a magic spell
- at once would make his manhood swell.
The owner of an enchanted ring washes his hands in a river and forgets his precious gem. When a bishop finds this ring and slides it on his finger, his manhood begins to swell. He leaves on horseback, but his penis continues to swell until it drags along the ground. In desperation he sends out a messenger to
- find someone who could advise
- him how to bring it back to size
Word reaches the owner of the ring. He offers assistance to the bishop in return for the two rings the bishop wears and 100 pounds on top. The bishop agrees to these conditions and when the magic ring is removed from his finger, his erection disappears instantly. Both gentlemen are now satisfied, one because he loses his temporarily virility, the other because he has regained it eternally.
- wasn’t it a fair exchange
- when each was glad to have the change?
Of talking cunts
Just imagine one minute that your genitals could suddenly speak. What would they say? Would they speak the truth and dare to disagree with your real mouth? Would the new mouthpiece reveal your most intimate secrets and surprise you with details of which you are not even aware yourself? This conceit is on the mind of medieval man, the story is widespread, one can find the theme in no fewer than seven manuscripts throughout Europe. It will be a timeless topic, and to my feeling an all too rarely used storyline that will crop up later in this book. The first appearance of the theme is found in the medieval fabliau "Le Chevalier qui faisoit parler les cons et les culs". The story is told by a certain Garin, a writer we know little about. Garin tells of a knight
- who had a truly remarkable talent,
- for he could make cunts speak, this gallant,
- and conjure arseholes from all parts
- to answer his summons by magic arts.
The knight in question is a prizefighter and with his squire he earns a living by roaming from to tournament to tournament. He is poor, spirited and lazy. Travelling to his next tournament, he encounters three naked ladies at the edge of a fountain. The women, who had gone for a quick bath, have been robbed of their clothes and our knight helps them recover them. When they are dressed they reveal that they are actually fairies and each of the them wants to reward him with a special gift. The first fairy promises that in the future the knight will be received with open arms wherever he comes and that from now on he shall not want any more. The second fairy has a rather more original gift to bestow on him:
- "Sir knight, my gift's no small one:
- wherever you go, west or east,
- you shall not find a maid or a beast,
- so she have two eyes, whose cunt can refrain
- from answering you if you but deign
- to speak to it. There's you reward.
The third fairy steps up the game and says:
- "Sir knight, to this second gift I add,
- as is just and right, that if the cunt
- be blocked or stoppered up in front
- and cannot answer you straightway,
- the arsehole will, without delay,
- speak for it, if you give leave,
- no matter whom it hurt or grieve."
He assumes that the fairies are pulling his leg and even starts to blush when the third fairy has spoken, but shortly after he is set on his way he addresses the cunt of a horse, just in case, by way of a test. The horse's cunt which promptly replies, without mincing its words, because genitals are not in the habit of lying, as is well known.
When night falls, the squire and the knight arrive at a castle, where they ask for shelter. Our knight is indeed a greeted with great hospitality, just as the first fairy had predicted, even by the mistress herself. Although the lady of the house would love to "lie" with this attractive knight, she is unfortunately impeded by the presence of her husband, and orders her maid to take her place in the alcove of the knight. When the girl is in his bed and after he tasted her delights, he speaks to her cunt and asks,
"Sir Cunt, I would like to know why you came to lie with me?" The addressed Mr. Cunt replies: "I have nothing to hide, my mistress sent me." Startled by the words of her speaking cunt, the girl jumps out of bed in terror and runs to her mistress to tell the terrible news. Of course, the mistress does not believe the story and when the next day she invites the knight to dinner, she reveals the most curious incident to the other dinner guests. She challenges the knight to perform this magic tricks on her. A small fortune is being bet, but before the test can continue, the lady of the house asks to be excused to withdraw to her private quarters. When she arrives in her room, she stuffs her cunt with cotton. Back down the knight asks: "What was your mistress doing in her room when she withdrew?" The cunt doesn't answer and the knight repeats his question. There is a long silence, and again, the cunt declines to answer. Then the knight remembers the gift of the third fairy, and he focuses on the lady's arse, "Lord's Arse," he said, "why isn't Mr. Cunt answering my questions?" Upon which Lord Arse answered truthfully, "Because it is stuffed with cotton from top to bottom, it cannot speak, her mouth is silenced. It would be able to speak if it was not blocked. "The Knight wins the bet, and from that day on he is a wealthy man.
I cannot help it but find it strange that the cunt is addressed as a masculine 'Mister'.
A 'ring' as chastity belt
The story of the ring of Carvel is extremely old, but was first put to paper in squeaky clean Latin by the 14th-century Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), a papal secretary. He belongs to that new caste of literate copyists to which Boccaccio and Chaucer also belong, but what Poggio sets aside, is his inordinate love of humour and the grotesque.
In his capacity as papal secretary, he travels throughout Europe, during which he has the opportunity to satisfy his bibliophile appetite. He collects the humorous and indecent manuscripts he finds under the name Facetiae, and a book by that title sees the light for the first time in 1451. Facetiae is a literary therm derived from the Latin word facetus. The word became common in the Renaissance in the form of facetia, and at that time it meant jest or joke. In its plural form it became associated with collections of witty tales, the best known of which were the Facetiae by said Poggio. Ultimately the term facetus derives from facis, Latin for torch, so there is also a tinge of 'glow' or 'fire' in the word.
The history of Hans Carvel is the 133rd story in Poggio's anthology. The version of the French Renaissance humanist François Rabelais in the cycle of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel (written between 1532 and 1552) is probably the best known, but the tale has inspired sundry authors over the centuries. We find the story in the 15th century collection Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles, in the oeuvre of the Italian Renaissance writer Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) and in a treatment by the French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695).
- HANS CARVEL took, when weak and late in life;
- A girl, with youth and beauteous charms to wife;
- And with her, num'rous troubles, cares and fears;
- For, scarcely one without the rest appears.
- Bab (such her name, and daughter of a knight)
- Was airy, buxom: formed for am'rous fight.
- tr. London Privately printed for members of the Aldus Society, 1903
Hans Carvel's - once again - a jealous old doctor with - yes - a much younger wife, called Bab. One evening, while they are sleeping, he dreams that the devil gives him a ring. As long as he wears the ring, so assures him the devil, his wife will not be unfaithful to him. When he wakes up he finds that his finger is stuck in Bab's cunt. The devil was right of course. As long as his finger is stuck there, his wife will not be unfaithful.
- Hans dreamed, as near his wife he snoring lay,
- The devil came his compliments to pay,
- And having on his finger put a ring,
- Said he, friend Hans, I know thou feel'st a sting;
- Thy trouble 's great: I pity much thy case;
- Let but this ring, howe'er, thy finger grace,
- And while 'tis there I'll answer with my head,
- THAT ne'er shall happen which is now thy dread:
- Hans, quite delighted, forced his finger through;
- You drunken beast, cried Bab, what would you do?
- To love's devoirs quite lost, you take no care,
- And now have thrust your finger God knows where!
As in innumerable other medieval tales, the protagonist here is again the adulterous woman, la femme infidèle. What makes her so popular is beyond the scope of this book. Perhaps it has to do with the Freudian theory of the madonna-whore-complex, which suggests that men divide their relationship into two categories: chaste women to marry and to raise their children, and desirable women to play around with. The two categories are presented as incompatible. The fact remains that the stereotype of the adulterous wife returns ever so often, although at that time the punishment for an adulterous woman was very hard and the adultery of the husband often went unpunished. The Gallo-Romans allowed a cuckolded husband who caught his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto, to kill the lovers on the spot and the Franks had the woman strangled or burned alive. If not her fault cannot be proven, she must take the most severe form of 'trial by drowning': a stone is tied around her neck and she is thrown into the river. When she sinks, she is found guilty. (History of Private Life)
Is this peculiar fascination for the adulterous woman related to the fact that most men will find their wives attractive once more, when another man has possessed her? Or to the fact that illegitimate children are detrimental to the husband? In any case, the men in these tales are generally portrayed as a losers. One may as well ask, since all of the above stories were written by men, if we are therefore dealing with bouts of male self-torment, bordering on masochism.
The wife with two openings
A peasant of our district, a stupid devil, who was utterly ignorant in matters of sex, got married. Thus it happened one night that his wife turned her back to him in bed, so that her buttocks rested in his lap. He had his weapon ready and landed by chance right in the goal. Marvelling at his success, he inquired of his wife if she had two openings. And when she answered in the affirmative, he cried: “Hoho! I am content with but one; the second is entirely superfluous.” Upon which the sly woman, who was secretly consorting with the local priest, replied: “Then we can give the second away to charity. Let us grant it to the church and our priest.” The peasant, thinking to be relieved of an unnecessary burden, agreed.
Accordingly, the priest was invited to the evening meal, and the matter was set before him. Thereafter, the three ate heartily and then proceeded to bed, being careful to have the woman between them. The priest, hungry for this rare tit-bit, made the first advances, which the woman answered with soft whispers and familiar sounds. At this, the peasant, fearing that the priest was attempting to trespass on his side of the fence, called out: “Hey there, old friend, remember the agreement. You stick to your own side, and let mine alone!” But the priest was equal to the occasion. “God forbid!” he replied. “I care nothing for your possessions, so long as the property of the church is at my disposal.”
With these words he reassured the dull peasant, who thereupon urged him to continue to serve himself at his own discretion with the share which had been granted to the church. --Anonymous English translation
The merchant in the following story is much smarter than the previous two men and proves that revenge is a dish best served cold. Very cold, in this case. A merchant returns home after an absence of two years to find his wife with a newborn son. She explains that one snowy day she swallowed a falling snowflake while thinking about her husband which caused her to become pregnant. Pretending to believe her story, he raises the boy as if it was his own. When the boy turns fifteen, the man takes him on a business trip to Genoa, where he sells him into slavery. On his return, he explains to his wife that the sun in Italy shines so brightly, that the boy melted in the heat.
The little wheel
It's time to reverse the roles. In this story, taken from a German collection of medieval fabliaux, the girl is gullible and the young man cunning. A young clerk fancies the maid of the house. She, however, scorns his advances. One evening, exhausted from a hard day's work, she falls asleep on a bench in the kitchen. He sees her, dips his finger in the soot of the kitchen fire, pulls up her dress up and draws a little wheel with his sooted finger on her belly. The next morning she is as unfriendly towards him as she always is. He acts as if he is surprised by her unkindness, noting that she has given herself to him the previous night. She does not believe him. He assures her that he tells the truth and says "if you don't believe me, see what I have drawn around your navel." She lifts up her skirt and to her suprise, sees the little wheel. For days she wonders how he could have achieved to have his way with her. In order to find out, she finally decides to give herself to him. They make love five times in a row and she says:
- "The bliss of this love no one can describe ... I saw red roses flourishing from the dew of a green meadow. Our passion is indescribable! Thousand years appeared as short as one single day. In my mouth, I had the taste of milk and honey flowing to my throat. While I enjoy these pleasures, I felt I was floating."
Thus, the amatory efforts of this cunning young man, which had been in vain for so long, are amply rewarded in the end.
When the heart is full the tongue will speak
Despite the fact that during the Middle Ages, the clergy considered sex a horror rather than a godsend, the fire of Eros burns with great intensity in the loins of our Church Fathers and nuns are challenged by regular bouts of passionate ecstasy. Penitential books of the 12th-century French abbot Bernard of Clairvaux and the 11th-century Italian theologian Peter Damian display a sincere but exaggerated hatred of sex, so exaggerated in fact that it cannot indicate but a dark and subconscious fascination with the matter. If one reads one of their works, one can not escape the impression that the abstinence these Church Fathers preach - and hopefully also abide by, albeit perhaps with varying degrees of success - demonstrates an irrational obsession with sex, which by today's standards appears unhealthy and almost pornographic in nature. But the renunciation of Eros also provides very lovely passages.
- "There seethed all around me a cauldron of lawless loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and I hated safety... To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness." --Confessions 3.1.1, translation by Edward Bouverie Pusey
And this sexual-religious obsession often found an outlet in unexpected places. Thus the Flemish 13th-century mystic and poet Hadewych describes herself as a passionate mistress of God:
- "On a certain Pentecost Sunday I had a vision at dawn. Matins were being sung in the church, and I was present. My heart and my veins and all my limbs trembled and quivered with eager desire and, as often occurred with me, such madness and fear beset my mind that it seemed to me I did not content my Beloved, and that my Beloved did not fulfil my desire, so that dying I must go mad, and going mad I must die. On that day my mind was beset so fearfully and so painfully by desirous love that all my separate limbs threatened to break, and all my separate veins were in travail. The longing in which I then was cannot be expressed by any language or any person I know and everything I could say about it would be unheard-of to all those who never apprehended Love as something to work for with desire, and whom Love had never acknowledged as hers. I can say this about it: I desired to have full fruition of my Beloved, and to understand and taste him to the full. --tr. Mother Columba Hart
It is common knowledge that Medieval man believes in demons, fallen angels and other helpers of the devil. That there are also sexual demons who prey on humans, is rarely mentioned in history books. These sexual predators come in male and female versions, and are called respectively, "incubus" and "succubus". They are henchmen of the devil and, according to popular belief, have sexual intercourse with people during their sleep. A succubus - from the Latin succubare, 'to lie underneath'- feeds on the semen of its victims. Her male counterpart, the incubus, from the Latin incubare, 'to lie down' on - preys on female sleeping beauties.
Works such as The Hammer of Witches (Malleus Maleficarum, 1486), the medieval handbook for tracking down, interrogating and prosecuting witches, assures us that only the lesser demons are given this dirty job. Incubi and succubi are the pariahs of the demons. Opinions are divided whether their communion with humans can conceive offspring. Some are convinced that this is impossible, because these demons only dispose of an etheric body. Others believe that a succubus takes the seed of a man, involuntarily withdrawn from a man, gives it to an incubus who then impregnates a witch who cooperates voluntarily and lasciviously, creating a new generation of witches. Most experts agree wholeheartedly that the seed of an incubus is freezing cold.
Sexual demons provide an answer to many questions with which the common medieval man is faced. It clearly shows how a wet dream occurs or why anyone in his REM sleep - a concept that was obviously unknown at the time - sometimes moves his or her eyes in a bizarre fashion when asleep.
French theologian and witch hunter Nicholas Rémy (1530-1616) wrote a report of the confession of a young girl, Catharina Latomia, who says that a demon "twice raped her in prison," despite the fact that she had defended herself and her body had not been ready for intercourse. She added that "she very nearly died from the injuries she received by that coition". We will never know whether the confession of Catharina was an excuse for keeping the name of her rapist a secret, hiding the identity of her secret lover from the wrath of her parents, or if the girl actually believed she had been raped by a demon.
The archetype of the succubus is Lilith [image], a sexual demon, a femme fatale avant-la-lettre. According to Jewish legend, Lilith was the first wife of our common ancestor Adam. The idea that Adam had a wife prior to Eve may have developed from an interpretation of the Book of Genesis and its dual creation accounts; while Genesis 2:22 describes God's creation of Eve from Adam's rib, an earlier passage, 1:27, already indicates that a woman had been made: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." That first woman would have been Lilith, who, like Adam was created from the dust of the earth. It goes without saying that this version of the facts does not belong the biblical canon. As the story goes, Lilith refused submit to Adam and demanded equal rights, even in bed. She declined to be - quite literally so - the underlying party and resolutely refused the missionary position. This rebellion has given her great popularity with contemporary feminists, and earlier in the late 19th-century with the Romantic and Decadent movement.
A most cruel and shameful punishment
The medieval unnatural attitude toward an act inspired by nature itself, leads to a love tragedy unrivalled since then.
- "any thing seems lovely to me, and nothing is frightful or difficult when you are by. I am only weak when I am alone and unsupported by you." tr. anonymous
This writes Héloïse (1101 - 164), the beloved pupil of Pierre Abélard (1079-1042) to her master, who is 22 years her senior. She, an orphan or the daughter of an unwed mother, is taught by poet and theologian Abélard. She receives instruction in literature and philosophy, but also - as will appear later - lessons in love. He fathers a child with her and they secretly marry. An open marriage would have compromised Abélard's vocation. When her infuriated uncle Fulbert becomes aware of the marriage, he orders to have Abélard castrated. Héloïse subsequently disappears in a convent in Argenteuil, where she will later become an abbess. The lovers never see each other again.
- "Violently incensed, [Fulbert and his henchmen] laid a plot against me, and one night, while I, all unsuspecting, was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants, whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world, for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow. This done, straightway they fled, but two of them were captured, and suffered the loss of their eyes and their genital organs." -- tr. Henry Adams Bellows
Abélard also seeks refuge for his shame in a monastery and after a long period without contact Héloïse begins a correspondence with Abélard, a correspondence that will later become one of the highlights of medieval literature. Their desperate passion is the archetypal example of a forbidden and thwarted love.
The eye is left wanting
The Middle Ages are as rich in texts with a sexual undertone as the era of Greco-Roman antiquity, but paintings such as those in Pompeii, innocent and straightforward scenes of the sexual act, are sorely lacking. The medieval arts are almost devoid of sensuality and the reason for this, is that they are dedicated to the new Judeo-Christian morality. He who pays the piper calls the tune.
The Church is the propagator of this new morality, and it views nudity and the world of physical love with no good will, and that Church happens to be the principal art patron. Biblical and Christian eroticism is limited to some passages in the Song of Songs, the story of Bathsheba in her bath, the pernicious story of Adam and Eve, the stories of Susanna and the Elders and Lot and his daughters. That's about it, lest we forget the genre of the Madonna lactans (Mary breastfeeding her son Jesus), which can also be regarded as a tribute to Eros. This latter theme will be depicted more or less explicitly by French painter Jean Fouquet (ca.1420-1480) (image) and the Antwerp based Joos van Cleve (1464-1540) (image). Even rarer of course is a depiction of Jesus with an erection, such as The Man of Sorrows by Dutchman Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574). Another popular theme are the temptations of Saint Anthony, the ideal excuse to portray nudity.
New in this period is that oil, according to many an invention from the Low Countries, replaces the fresco. The new art medium is wooden panels, even though Giotto still painted directly onto the wall in the ancient manner of the fresco.
Atone for your sins in hell
The scarce instances of biblical eroticism will not be depicted in paint or print until the Renaissance. For the time being, the only nudity a late medieval artist 'wastes' his brush strokes on, are depictions of Adam and Eve or the Madonna, in other words, puritan renderings of innocent nudity. Or maybe not: nudity can also be found artists' depictions of hell, doomsday paintings in which nudity is inextricably coupled with sin. Between these two extremes, innocent nudity on the one hand and sinful and shameful nakedness on the other, there seems to be no compromise. The actual deed, the most joyous and adventurous of the erotic experience, is never depicted, not even alluded to. In these grim images of hell naked and humiliated people atone for their sins. These doomsday paintings are a condemnation of and a warning against sexuality. An excellent example of such erotic horror, one that is at times reminiscent of sadomasochist imagery of modern times, is the depiction of the Last Judgment - in Christian dogma still the moment when everyone's fate is determined - in works of art by Giotto, Memling and Bosch, Giotto representing the Italian Renaissance and Memling and Bosch the Northern Renaissance.
The Italian Giotto (fully Giotto di Bondone, ca 1267-1337) painted the Last Judgment [image] in 1304-1305. It is the oldest medieval image that we scrutinize. It is part of a fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua which portrays the lives of Mary and Christ. The Last Judgment is the largest fresco of the series and the last thing the visitor beholds before he leaves the chapel. Satan sits in the middle of the fresco, a dominating giant compared to the tiny people. In one hand he holds a woman and in his mouth are the half-eaten remnants of another human being. The scene that interests us here, is located to the right hand side above Satan. We see naked women molested by demons, women hung by their hair, their tongue, and men suspended by their genitals. Ouch. In short, we see all horrors that Satan could wish upon a a human body.
The Last Judgement by Hans Memling (c. 1433-1470) (The Last Judgment (Memling)), a triptych created between 1467 and 1471, omits any reference to the sexual act and simply equates the naked to the horror of hell.
In the triptych which Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) devotes around 1482 to the theme of the Last Judgment, one can still -- with some Freudian good will -- detect traces of sexuality [image]. Bosch knew like no other to use the bible in order to satisfy the sensationalist fantasies of his clients - and undoubtedly his own. He devoted two works to the temptations of the Holy Saint Anthony and again we see how the purely earthly, including the seductive woman of course, tries to lead the saint astray from the righteous path. A striking example of his erotic imagination is the 'earth woman' [image] we find on the left panel of the Anthony triptych of about 1500. It shows a woman on all fours, sitting under a hill, we only see her backside. Her abdomen and genitals are a cavity in the hill. Women depicted as landscapes would become a trend in the so-called somatopia - from the Greek for body and place - in 18th-century English literature.
But at the same time, Bosch can be very lofty, and with a soaring imagination, he paints a man and a woman sitting lovingly in a bubble, in a detail of the central panel of his Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1500). The scene shows two young and playful bodies about to embrace each other. Her hand is on his knee and his hand rests on her belly. I used to think that the couple is sitting in a soap bubble and that Bosch is endowed with enough realism to show the bursts in the bubble, forecast the fragility of joyful passion. The tiny cracks -- I thought -- illustrated the fleetingness of love. I thought that Bosch's message was that any love bubble will inevitably and invariably pop open, thereby covering its residents with a sad veil of love sickness. But upon closer inspection, I noticed that the bubble is covered in veins, and cannot be considered anything else than an amniotic sac. British artist Paul Rumsey has noted that since the bubble is connected to a flower, "and has part of the flower inside it, the detail should be seen a mixture of the organic vegetable (flower/fruit) and the animal (womb), and the human figures as seeds, thus projecting human eroticism onto the cycles and forms of nature, and vice versa."
Bulb-like women and root-like men
A strange development takes place in the beauty ideal of medieval Germanic countries, where the arts generally are generally called 'Gothic' in this time period. It is difficult to determine whether this conception of beauty is a purely aesthetic exercise inspired by Christian morality, which is unfriendly to the ways of the flesh, or a true reflection of the medieval beauty ideal. In any case, the naked woman in Gothic painting is bulbous, and is therefore in stark contrast to the voluptuous ideal that we know of antiquity and that we will again find in the Italian Renaissance. The British art historian Kenneth Clark puts it as follows in the eighth chapter of his classic study The Nude (1956).
- "Roots and bulbs, pulled up into the light, give us for a moment a feeling of shame. They are pale, defenceless, unself-supporting. They have the formless character of life which has both been protected and oppressed. In the dark their slow biological gropings have been the contrary of the quick resolute movements of free creatures, bird, fish or dancer, flashing through a transparent medium, and have been made baggy, scraggy and indeterminate. Looking at a group of figures in Gothic painting or miniature we experience the same sensation. The bulb-like women and root-like men seem to have been dragged out of the protective darkness in which the human body had lain muffled for a thousand years."
Take for instance the portrayal of Adam and Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) by Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441). The couple, once divine but now fallen, indeed looks pale and unhealthy, as if they had been waiting as roots and bulbs under the surface of the soil for centuries and were suddenly – by some strange coincidence – exposed to daylight. Adam is thin and has short legs and Eva looks even weirder: a turnip, a pear, she seems not quite of this planet.
Are these oblong, puffy and flabby bellies actually the beauty ideal of the day? Is that the perfect female form in the North? Or has the artist consciously depicted the human body uglier and more unappetizing? A question which is not easily answered, not in the least because medieval philosophers of aesthetics did not write about the beauty of the human form. The Adam and Eve in the Ghent Altarpiece remain two curiosities of art, at once arousing loathing and lust. Please take note of the hand of Eve: she holds the fig leaf all too carelessly and it slips far below her pubic area, giving us ample view of a magnificent bush of pubic hair, the first and also the fullest in the arts of Early modern Europe.
One finds the same bulbous bodies in the Last Judgment [image], a polyptych that Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464) painted between 1443 and 1451, but also in the central panel of Hans Memling's Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (ca.1485) [image]. Notable in the latter work is that the labia of the woman are partially visible. Finally, in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights [image] by Bosch, we find the same sterile, stale nudes that generate as many feelings of lust as a slice of moldy cheese.
That the Northern aesthetics also penetrated to the southwards is proved by the Italian artist Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516) and his Vanitas (c. 1490) (image). It remains difficult to believe that the average medieval man actually found this type of female body form attractive. One only has to take a cursory glance at the Portrait of a Lady (1460) [image] by Rogier van der Weyden to realize that is impossible that a woman with such beautiful features could have such a shapeless body. And if it was the case, Van der Weyden, would only have reluctantly depicted her body so unattractively.
The medieval adonis
The male nude is not much better off in the late Middle Ages. Uncanny icons of the medieval male are Jesus and the Holy Sebastian, as they are depicted in The Lamentation of Christ (ca.1480) [image] of the Italian Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431-1506) and St. Sebastian [image], a painting of which this artist did no less than three versions of it.
Mantegna's dead Christ is morbid, but under his loincloth we clearly perceive a bulge that can be nothing but phallic. He still has the paleness of the Gothic, but the uniqueness of this painting is the perspective. The focus is on the well-equipped groin, quite an artistic choice and one that art historians have given various interpretations.
It is not a coincidence that St. Sebastian, who is pierced with arrows while being tied to a tree or a pillar, became a gay icon. The Christian martyrs have since the Middle Ages been a perfect pretext for depicting the human body while in the grip of violent ecstasy. This religious ecstasy, which may have had a fatal finale, cannot always be distinguished from its sexual sister. Again, the phallic nature of the arrows penetrating Sebastian, is undeniable.
The caveman hides in the church
"The history of civilization is the history of a long warfare between the dangerous and powerful forces of the id, and the various systems of taboos and inhibitions which man has erected to control them," says British author Gordon Rattray Taylor in 1964 in his curious work but often striking Sex in History (1954). Nowhere is his statement more applicable than in the Middle Ages. Explicit references to sexuality are undoubtedly very conspicuously absent in the medieval arts and nudity in general is painstakingly avoided, yet churches are teeming with sexual images that rival the most explicit pornography of the 21st century.
To be able to see them, you will need to stretch your neck, for the "stumbling stone" are high on the walls of the church. They under the form of corbels, stones jutting out of a wall to carry a super-incumbent weight, or other functional elements with a decorative secondary function. The best known are the chimeras (monstrous creatures in which different animals are grafted together), grotesques (human and animal forms as curly designs) and gargoyles. A not so significant number of these ornaments are obscene in nature.
In Britain they are called sheela-na-gigs (image) called - exhibitionist sculptures of women - and they are found most frequently on Irish churches. Similar sculptures are also found on the mainland, such as the mooning gargoyle in Freiburg, Germany (image). In France, the oldest examples are from the 11th century (image) and Spain, where tradition supposedly arose, has even order specimens.
Like the baubo in Greek arts, the function of these decorations is open to many interpretations. Four explanations are put forward: fertility symbols, vestiges of pagan gods, a warning against lust and a protection against the evil eye. Whichever statement is best to your liking, they offer a much less exalted view of the medieval erotic culture than the paintings and frescoes which have so far illustrated this chapter.
Also, the penis-shaped and winged fascina we know from Roman antiquity, are apparently still alive. In medieval times they are worn as amulets to ward off the evil eye or ensure fertility. They are popular with pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela or other shrines. Some amulets also honour the vulva. (image)
Love is magical
Superstitious love magic, because that is what is represented in the fascina and amulets, can perhaps be best illustrated by the 15th-century Liebeszauber painting (image) by an anonymous German master, also a tribute to the bulbous beauty ideal of the Middle Ages. We find that same attempt to capture in images the mystery of a love spell in Bewitched Groom (1544) (image), a curious work by Hans Baldung Grien (c. 1484-1545).
Love can be so magical that even an old and wise man such as the famous philosopher Aristotle lets himself be mounted by a wanton young girl as if he were a horse (image). It is a very popular medieval story that demonstrates for once and for all the great power that womenfolk exercise over men. The philosopher Aristotle, on hands and knees and with a bridle in the mouth, rides lady Phyllis on his back. The work warns of the pernicious influence of female beauty and the story is often told in the same breath as the biblical stories of Eve dragging Adam in their ruination by biting the apple, or Samson who loses his strength after Delilah cut his hair. But it is also reminiscent of Virgil, the wise poet who one night lets himself be hoisted in a basket en route to a beautiful woman he is in love with. Sadly, he will never reach her room, since mid tower she lets him dangle, exposed to the ridicule of passers-by the following morning. (image)
" and we created you as a being neither celestial nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal alone, so that you as a free and sovereign artist can mold and model yourself in the form that you prefer; you can degenerate to animal, but you can also rise to the higher, divine kingdom ... You alone have the power to develop and grow according to free will." --Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, tr. JWG
Title page: Testa di cazzi (image)
In the 15th and 16th centuries the beacons for contemporary art and literature are set. The Renaissance (literally "rebirth") is considered a golden age for the arts and letters, a rebirth of classical antiquity so admired by Renaissance man. Contemporary historians find the term somewhat problematic and prefer the descriptor 'early modern'. In the history of eroticism the term 'Renaissance' is much more straightforward. The Renaissance is a rediscovery of the pagan pre-Christian pantheon and the reinvigoration of the "loves of the gods". Greco-Roman mythology becomes a favourite subject of painting. This is not necessarily a result of secularization, since the Renaissance is essentially as Christian as the Middle Ages. The shift has more to do with the nature of art patronage. These are mainly the Church in the Middle Ages, while in the Renaissance courts and the growing bourgeoisie, the new affluent middle class, reach for their wallets to order works of art.
The Renaissance is also the period when the printing press and paper are invented, two discoveries that allow erotic writings to spread easily and affordably. The Renaissance finally represents a new era of artistic media: woodcuts, engravings and block books now anyone with some financial means to build a collection of risqué image, an erotic print cabinet of their own.
All these new developments called for a new generation of moral crusaders who urgently tried to curb the proliferation of these new media. The press is one of the first innovations that were targeted. An Italian friar wrote in 1474, when Gutenberg's presses had been rolling for about thirty years, that the 'pen is a virgin; the printing press, a whore.' The first public book burning, the 'Bonfire of the Vanities' singes the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. Lastly, a book is made that contains a list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. (Image) This list proves to be an immediate success amongst those who are seeking just that, banned books.
A distinctive feature of Renaissance art is the invention of linear perspective. The German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) defines perspective etymologically by saying that 'perspectiva is a Latin word which means 'seeing through'. Dürer illustrates the mechanical side of 'seeing through' by depicting a wooden frame covered with a grid of threads, which allows an artist to more easily draw perspective, an invention that harks back to Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. This invention is beautifully and appropriately presented in the woodcut Der Netzzeichner (The Net Draughtsman) (image), laying bare the dynamics of looking and being looked at, so exemplary for the art of nude figure drawing and painting. Several 20th-century Marxist and feminist art critics have referred to this print to criticize the dominance of the so-called male gaze in Western visual culture. Personally, I just see an exciting image: the draughtsman as voyeur, the model as exhibitionist. And besides, Dürer did not hesitate to expose himself, as he shows in the stunning self-portrait with beautiful naked prick (image).
Renaissance/Say 'ass, cock, cunt and screw'
- And then in 1524, in Rome, under the very nose of the Papacy, it was done. In the basilicas the candles flickered as Cupid and Priapus and Venus stirred in their tombs beneath the altars. From India and China to Japan's vermilion temples, live gods pricked their ears. Africans who knew neither Christ nor plantation paused in their dances, as the stirring became a rumbling, the rumbling a heaving, the heaving a cracking and the whole vault of Christendom groaned and settled into a different shape.--Eros Denied
In 1524 Pope Clement VII orders the 44-year-old Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1533) to be jailed. He did not realize it at the time, but he would write history in moral crusading and lay the foundation of a new concept that would conquer the world some three hundred years later: pornography. Raimondi, an engraver who is mainly engaged in copying paintings by contemporaries, ventures to bring a set of sixteen prints to the market that he calls I Modi - Le 16 posizioni (The ways -- or the sixteen pleasures, 1524) (image), of which each print depicts a kamasutrian sex position. It is something unheard of at the time and the collection becomes a succès de scandale. When the Pope also gets the engravings under his nose he immediately puts the artist behind bars.
The colorful Italian Renaissance writer Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) gets wind of the i Modi affair and he succeeds in lobbying Raimondi free. Aretino, a hack writer and slanderer - "scourge of princes" he was called by his contemporary Ariosto - is the prototypical of yellow journalist. He is a man well versed in the art of extorting money from the nobility by writing acerbic and spiteful letters and pamphlets.
He is born the illegitimate son of a woman of easy virtue with noble connections, who furnishes him a position in high society, but his powerful and sharp pen is quickly feared throughout the country. After he secures Raimondi’s release from prison, Aretino instantly smells money in the scabrous prints and decides to write accompanying poems, and the Sonnetti lussuriosi (Lascivious sonnets) are published together with the original prints. Again, the collection suffers from a papal censorship as fierce as it is vicious. Aretino is forced to leave Rome for some time and the hunt for the albums is so thorough that no original copies have survived. Of the poems, only one copy of a copy will be discovered four hundred years later.
Of the original engravings only Position No. 1 (image) survives, as well as a collection of expurgated fragments which are now in the British Museum (image) showing only the heads. Fortunately there are many later copies (set of images) which give us a perfect idea of the salaciousness of the collection of positions.
Why exactly is I Modi considered the first example of pornography? The reason is fourfold. First there is the explicit nature of the drawings and poems: phalli and vaginas are indeed depicted and put into words in more or less obvious detail. Secondly, the prints and poems - so their opponents will surely have stated - only appeal to the lowest instincts of their target audience and with one goal only: to satisfy base cravings. Thirdly, there is the criticism that both Raimondi as Aretino worked with the dishonourable intent to enrich themselves with this collection, today a frequently heard criticism of pornography. Fourthly, and this is the perhaps the most important reason, there is the question of censorship. Censorship only makes sense and can only exist when a work makes its presence felt in the public sphere. Printmaking and the movable type of Gutenberg have made it possible for explicit images and texts to be reproduced en masse and thus penetrate the public sphere. And that is also how they come to the attention of the powers that be. It is no coincidence that the term 'pornography' is primarily reserved for the reproducible arts, unlike the term 'erotic', which is used for paintings and sculptures that have succeeded in staking their place in national museums and prestigious art collections. Art was and is for the elite. Dirty pictures and books have their place among the common people and the elite feared that such material would corrupt them.
I Modi meets the above four criteria to be considered pornography. It is explicit, it serves to gratify basic instincts, it is made for profit only and it belongs to the reproducible arts. That is also the reason this writer does not like the term 'pornography'. It is all too often used as a term of abuse by prudes, prigs and other moral crusaders to incriminate what he refers to as 'erotic'. "I do not know which was worse: the vision of Giulio’s drawings to the eye, or the sound of Pietro’s words to the ear…," writes the 16th-century art biographer Giorgio Vasari on I Modi. The 'Pietro' he mentions refers of course to the author Pietro Aretino, while 'Giulio' Romano was the man who made the designs for Raimondi's engravings. The authoritative Vasari insists that artists should not waste their God-given talents on disgraceful and detestable products. Had the word 'porn' existed, Vasari surely would have used it.
Raimondi, the man who made his engravings based on a series of designs by Giulio Romano (ca. 1499-1546) is known for little more than I Modi. That is not the case with the writer Aretino who would make the Western world heir to a very scurrilous oeuvre at the time of his death, justifying his 'explicit lyrics' by saying that he has little sympathy for the botanical and other euphemisms that were en vogue at the time. Boldly he exclaims:
- Speak plainly, and say cu, ca, po and fo [two-letter abbreviations for culo, cazzo, potta and fottere] ; otherwise thou wilt be understood by nobody, if it be not by the Sapienza Capranica, with thy rope in the ring, thy obelisk in the Culiseum, thy leak in the garden, thy key in the lock, thy pestle in the mortar, thy nightingale in the nest, thy dibble in the drill, thy syringe in the valve, thy stock in the scabbard, and the stake, crosier, parsnip, little monkey, the this, the that, the apples, the Missal leaves, the affair, the verbi gratia, the thing, the job, the story, the handle, the dart, the carrot, the root and the shit, mayst thou have it! ... I shall not say in the snout, since thou wilt walk on the tips of thy shoes. Well, say yes for yes, and no for no, or else keep it to yourself. --tr. Peter Stafford, 1970, Odyssey Press.
The above sentences are from the Ragionamenti (1536), a whore dialogue in the style of Lucian, a frivolous take on the dialogues of Plato. Aretino gives us a dialogue in which a spade is called a spade, just as Catullus did in Roman antiquity. He does not mince words in his Sonnetti lussuriosi either:
- Come, let us fuck, my soul, let's fuck at once,
- Since fucking is what man was fashioned for,
- And since you worship pricks as I do cunts,
- Without which life would be a fucking bore.
- Could man but fuck post mortem, I would cry:
- Let's fuck ourselves to death, and wake to fuck
- With Eve and Adam, who were doomed to die
- By that trick apple and their rotten luck.
- What if some craven rascals are nonplussed
- By Adam's fate, and shun the treacherous tree?
- We lovers know the way to quench our lust,
- But come, less chit-chat ; fuck me instantly,
- Transfixing heart and soul with one long thrust
- Of that great prick that's life and death to me;
- And while you are at it, see
- If those twin witnesses of every pleasure,
- Your balls, can't be included for good measure. --Sonetti_lussuriosi#I, tr. Richard Wilbur.
The irony of that first pornographer Aretino, whose name became a synonym for dirty drawings and lustful lyrics which praise physical love between man and woman, is that he is actually gay or at the least bisexual and that he - wherever he can - alludes to anal sex. The examples are legion. For centuries his name has been associated with coitus per anum.
"... but we are hot," says the lady in the tail of sonnet III to her lover, "and so horny we desire for a prick, / That we are willing to receive the column in the ass."
And in the second quatrain of sonnet II we read "choose a new place when you are bored in the plum / you quite agree: a real man finds his pleasure in the ass too!"
- I want him in my ass, - O no, madam, that never,
- That's a sin I never want to commit
- That sin is reserved for church prelates
- Who have squandered their tastes for eternity
He does not shy from attacking others for their alleged immorality. There is a particularly hypocritical letter in which he reprimands Michelangelo for his "indecent" nudes in The Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel.
- "As a baptised Christian, I blush before the license, so forbidden to man's intellect, which you have used in expressing ideas connected with the highest aims and final ends to which our faith aspires. So, then, that Michelangelo stupendous in his fame, that Michelangelo renowned for prudence, that Michelangelo whom all admire, has chosen to display to the whole world an impiety of irreligion only equalled by the perfection of his painting! Is it possible that you, who, since you are divine, do not condescend to consort with human beings, have done this in the greatest temple built to God, upon the highest altar raised to Christ, in the most sacred chapel upon earth, where the mighty hinges of the Church, the venerable priests of our religion, the Vicar of Christ, with solemn ceremonies and holy prayers, confess, contemplate, and adore his body, his blood, and his flesh? (...) The pagans, when they modelled a Diana, gave her clothes; when they made a naked Venus, hid the parts which are not shown with the hand of modesty. And here there comes a Christian, who, because he rates art higher than the faith, deems it a royal spectacle to portray martyrs and virgins in improper attitudes, to show men dragged down by their shame, before which things houses of ill-fame would shut the eyes in order not to see them. Your art would be at home in some voluptuous bagnio, certainly not in the highest chapel of the world. Less criminal were it if you were an infidel, than, being a believer, thus to sap the faith of others." --source
The indignation Aretino shows here is spurious. He's just angry because master Michelangelo has refused him a work of art that he unsuccessfully tried to obtain through blackmail. Michelangelo's revenge is sweet. He portrays Aretino as St. Bartholomew in a detail of that very Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, the work Aretino fulminates against so hypocritically. In this scene Aretino wears his own flayed skin, in its folds, we see the face of Michelangelo.
Renaissance/The rebirth of Venus
If in the Middle Ages the female nude is depicted unappetizingly, the Renaissance opens the door wide for Venus and her undraped body. She makes her joyous entry in 1486 in a beautiful work by the hand of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), The Birth of Venus (image). The work is surely reminiscent of the Venus of Pompeii, although Botticelli could not have been familiar with that mural.
Botticelli finds his inspiration in Ancient Greek sculpture and launches a new pose in Western painting, the now-famous Venus pudica pose, the chaste, shameful Venus - who refers by name to the Roman goddess of modesty Pudicitia. Botticelli's Venus covers her loins and breasts with both hands. She uses her right hand to hide her small breasts, positioned quite low under her bent shoulders, with her left hand she covers her intimate parts, at the same time making good use of her hair which seems to extend at least to her knees. While her gaze cannot be considered inviting - she averts her eyes and does not meet our glances - her mouth appears sollicit a kiss. Her body shape - especially her drooping shoulders - still bears traces of the strange medieval beauty ideal.
If we compare her to the Eve from the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (image) by Tommaso Masaccio (1401-1428), a work that was painted sixty years earlier in that very Florence, the intellectual and artistic development that the city state of Florence and the whole of Italy has gone through, becomes immediately apparent. The first steps from a Christian culture of shame to a proud pagan sensuality have been made.
From now on, Venus evolves at a rapid pace. Where the Venus of Botticelli does not meet our glance, and Giorgione's (c. 1477-1510) younger Sleeping Venus (image) doesn't either (she is asleep or pretends to be so and has her eyes closed), their heiress, The Venus of Urbino (image) by Titian (1485-1576) who came 52 years after Botticelli's fair lady, meets our gaze frank and unabashedly, and this for the first time in art history. The last two Venuses have exchanged their standing positions in a shell for a comfortable reclining position, which in itself speaks volumes. Like Botticelli's Venus, these ladies have their left arm covering their groins. But here the chastity motif is not so unambiguous: do they want hide the flowers of their garden from our gaze or are they masturbating themselves shamelessly?
Art historians differ in opinion on this (as they always do), but what sets the two paintings apart is indeed the gaze of the female model. Giorgione's Venus symbolizes the Venus Caelestis (oh so heavenly), the Venus of Titian represents the profane Venus Vulgaris. The first Venus would be very hard pressed to get into your bed, her sleep is the sleep of innocence. The second seems made just for the act of physical love, she looks you straight in the eye and seems to say: "What took you so long?" In her eyes, we read that love has no secrets for her. There is no trace of shame whatsoever. And if we do spot an inkling of shame, it is theatrical shame, intended to incite more violently the passion of her lover.
The Venus of Urbino has put more than one pen in motion. The 19th-century English poet and erotomaniac Algernon Charles Swinburne says of her in 1864:
- "As for Titian's Venus — Sappho and Anactoria in one — four lazy fingers buried dans les fleurs de son jardin — how any creature can be decently virtuous within thirty square miles of it passes my comprehension.
The American author Mark Twain adds in 1880 in his work A Tramp Abroad:
- "At the door of the Ufizzi, in Florence, one is confronted by statues of a man and a woman, noseless, battered, black with accumulated grime--they hardly suggest human beings--yet these ridiculous creatures have been thoughtfully and conscientiously fig-leaved by this fastidious generation. You enter, and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world--the Tribune--and there, against the wall, without obstructing rag or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses--Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed--no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude, there would be a fine howl--but there the Venus lies, for anybody to gloat over that wants to--and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and Art has its privileges. I saw young girls stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gaze long and absorbedly at her; I saw aged, infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her--just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world--just to hear the unreflecting average man deliver himself about my grossness and coarseness, and all that. The world says that no worded description of a moving spectacle is a hundredth part as moving as the same spectacle seen with one's own eyes--yet the world is willing to let its son and its daughter and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words. Which shows that the world is not as consistent as it might be.
- There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought--I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is too strong for any place but a public Art Gallery. Titian has two Venuses in the Tribune; persons who have seen them will easily remember which one I am referring to."
What makes the Venus of Urbino so unacceptable, is not only her provocative gaze, but also the prosaic setting in which she is positioned. No pastoral background, no heavenly scenes, no gods nor goddesses to keep her company, no allusions to the Metamorphoses of Ovid. No, she's an available girl in an Italian palace, surrounded by the mundane trappings of an Italian palazzo. In her room we find a dog, as well as two servants of flesh and blood who are about to store her clothes in a chest, the very clothes she has just taken off to receive her suitor. Whether the work was acceptable to the public at large, was a matter Titian and his client did not have to worry about. After all, a painting like this was intended purely to enjoy in the privacy of the client's home, something we should not forget when we look with 21st century eyes to this 500-year old masterpiece.
Renaissance/Ovid and The Painter's Bible
Opening image: This fresco by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo del Te in Mantua, painted in the twenties of the 16th century, shows Zeus with serpent legs while he approaches Olympias with a stout erection while she lightly spreads her legs (image).
The historiography of the Renaissance generally pays too little attention to Ovid, the man who in his Metamorphoses and Ars amatoria raised love to the level of art. Despite the fact that he shunned foul language and even refrained from using four letter words, he was banned in his own time and regarded with suspicion by the ecclesiastical authorities during the Middle Ages. The only transformation that Jerome and Augustine and other Church Fathers wanted to hear about was transubstantiation, the transformation of bread and wine into flesh and blood of Christ. The only act of creation that they wanted to acknowledge was God's creation, not the fantastic recreations of the Metamorphoses.
We will never know what the handwriting of Ovid looks like, since the majority of Greek and Latin literature disappeared without a trace during the Middle Ages, and none of Ovid's original manuscripts survive. But that Ovid was held in high regard by many can be deduced from the abundance of manuscripts that copied his works during the Middle Ages. With the burgeoning print culture of the Renaissance, it becomes even clearer how popular Ovid has remained.
A revolution takes place in the middle of the 15th century. Even before Gutenberg invents movable type, an earlier technology to reproduce text is already used, the so-called block books. Text and images are carved in wood. These woodcuts are then manually printed in small, cheap booklets of about fifty pages. Often the picture takes centre stage and the text is merely incidental. Many of these early 'best-sellers' are religious in nature, but the 'top ten' of profane books is headed by Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the course of centuries, no secular book is so often reprinted, no other work is translated so many times and in so many different languages. The amount of sex and violence in his stories, can't have been a stranger to that.
Much to the regret of the Christian moralists block books of the Metamorphoses soon appear all over Europe. In some of these editions, the image is accompanied by a text that displayed a Christian moral gloss, though Ovid of course had nothing to do with Christianity. Painters and engravers make good use of the source for their visual fictions. It is far from a coincidence that the Metamorphoses are coined as the 'Painter's Bible'. No Renaissance painter escapes the influence of Ovid, the most sensual of them seem sleep with his work under their pillows.
In the 16th century two remarkable cycles of paintings based on the work of Ovid are produced in Italy for two European rulers who are - artistically speaking at least - a little more liberal than some of their colleagues: Federico II in Italy and Philip II of Spain. Federico gives the assignment to his Italian compatriot Correggio and Philip turns to Titian for a series of canvases based on Ovid.
Although the erotic fame of Titian is at that time well established with his Venus of Urbino, it is especially Antonio da Correggio (ca 1489-1534) who shows himself a master of Ovidian eroticism. His cycle includes these works: Jupiter and Io (c. 1530) (image), its sister piece Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532), Leda and the Swan (1532) (image), Danaë (1531-1532) (image) and Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (c. 1528) (image).
The most exciting painting from the collection is undoubtedly Jupiter and Io. Correggio seems to understand the power of hidden phallic symbolism four hundred years avant Freud. He shows the arm of Zeus, enveloped in a cloud of mist, in order to escape the jealous glances of his wife Hera, reaching between Io's arms and caressing her back, a cucumber-shaped penis that appears like a tentacle of an octopus, or an elephant's trunk. Zeus' lips are touching hers. The image is so vivid that the viewer almost personally experiences the sensual caress of the cloud that engulfs Io. Io's enjoyment can be read from her right toes, which are curled upwards. The subsequent history of the canvas is long and complex and would in itself deserve the attention of an entire book, but one of the most amusing episodes is set in the 18th century, when the work has fallen into French hands. One of its heirs, Louis IV of Orleans is mentally not very stable and is frequently plagued by crises of conscience. One day he picks up a knife and mercilessly cuts the head of Io out of the canvas. Moments later, he burns it. He just could not bear the sensuality of Io's ecstatic face. The head is later professionally replaced by the French painter Pierre-Paul Prud'hon. The unstable Louis IV apparently had a specific problem with Correggio's eroticism, he would also attack Leda and the Swan with a knife.
The story of Leda and the Swan, to which Ovid devotes only a few verses, makes its way via innumerable engravings to the print rooms of the burgeoning bourgeoisie. The theme owes its disproportionate popularity during the 16th century to the paradox that is apparently more acceptable to depict a woman making love to a swan than to a man. The first depictions of the scene are much more explicit than comparable paintings of love scenes between man and woman. The act of copulation itself remains a dangerous theme during the Renaissance. The fate that befell the I Modi album illustrates this. Despite the countless versions of Leda and the swan which see the light of day during the Renaissance, there is no single work that can convince the true erotomaniac, neither the versions of Leonardo and Michelangelo, nor Correggio. The defining version is one that is attributed to the French Baroque painter François Boucher. It is discussed later in this book.
In an increasingly codified world of images, where each story from Ovid is linked to an iconographic representation, certain patterns begin to emerge as a first visual lingua franca. For example, the book Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, features a woodcut of a woman copulating with a swan on a chariot while the audience is watching. This is not necessarily an illustrated Ovidian tale, but rather refers to a language that every Renaissance man with some intellectual background will recognize. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the most remarkable books ever published, first appeared in 1499 under the Greek title that translates as 'Poliphilo's Struggles of Love in a Dream'.
The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili is also one of the most unreadable books ever. Like Rabelais, its writer - more than likely the Dominican priest Francesco Colonna - uses invented words. As if that were not enough, the author writes in an obscure Venetian dialect, interspersed with Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions and supplemented with imaginary hieroglyphs. Colonna often borrows from Ovid and shares his vocabulary - as he shares his sense of risqué eroticism. But where Ovid at his most audacious moments still limits himself to the love between man and animal, Colonna lets protagonist Poliphilo (literally "lover of many things") indulge in sex with buildings. Yes, you heard that right: buildings. The work contains a kind of hidden architectural essay - the reason why some people also think that it was written by the famous architect Leon Battista Alberti - and often one does not know if Poliphilo praises the love for woman or a building. Be that as it may, on no less than three occasions Poliphilo manages to find the appropriate opening in a building to have intercourse with it. And once Poliphilo's most remarkable sensual feelings appear to be mutual.
Renaissance/Bonfire of the Vanities
Title image Agnolo Bronzino's Triumph of Venus (image)
Renaissance man is a proud man, proud of his ability and his achievements. Though he is still very much a Christian man standing in the shadow of God, for the first time he is important as man, so say humanists. His pride is celebrated in the arts, in architecture, in literature, to the dismay of many. The first self-proclaimed moralist emerges in the shape of the Dominican preacher of penitence Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498). Savonarola embodies the anti-renaissance sentiment that would ultimately lead to an entirely puritan Protestantism. Theologian by training, at the age of 42 he makes it to ruler of the Florentine Republic. Today, he is mainly known as a book burner and art vandal.
When three years in power, he organizes on February 7, 1497 the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities, the first mass art destruction in history. His fanatical supporters go from door to door to collect objects which bear witness to moral laxity. Everything that gives man pleasure in life is the object of their scorn: mirrors, cosmetics, pagan books, gaming tables, luxurious clothing, masks, wigs, musical instruments and writings with immoral and profane tendencies. All these fine things are amassed on the Florentine Piazza della Signoria and burned in ostentatious display. Copies of Boccaccio's Decameron, the works of Ovid, Plato, Petrarch, Dante and Luigi Pulci go up in smoke. Important paintings by Botticelli and Michelangelo are said to have been lost in the flames, although nobody knows exactly what went on the pyre. Among the books, But the people soon tire of the religious fundamentalist regime of Savonarola and on 4 May of the same year riots break out, growing to a veritable revolt. Pubs open their doors again, alcohol is served anew and the streets are filled with people dancing and playing at dice, in spite of Savonarola's regulations. On May 13, the pope excommunicates Savonarola and in 1498 the leader of the Church demands the arrest of the priest on charges of blasphemy, heresy, demagogy, treason and giving voice to prophecies and religious errors. During the next few weeks, Savonarola is tortured on the stretching rack. Eventually he signs his confession under severe torture, for that purpose the executioners had left his right arm intact.
On the day of the execution is Savonarola led to the Piazza della Signoria, and in that exact same square, where a year earlier the flames of the Bonfire of the Vanities had raged, he is ritually stripped of his monk's robe and proclaimed a heretic. The chains align themselves around his wrists and hung above a large fire he is roasted alive - an execution method that Savonarola himself had often used. Niccolò Machiavelli, that other politician-philosopher, would succeed him.
Renaissance/On fig leaves, pubic hair and small penises
The story of the moralist and book-burner Savonarola proves that the Renaissance is a complex time, at the same time liberated and sensual as well as narrow-minded and prudish. It would be too simplistic to attribute all this narrow-mindedness to Christianity only, there have always been times when sensuality didn't find the right soil to root and failed to thrive. Besides, prohibition and shame are not necessarily bad to strengthen the libido: the feeling that a limit is exceeded can be a powerful aphrodisiac. A fig leaf therefore may suggest a lot and promise even more, often more than actually is there, especially if it is held in front of the female genitalia, that according to some 20th-century critics is no more than the big "O", the big zero. Of the female, only the pubic hair is clearly visible, and therefore the lack, the cavity, the hole is characteristic of her primary female genitalia.
Since Medieval times the fig leaf has been the perfect solution to depict Adam and Eve, originally naked and not ashamed of that, to depict them fully nude without showing their primary sexual organs. The choice of the fig leaf was inspired by the words of Genesis 3:7, which state that after the Fall Adam and Eve wore aprons made of fig leaves. In a funny detail one reads in the same Bible that Adam himself betrays himself having eaten the forbidden fruit exactly by being ashamed. In that passage God shouts angrily: 'Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?' "Adam quickly tries to put the blame on Eve, perhaps he hopes that he will be allowed to stay in Paradise and that only his companion will be expelled. Unfortunately, both are shown the exit door of the Garden of Eden.
But back to our subject, the bare pudenda and its concealing fig leaf. Many of those fig leaves are not painted by the artist himself, but much later, when a feeling of shame for these Early Medieval images begins arise. That is exactly what happens with the ceiling fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. After the death of the master, the genitalia of certain characters will be over-painted with fig leaves and draped by Daniele da Volterra, the latter will be nicknamed Il Braghettone (The breeches maker) for it.
Three centuries after its inception, the expulsion from Paradise scene by Masaccio would also be provided of fig leaves by the then ruling Medici family, obscuring intimate details that would only be see the light in the 1980s, when the painting is fully cleaned and restored. The biggest controversy over a fig leaf is that of David (image), the famous sculpture by Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564). The image is a homo-erotic icon par excellence. A 19th-century replica of the statue in the British South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), had a detachable plaster fig leaf, especially arranged for visits by the prudish Queen Victoria and other high-ranking ladies. It was held in place by two strategically placed hooks. Nowadays, you will find that fig leaf in a separate exhibition stall, close the statue. Until this very day, you as a buyer can choose between a version with or without the fig leaf.
On close inspection of the work, two things stand out: the disproportionate size of the hands, an optical correction because the work of Michelangelo was placed high on a pedestal, but also the very small size of the male genitalia and the presence of stylized pubic hair. Pubic hair in art is rare before the 20th century. Michelangelo's naked men on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel had no pubic hair. In the Renaissance period in Northern Europe, one finds it occasionally, more often with men than with women.
David's penis is a mystery because of its small size. Art historians agree that small penises were the Greek beauty ideal, and indeed, we rarely find the oversized penises of the Roman cult of Priapus in the Greek art that preceded it. When the Renaissance rediscovered the Greco-Roman world, artists apparently only remembered the small penises of the Greeks and forgot the enormous phalli of the Romans. Which goes to show that history is as much the art of forgetting as of remembering.
The Renaissance belongs to the Italians, they are closest to the ruins of the Greco-Roman world, they are its direct heirs. Outside Italy, the term Northern Renaissance is used to refer to late Gothic art of Germany and the Low Countries. The latter's erotic expression was already addressed in the chapter on bulb-like women and root-like men. I shall no longer speak of to these formal aspects, but will focus on the content of their erotic output.
Among the most prominent artists of the Northern Renaissance - insofar as they deal with eroticism - are Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Jean Foucquet, Matthias Grunewald, Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck, the "Little Master" Hans Sebald Beham (check out his Roman Charity and Death and the Indecent Pair) and Hans Baldung Grien. The paintings of these artists include Gothic elements that are very reminiscent of the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
Art from the North refers more often to Christianity than to Ovid and his amorous gods. This is of course partly due to the turbulent Protestant Reformation, but also to a number of factors - politics, climate, etiquette, world view - small cultural puzzle pieces that constitute, taken together, the character of a people. Hegel would later call it 'Volksgeist', a concept that is difficult to defend in contemporary intellectual circles, but whose existence can best be illustrated with the following witticism:
- “Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the cooks are English, the mechanics are French, the lovers are Swiss, and it is all organised by the Italians”.
Can the national spirit of the North have been responsible for their very twisted sense eroticism? I would not know how else to explain their apparent preoccupation with perverse and sadomasochist themes. Witches, death, the cardinal sins, vanity, mortality and ugliness are rampant. The paintings and prints that I shall analyse below, link these morbid themes to a sexual component that refer more directly and with a more accurate realism to the sexual act than what the Italians were doing at the same time on the other side of the Alps. The only Italian who apparently struggled with the same Nordic ambiguity to the sexual act is Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) when he in his diary he noted that "the act of coition and the members employed are so ugly that but for the beauty of the faces, the adornments of their partners and the frantic urge, Nature would lose the human race. (quoted in Bataille's Erotism: Death and Sensuality, translation by Mary Dalwood).
Perhaps this statement is due to the aversion that some homosexuals feel towards the female genitalia. In this regard an anatomical drawing of the female genitalia [image] from the hand of Leonardo speaks volumes. These sketches, together with the diary passage above, are the perfect transition from sultry southern eroticism to the erotica nordica, an eroticism that is obsessed with witches and death.
The witch is a favorite theme in erotica nordica. She is the archetype of the liberated woman and in that time she was ascribed magical skills and knowledge, knowledge that extended to the sexual domain. The link between magic, sexuality and witches makes many hearts beat faster, not only of desire, but also of fear. The magic of the witches is valued and reviled: it is estimated that during the witch hunts, between 40,000 and 100,000 "witches" paid for their early feminist independence with their lives.
When we say witches, we are immediately reminded of the works of German artist Hans Baldung Grien (ca 1484-1545). He is utterly fascinated by witches and devotes several works to them, including a number of gouaches that are among the most erotic works of the Renaissance. In the drawing Witch and Dragon (1515) [image] a beautiful young woman protrudes her buttocks backwards, so that a dragon can spit flames in it. Meanwhile, she keeps herself upright by holding a vine whose end lands in the tail of the dragon, producing an effect of simultaneous phallic and yonic - from 'yoni', Sanskrit for vulva - symbolism. Various interpretations are given to work. A small selection: the witch has just given birth and we see a glimpse of the umbilical cord of the by the dragon devoured newborn. The snout of the dragon sprays fire, symbolizing the heat of lust, the witch in the meantime stokes the fire in the tail of the dragon and offers him her private parts to warm it. The fire symbolizes communion with the devil. The witch urinates in the mouth of the dragon.
Baldung's fascination with witches may also be related to the popular belief that witches rubbed a special ointment based on Belladonna on their foreheads, temples, under their armpits, on their groins and in their vaginas, after which they flew off on a broom stick to the witches' Sabbath to worship the devil. On the following pages, there is a perfect illustration of this broom stick belief by the Italian mannerist Parmigianino (1503-1540), where the broom stick is replaced by a phallus.
Especially notable is the insane mobility of Baldung Grien's witches. On the drawing Der Corcaden ein gut Jar [image] three witches stand in a void, two younger witches and an older one. The older stands astride a squatting young person looking at us through her own legs. The other witch supports herself with one foot on the back of a young witch while she is masturbating. It all sounds very confusing, as if they are intoxicated with their own witch potions and all sense of direction and purpose being lost, have turned into quivering flesh that seeks harmony in motion. The print is therefore often described as a witch orgy. Another print, Four Naked Witches, a Baby and a Cat [image] is a kaleidoscope of wriggling bodies, including a witch child clinging to a witch whose hair is blown backwards with great force by the wind, while she is standing still. This is an allegory for the wild passions of the sexual act.
Quite different in nature are the witches of the German master Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), an artist who visited the witches theme not as frequently. His Four Witches [image] (also simply called Four Naked Women) is much more static than the work of Hans Baldung, and one finds at first sight fewer allegorical meanings. But this work too is a warning against the dangers of sex: if you look closely you can see the devil behind the left corner of the door, looking threateningly at the women, and the skull at the feet of one of the witches does not bode well either. The Northern artist can not resist: the ugliness rather than beauty of eroticism is portrayed, just as as the word 'witch' is used pejoratively for an old, ugly and unpleasant woman.
Renaissance/La Petite Mort
The second favourite theme of the Northern Renaissance, is "death and woman". The artist who most extensively treats the theme is again Hans Baldung, but a new player in the field is Lucas Cranach the Elder. It may sound far-fetched but there is a close relationship between sex and death. Firstly, this relationship is both synthetic and antithetic. Death, childbirth and "having an orgasm"* belong to the extreme sensations of human nature, and in that sense they are a continuum. Death, just like eroticism, has always fascinated man. It is an integral aspect of life, regardless of time, place or culture. Secondly, sex and death are antithetical because sex and eroticism are the beginning of life and death symbolizes its end, the opposite of life.
Cranach is more of a narrative painter than Baldung, but much duller and more wooden in his depiction of the human form. Moreover, his female nudes tend to be -- whether it is an Eve, Venus [image], Judith, Salome or Lucretia, invariably representative of the "bulb" variety so typical of the Middle Ages. Some of his nudes are downright unappetizing, as is the Water Nymph Resting [image]. His Venuses are almost always covered with a thin transparent veil, or wear a big flashy hat. His favorite secular theme is the dangerous cocktail of 'woman and death'.
An Ancient Greek quote reads: "Death is dark and hollow like a woman." This maxim, often cited by French art expert and erotomaniac Gilles Neret, is particularly applicable to the Northern Renaissance. Three women are exemplary in this context: Judith, Salome and Lucretia. Judith represents the murderous woman. She is a woman who defends her honor by seducing Holofernes, the man who treats her and her people unfairly, but without truly giving herself, like a real allumeuse, and then killing him. She is the femme fatale in the literal sense, a black widow who gratefully using her feminine charms, which provides Cranach the erotic framework to several canvases on the subject, each time depicting her holding the severed head of her sworn enemy Holofernes. [see Judith with the head of Holofernes (Cranach) ]
- Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
- And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.
- And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
- --(Judith 13 from verse 6)
The second femme fatale is Salome. According to the Bible, she is the daughter of the powerful King Herod and his wife Herodias, a spoiled brat by any account. At a party, when Salome is performing the dance of seven veils, a barely disguised striptease on can only to easily imagine, the king is so enraptured that he promises her 'to give her anything she wants". When the dance is over, she demands "the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter," because the prophet had previously ventured to reject Salome's sexual advances. The king was indignant, but granted her request and had her bring the head on a tray. Oscar Wilde later added a necrophilic dimension in his Salome-play by having her kiss the severed head of John. Like many artists after him, Cranach was so impressed by the story that he devoted a number of paintings to the subject. [see Salome (Cranach) ].
A third woman who shall forever be associated with death is the Roman Lucretia. She is the victim of a brutal rape, which causes her so much shame that she takes her own life. Lucretia, according to Roman historians, was a young married woman, known for her beauty and even more for her piety. An Etruscan prince who comes to visit her while her husband is at war, let "his lust triumph over her inflexible chastity" and dishonours her by force. After she reports this infamy to her husband and father, asking them to avenge her, she commits suicide. The dagger she uses for this purpose possesses a certain phallic symbolism that definitely did not escape Cranach's attention: he paints the scene of Lucretia pointing the dagger to her heart no less than five times [see image ].
To complete the theme of death in the arts of the Northern Renaissance, we must return once more to Hans Baldung, the grandmaster of the erotic in Northern Europe. In a number of his paintings he lets death, depicted as a living skeleton, molest young virgins. In some other works he shows the transience of life, by showing the same woman in different stages of ageing.
The first category, allegorical paintings of women and death, show beautiful blond women with white breasts and buttocks, a skeleton next to them, some of which have shreds of decomposing skin hanging from their bones. The skeleton is frighteningly close to her and whispering something in her ear, pulling her hair and putting his arm around her. One may wonder whether these paintings and drawings are part of the realm of erotic art. The answer to this question is a resolute "yes". Perhaps we should at this point, contradict Michel Foucault when he writes in his doctoral thesis of the 1960s that "Sadism [and masochism] is not a name finally given to a practice as old as Eros; it is a massive cultural fact which appeared precisely at the end of the eighteenth century, and which constitutes one of the greatest conversions of Western imagination: unreason transformed into delirium of the heart, madness of desire, the insane dialogue of love and death in the limitless presumption of appetite. " We reject Foucault not in his definition of sadomasochism, which we find quite correct, but in the originating date of the phenomenon. If sadomasochist practice does not arise until around 1800, as Foucault claims, works by Baldung with the expressive title Death and the maiden (, , , , ) - but also the above mentioned Aristoteles being ridden are difficult to explain.
Niklaus Manuel (c. 1484-1530), a lesser known Swiss Renaissance painter, personifies death in a picture [image] where death tries to get his hands under the skirts of a girl. She fends off his hand, but turns her face to him for what appears to be a welcome kiss. A similar picture [image] is painted by Manuel around 1516 as a mural in the Dominican convent of Berne. Still, the caveman in us is most attracted to one of the so-called 'minor masters', Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), who surprises us with the engraving Oh, the hour has come, including naked pudenda [image].
Finally the most horrific painting in this category, the morbid Dead Lovers (c. 1470), a work by an anonymous Swabian master, previously attributed to Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470-1528). This painting is a perfect illustration of the sexual schizophrenia of the 'Erotica Nordica'.
*(It is of note that in English having an orgasm is "coming", while in Spanish one "goes")
Renaissance/Vanity: for the fairest one!
"For the fairest one!" That's what is written on the golden apple that Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, throws in the crowd when she arrives angry and uninvited at a divine wedding. Strife is there-from born among the three vain goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite. All of them claim the apple and eventually they ask the mortal Paris to judge the beauty of the goddesses. Hera tries to bribe Paris with wealth and power, Athena with infinite wisdom and Aphrodite promises him the most beautiful woman on earth. Paris proclaims Aphrodite to be the most beautiful of the trio and she receives the golden apple, which has since been her permanent attribute. The prize for Paris? The most beautiful woman on earth, Helen, wife of Spartan King Menelaus. Paris travels to Sparta and with the help of Aphrodite abducts the ravishing Helen, which will be the starting point of the Trojan War.
The story of the three quarrelling goddesses is also the excuse during the Renaissance to portray three female beauties in an undisguised beauty pageant avant-la-lettre. Raimondi, the artist of I Modi, is the first Renaissance artist who engraved the subject, to a design by Raphael (image), but it will be primarily the painters from the North who bring the subject to life with paint. Cranach accomplished no fewer than seven versions, all with a knight in full armour surrounded by three stark naked goddesses. The version (image) which can charm us most is that of Niklaus Manuel, with a pot-bellied goddess looking puzzled and ashamed and Aphrodite who receives, visibly grateful and lovestruck, the apple from Paris. Paris's hand seems to make a move in the direction of the mound of Aphrodite. A goddess, probably the asexual Athena; remains fully clothed, giving the painting an extra frisson.
Vain women should know that beauty is fleeting. An old Dutch proverb, first recorded by the 17th-century Dutch writer and humorist Jacob Cats, goes as follows: "Who marries a bitch for the tits, looses the tits and keeps the bitch". This is knowledge as old as humanity. Hans Baldung Grien dedicated a whole series of paintings and prints to the brittle transience of life .
The The Seven Ages of Woman and the Three Ages of the Woman and the Death illustrate the various stages in the life of Venus, from newborn infant to beautiful young woman and finally to an old, worn crone. This type of work is generally referred to as Vanitas, or memento mori, such as the work of the anonymous Nordic Master M Z from around 1502 (image).
Renaissance/The caveman looks at a print
Whilst the medieval caveman is addressed from the walls of churches, in the Renaissance, he buys prints from hawkers on the markets of bustling cities. The Renaissance is associated with the emergence of a visual culture fuelled by engravings, allowing anyone with some financial means to amass an erotic collection, his own erotic print room. Since the mid-15th century woodcuts come within the financial reach of the new urban middle class. In the beginning the engravings are original compositions, but soon the technique is used to copy existing paintings and frescoes. The print is the illustrated magazine, the television of its time. What for years could only be described in words, paintings, sculptures, landscapes, frescoed interiors, one can now duplicate mechanically and bring to the eyes of hundreds in vivid depictions, without even having to budge. Titian in Venice and Raphael in Rome begin to collaborate about the same time with master engravers to perpetuate their designs in prints. Flemish and Dutch printers and publishers, such as Philippe Galle (1537-1612) and Hieronymus Cock (1518-1570), develop distribution networks that operate internationally, and they also produce work to order.
But much more interesting than the copies of existing works, are the original engravings. Because engravings belong to the private sphere, and so can be quietly and freely enjoyed without prying busybodies glancing over one's shoulder, the artist is now much freer in depicting erotic scenes. It is unfortunate that most books on the history of erotica neglect prints, for it is self-evident that the old master print allows an artist to go a lot further than in a painting meant for the dining room or bedroom. All in all, the art of painting lends itself much less to erotic expression compared to the master prints. A visit to a print collection of any European museum will yield a very large amount of exciting prints, much greater than the number of paintings and much more explicit.
Admittedly, prints lack colour, because prints are black and white. But what they lack in colour, they make up in audacity. During the Renaissance, some of these prints are by the great masters, and a whole slew of others are by so-called 'Little Masters'. Besides the above I Modi by Marcantonio Raimondi's there are - starting in Italy - the Lascivie [image] [image] (c. 1590-1595) by Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) which once again depict the loves the gods (Satyr Mason), work by Parmigianino (image), Giulio Bonasone (image), Jacopo Caraglio (image), Rosso Fiorentino, Perino del Vaga (image), Cristofano Robetta and Giovanni Battista Palumba.
Many of these prints have been lost after the death of their - of course, usually male - owners. One can imagine the embarrassment of an heir or heiress when confronted with daddy's collection of racy pictures, and the decision to throw the lot on the fire. The print collection of Ferdinand Columbus (1488-1539), son of Christopher Columbus, known as the first and oldest collection, consisted at the time of his death of 3,200 engravings and woodcuts. Proof of how risqué some of these prints still are to contemporary standards, is provided by the fact that the print Woman with Dildo [this print was not in the Dutch edition, but needs to be included here] by Raimondi was not shown at an exhibition of erotic engravings from the Renaissance, held early 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York.
In the North there are the prints of Hans Sebald, who, somewhat clumsily but nevertheless passionately convincing, engraves a number of themes which are popular in the early Renaissance. An early Caritas Romana - the story of an imprisoned father who is sentenced to death by starvation. His hands are cuffed, but his own daughter offers him her breasts so that she keeps him alive in a sacrificial act of daughterly love -, The Night (a reclining nude with bare pudenda) (image) and Old Man Fondling the Breast of a Woman who Steals His Money (image).
Renaissance/The erotic vocabulary of the Renaissance everyman
The visual and literary culture in the Renaissance has now grown to an amalgam of Roman and Greek myths; legends about the founding of Rome, the beauty and wisdom of its famous women and the exploits of its mighty heroes; folklore and fables, as well as stories of biblical eroticism. That ensemble provides a sampling of what men and women have on their minds and gives us an insight into their sexual lives. The Renaissance man now possesses an 'erotic vocabulary' - a popular culture, a collective consciousness or proto-psychology - which can be applied to specific everyday situations. Are you a male victim of sexual harassment? Then you're the Joseph from the biblical story "Joseph and Potiphar's wife." You are woman who is being spied upon? Then you were the biblical Bathsheba or Susanna.
Greco-Roman mythology has already been addressed in our discussion of Ovid and the Metamorphoses. New are the depictions of stories from Roman legends. The themes that easily lend themselves to erotic scenes are the Roman Charity (or caritas romana), the aforementioned rape and subsequent suicide of Lucretia (image), and the The Rape of the Sabine Women.
The latter proves to be a very popular theme. Who are the Sabine women? The story goes back to the origins of Rome. Romulus and his twin brother Remus, legendary founders of the city, prize Rome as a safe haven for anyone in search of a new life. This attracts a population of exiles, refugees, murderers, criminals and runaway slaves. There is only one problem: few women respond to the call of the two brothers and the city consists therefore almost solely of men. Romulus decides that his city also needs to filled with women and devises a ruse. He organizes a big feast and kindly asks the neighbouring Sabine people to join them. The Sabines arrive en masse, and more importantly, they bring along their wives and daughters.
The feast begins. On an agreed signal the Roman freebooters capture 683 daughters and wives of the Sabines and chase their husbands and fathers. The immediate result is of course a war between the Romans and the Sabines. But the Sabine women thwart the battle before it starts by putting themselves between the warring parties and by demanding a reconciliation, just like the women in the Greek comedy Lysistrata by Aristophanes had done. Years later the vengeful Sabine men find their women living in harmony with their new-found husbands, many already with offspring. The Romans and the Sabines settle their dispute and the city can continue to prosper. This episode in the Roman founding myth provides the perfect excuse to portray half-dressed men and women in an intense and passionate struggle.
I already mentioned that the depiction of biblical eroticism during the Middle Ages is scarce and consists of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Song of Songs, the story of Bathsheba in her bath, the temptations of the holy St. Anthony, the depictions of Susanna and the elders and Lot and his daughters. We could add to this list the fallen and penitent woman Mary Magdalene and the theme of Potiphar's wife, but then I'm finished and I would even have to add that Saint Anthony was not even a biblical figure.
Starting in the Renaissance, these stories can now for the first time be freely depicted. The story of Bathsheba appears to be particularly convenient to bring nudity to the canvas. Bathsheba, a married woman who happens to be bathing, is being spied upon by King David from a nearby roof top. The story has a fatal outcome, but the most frequently painted scene puts the viewer as voyeur on the strategic location of King David, where he has ample view of her feminine beauty. There is a very beautiful and lively Bathsheba (image) by Memling.
One of the most famous Christian stories is that of Holy St. Anthony, who sets off for the desert to live as an ascetic. Once there, he is beseeched by certain temptations. Demons appear to him who seek to distract him from the righteous path. Painters usually depict the monsters who scare him to death, but an occasional artist depicts the lure of the beautiful maidens who challenge his virtue. We already saw a very strange 'woman as landscape' in the Brussels version of Bosch's Temptation of St. Anthony. Flaubert would eroticize the story in the 19th century, and in that same century, Félicien Rops gives us the definite visual version.
The story of Susanna and the elders is similar and it provides us with a voyeuristic scene similar to that of Bathsheba. Like Bathsheba, Susanna takes a bath, unaware that she is spied upon. In Susanna's case the voyeurs are two elderly men. They try to seduce her, but she naturally declines to respond. In revenge, the men falsely accuse her of adultery. The Flemish painter Jan Matsys (ca. 1510-1575) has a beautiful stylized version of the theme (image). The Italian artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652) also has it in her oeuvre (image).
Also part of biblical eroticism is that classical incest story of Lot and his daughters. Lot lives with his wife and daughters in Sodom, along with Gomorrah notorious for the 'depravity' of the inhabitants. The only righteous ones are Lot and his family. They are summoned by two angels to leave Sodom and not to look back. Lot's wife (we are never told her name) cannot resist the temptation, she turns her head around to glance at her native village once more and is immediately turned into a pillar of salt. With his two daughters Lot withdraws in a cave. His girls are childless and have no husband, so one day they decide to get their father drunk and seduce him. Both become pregnant and give birth to a son. The German artist Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480-1538) paints Lot with one of his daughters, the other is visible in the distance. From the name Sodom was later derived the term "sodomy", an umbrella term for unnatural and therefore sinful and forbidden sexual conduct, a term most often used to refer specifically to homosexuality, and anal sex in general. In the Dutch language, the words 'opsodemieteren' and 'besodemieteren' are still in use.
And then there's the story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife. What if you were being falsely accused of rape? It happens to the biblical character Joseph. The unnamed wife of Potiphar tries to seduce him, but when that fails, she becomes furious and accuses him of having raped her. As evidence of her ordeal she produces a piece of cloth from the garments of Joseph. The unhappy soul is subsequently arrested, put in jail for ten years before being eventually acquitted. Potiphar's Wife by the Italian artist Tintoretto brings the narrative beautifully to life. (image).
In Biblical tradition, Mary Magdalene is equated to a "penitent sinner". What exactly is her sin? Nobody knows for sure. Sinner here must be read as "fallen woman" or "woman of loose morals', which in turn is a euphemism for a whore, if one skips the word prostitute. In that capacity, she is often depicted in legend and art, unrightfully so, because her infamy is based on an erroneous interpretation by the 6th-century Pope Gregory I.
Mary Magdalene is not only a sinner, but also penitent. At the end of her life she sees the light and wants to atone for her sins. In that pleading, penitent way she is depicted from the Renaissance onwards in innumerable sculptures and paintings, such as two paintings by Titian. My preference goes to the version in the Pitti Palace in Florence (image), with a particularly striking, plump Magdalene whose swooning eyes ecstatically turn to the heavens. Despite of her Venus pudica-pose we are allowed ample view on her rather small breasts and hair so long that while covering her whole body must still reach down to her feet. The same hair with which she dried Our Lord feet after having anointed them.
But the most beautiful Magdalene is a sculpture from a later age, from the hand of Antonio Canova (1757-1822) (image). It shows a kneeling Magdalen, her buttocks on her feet, her arms outstretched, the palms of her hands resting on her knees. Her head is bent forward, humble and docile. But also: the right upper half of her flimsy dress is pushed down, partly baring one breast. The skull at her side is a reference to the vanitas motive. To this day Magdelena is the patron saint of prostitutes and the prototype of the hooker with a heart of gold.
The depiction of Adam and Eve also witnesses an evolution. Whereas in the Middle Ages the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is depicted as a narrative sequence of images, in the Renaissance the shame scene only is depicted: frivolous and morbid at the same time in this print by Jost Amman (1539-1591) (image).
One more term needs to be added to the 'erotic vocabulary of the Renaissance Everyman'. In both print and painting we see that eroticism is being practiced for the sake of eroticism, without allegorical meaning: gratuitous nudity, nudity for the sake of nudity. In contemporary film theory, the term 'gratuitous nudity' is often contrasted to 'functional nudity'. The earliest painting in this category is arguably the Venus of Urbino, as one of the first paintings to omit any reference to mythology or the bible altogether. There are two other striking paintings in the same category, both showing women with a bare torso. The woman in the first painting is almost completely naked from the waist up, apart from a transparent veil she has pulled up under her breasts. Supposedly she was a sweetheart and/or model of Raphael. The work is called La Fornarina (image), which means the baker's daughter. The second work is Portrait of Woman Revealing her Breasts by Tintoretto [image] and it depicts a woman who is unbuttoning her dress for us and deliberately drawing it aside, exposes her left breast. We even see her right nipple half flattened against the opened dress. Unlike the Venus of Urbino, this woman looks away from us, what gives the canvas an air of strange excitement.
A perverse-looking painting is an amorous trio of an anonymous artist from an original by Titian (image) in the Casa Buonarroti. The painting shows a woman flanked by two men. The man to the left dominates the picture and look us straight in the eye, his left arm rests on the shoulder of the woman, his right hand slides under her dress to grasp her breast. The man in the upper right directs his vacant gaze over the shoulder of the woman to the left side of the canvas. The hand on her shoulder might just as well be his hand. The impossibility to interpret this work adds to its erotic luster.
The Renaissance is also the time of mercantilism, a precursor of the brutal capitalism common to the Western world before the time of the socialist revolutions. Everything is for sale, the slave trade thrives on a large scale. Women are also for sale, not necessarily as prostitutes or slave, but figuratively: a deliberate marriage gives a woman security and the man the illusion of eternal conjugal happiness. This cynical view of things - the big age difference in marriages where the woman is considerably younger than the husband suggests that she marries because of the convenience and financial gain - is depicted in the Renaissance in prints and paintings. Each of these paintings focuses on the beginning of such a relationship: the man 'getting friendly' with the woman and the woman who quite literally reaches with her hands in his purse. We see the old fool - who is called senex amans in art jargon - and the frail maiden in versions by Netherlandish Masters Cranach the Elder [image], Hans Sebald and Quentin Matsys (image).
Meanwhile in France: from Villon to Brantôme
So far, the history of eroticism was set mainly in Germany and Italy. France, which later becomes the undisputed center of all things erotic, has not been given attention. Visually, France fares poorly in comparison with its neighbors: no obscene engravings, few instances of eroticism in paint.
Noteworthy are the already shown painting by Jean Foucquet [page x] and the famous painting School of Fontainebleau painting Gabrielle d'Estrées and One of Her Sisters (image). Two young women sitting in a bathtub, one reaches with her fingers to gently and tenderly squeeze the nipple of the other woman. Both of them gaze at us like they are from another world. Reaching for the nipple is said to suggest Gabrielle d'Estrees' pregnancy - not an early representation of lesbian love-: one sister teaching the other lessons in her future motherhood.
In the literary field, the French Renaissance harbours a veritable treasure trove of early erotic texts. Already in the 12th century Breton writer Marie de France would pen an ode to the female genitals in the Lai du Lecheor.
- I swear on my faith,
- No woman has such a pretty face
- That if she would lose her cunt,
- Friend or lover for her yield. --tr.French Arthurian Literature: Eleven Old French Narrative Lays
The poem is a testimony to famous medieval anti-feminism and gives again a very cynical view of sexual relations. The Middle Ages are characterized by a world view in which women - both in practice and in literature - are seen as only a weak decoction of man. This is due to the fact that Eve burdened mankind with original sin. Everyone knows the story: Adam and Eve both live in paradise, they are naked, have no shame. After Eve, following the advice of a devilish serpent, lets Adam eat from the forbidden apple, they both become mortal and they are driven out of paradise. God condemns Eve to terrible pains during childbirth and to be eternally subdued to Adam.
Medieval man invokes Eve when he wants to show the inferiority of women. It is only fair to say that man often does not fare any better. While in literary circles, no mention is made of a medieval antimasculism, man is still very often portrayed as a simpleton. Since medieval writers are almost invariably men, this antimasculinist self-mockery deserves attention, which we unfortunately cannot give it now.
French literature of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance brings five authors, who each in their own way use eroticism - or at least the human body - to explore the boundaries of the impending literary era: François Villon (1431-ca. 1463), François Rabelais (1494-1553), Clement Marot (1496-1544), Theophile de Viau (1590-1626) and Brantôme (1540-1614).
Villon: 'My neck will learn the weight of my ass'
François Villon was a poet, thief, vagabond and master at combining lyrical texts with veiled obscenities. His love of language is reflected in his extensive knowledge of the jobelin, an argot secret language used by medieval crime societies. He finds himself repeatedly on the wrong end of the prison bars, where he also writes some of his most famous works, including his "Ballad of the Hanged". He is the precursor of the equally criminally inclined writer 20th-century Jean Genet and the first representative of prison literature as a genre.
Villons verse "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" - But where are the snows of yesteryear - is still often cited. His love for the margins of society is appealing: he writes about whores and the grubbiness of the lower classes and he does so with compassion. In the following poem he warns 'filles de joie' for the fate that awaits them.
- And you, Blanche Slippermaker fair,
- I'd have you see yourselves in me :
- Look all to right and left take ye ;
- Disdain no man ; for whores that bin
- Old have nor course nor currency,
- No more than money that's called in. tr. John Payne
A fine example of the realist style of Villon, who often gave the physical center stage, is the epitaph written while in jail - sentenced to be hanged - when he was still in his twenties.
- I am Francois, luckless jay,
- Born at Paris, Pontoise way
- My neck, looped up beneath the tree
- Will learn how heavy buttocks be. --tr. Lewis Wharton
Despite his death sentence, he was never hanged (not in Paris, anyway) and how he died remains unknown. The last anyone heard of François, was in 1463, when he was 32.
Rabelais and the lower body
- "The arse seems to be condemned to live in the dark. Among the different parts of our body, it leads the life of a tramp. It truly is the idiot of the family. Yet it would be a miracle if this black sheep of the body did not have a ready opinion of the events taking place in higher regions, just like those who have been rejected by society often express the most sober views of it." --Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason.
Although Gargantua and Pantagruel, that masterpiece of the French physician and writer Rabelais, is rather emetic than erotic, more scatological than sensual, it cannot be omitted from any history of eroticism. The adjective that best fits Rabelais's subverted eroticism, which I will call 'anti-eroticism', is spirited: in his work humor and the erotic go hand in hand. Rabelais uses the human body, especially its lower half, to offer a satirical look at society. As a physician, this physicality comes naturally to him, as humorist he makes good use of it.
The phrase most often associated with Rabelais, is: Fay ce que vouldras. Do what you want. And so he does. He dedicates one of his books to all sufferers of syphilis. In one of his stories he offers to rebuild the city walls of Paris by with vulvae - these are cheaper than stones. He digresses on bowel movements and how best to wipe your ass, talks about snot and other bodily fluids. But he makes art from what in the hands of lesser gods would be mere dirty stories. His nimbleness never ceases to surprise, even when he enters the foulest shed. The imagination with which he forges his plot elements is as astounding as it is refreshing. Thus Pantagruel, Gargantua's son, is born from the ear of his mother and while we read this, we experience it as natural and delicious.
The first part of the cycle of novels Gargantua and Pantagruel is published under the pseudonym Magister Alcofribas Nasier, an anagram of the name of the writer. The Parisian university of Sorbonne abhors the book and places it on its list of banned books, one of the first of its kind. But because the French king is entertained with it, Rabelais publishes the later parts under his own name. Rabelais's urge to experiment is best illustrated by two blasons on the male testicles: blason and counterblason of the bollocks. The blason and the counterblason are a form of medieval lyricism. In the Renaissance the blason praises the beauty of the female body or parts thereof against, the counterblason does the opposite by taunting them. Rabelais stretches the genre to the limits of its permitted uses and employs no less than 275 adjectives - often self-invented words - to the praise of the bollocks and 440 adjectives to scoff them.
The reader of the original French version will need some time to figure out that the 'c.' in the original French version is an abbreviation for couillon (idiot, jerk, dickhead) or couille (bollocks, testicle).
The French original of the blazon reads:
Couillon moignon c. de renom. c. paté. c. naté c. plombé c. laicté. c. feutré c. calfaté. c. madré c. relevé. c. de stuc. c. de crotesque. c. Arabesque. c. asseré. c. troussé à la levresque. c. antiquaire. Etc…
A similar series in English yields:
Mellow C. Varnished C. Resolute C. Lead-coloured C. Renowned C. Cabbage-like C. Knurled C. Matted C. Courteous C. Suborned C. Genitive C. Fertile C. Desired C. Gigantal C. Whizzing C. Stuffed C. Oval C. Neat C. Speckled C. Claustral C. Common C.
The French original of the counterblason goes:
Couillon flatry c. moisy, c. rouy. c. chaumeny. c. poitry d'eaue froyde. c. pendillant. c. transy. c. appellant. c. avallé. c. guavasche. c. fené. c. esgrené. c. esrené. c. incongru.
A similar series in English yields:
Faded C. Louting C. Appellant C. Mouldy C. Discouraged C. Swagging C. Musty C. Surfeited C. Withered C. Paltry C. Peevish C. Broken-reined C. Senseless C. Translated C. Defective C. Foundered C. Forlorn C. Crestfallen C. Distempered C. Unsavoury C. Felled C. Bewrayed C. Worm-eaten C. Fleeted C. Inveigled C. Overtoiled C. Cloyed C. Dangling C. Miserable C. Squeezed C. Stupid C. Steeped C. Resty C. Seedless C. Kneaded-with-cold- Pounded C. Soaked C. water C. Loose C.
Plump breast, whiter than an egg
Eleven years before Rabelais publishes his blasons, two other blasons see the light of day. They are written by Clément Marot, a contemporary of Rabelais, and they feature the alternation between reviling and adulation for which the genre will become known. In the blason of the beautiful tit Marot sings the beauty of a woman's breast.
- Plump breast, whiter than an egg
- Breast of brand new white satin
- Breast that puts the rose to shame
- Breast more beautiful than anything
- Firm breast, not a breast but,
- A little round ball of ivory
Again, the counterblason, the blason of the ugly tit, keeps the previous blason companionship.
- Tit, skinny tit,
- flat tit that looks like a flag,
- big tit, long tit,
- tit, must I call thee bag?
- Tit with its ugly black end,
- forever moving tit.
- Who would boast having touched you?
- With their hand fondle you?
- --(tr. by Helene Marmoux)
Philis, everything is f..ed up
In the fight against syphilis, many sensuous persons have lost the battle. Renaissance man brings the condition from South America, the New World, and the disease continues to plague humanity until 1927, when finally a drug for the fatal disease is found. Syphilis leads to a slow and painful death. It is the AIDS of its time. Where Rabelais dedicates one of his books to sufferers of syphilis, the French writer Theophile de Viau writes a poem about it. It is entitled "Philis, everything is f..ed up", and it appears in the poetry collection Parnasse satyrique.
It earns Viau the death sentence, but most likely the poem is a mere pretext. It is generally accepted that it is Viau's homosexuality and militant atheism which gets him into trouble, rather than the "obscene" content of his poems. At that time, there isn't even a word for obscenity - the French use the term folastrie, which means tomfoolery.
- “Philis, everything is f..ed up; I’m dying of the pox
- which has me strictly bound in the last throes;
- My D..k hangs its head, is on the rocks
- and a stinking sore spoils my attempts at prose. --Limited, Inc.
Revolutionary is Viau's use of the ellipsis - the three dots "..." - which he uses as a sculptor uses fig leaves or as television and radio producers use censor bars and beep sounds. He must have thought that these would safeguard him from prosecution. Not so. To spell A foutre as a ...tre can of course not appease the censors. At the very end of his poem he adds oil to the fire and practically moons the censor by saying to Philis: 'Je fais voeu desormais de ne foutre qu'un cul,' 'I swear to only f... asses from now on.'
After his conviction Viau goes into hiding and instead of being lit on the pile, his effigy is burned. He tries to flee to England, but is caught by the collar and is locked up for a period of almost two years in La Conciergerie, the prison of Paris. His trial does not go unnoticed: more than fifty pamphlets appear, both for and against Viau. His punishment is eventually converted into perpetual exile, and Viau, who is to die young, spends his last months under the protection of the patron Duke of Montmorency. In 1626, barely 36-years old, he moves from the temporary to the eternal.
From hearsay: the gallant ladies of Brantôme
In the 16th century Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme manages as noble soldier to become the intimus at the courts of the European kings and queens. Meticulously, he describes their lives and makes history as the chronicler of the 'gallant' court ladies of his time. His memoirs - an ideal vehicle to indulge in literary-erotic excesses of all kinds - will be published some 50 years after his death in under the name Les Vies des Dames Galantes (Lives of the Gallant Ladies). Nobody knows the work today, the last Dutch translation dates from 1966. But Freud read it and he quoted aptly from it in his work The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. More than anyone who went before him, Brantôme discusses the psychology of sexuality in all its variegated and twisted antics.
At the age of 49, Brantôme, badly injured from a fall from his horse and bedridden, begins to write his memoirs, with the intention to publish them posthumously. He rarely mentions anyone by name or surname, he just makes innuendo. "I do use only false names and garbled descriptions," he says, afraid to compromise his contemporaries. He should not have worried about that since most of his protagonists will be long dead when the work is finally published.
Like Boccaccio and Chaucer, he insists to apologize for the "spiciness" of some of his stories, yet he assures his "ladies," his "avid female readership" that he has desisted from including stories of which he believes that they are "impossible to cover with a veil of appropriate decency". He adds that his stories are "no petty stories of market-town and village gossip, but do come from high and worthy sources, and deal not with common and humble personages." Of course, he has a lot from 'hearsay' and he makes no qualms of simply retelling pre-existing stories. As a chronicler of his time he is unreliable, to say the least. But his language is smooth, a kind of stream of consciousness style avant la lettre, and the stories are juicy if anything, painting a vivid picture of court life in the age of gallantry.
The Lives are subdivided into seven "discourses" and feature many references to Greco-Roman and Medieval writers, such as Ovid, Lucian, Juvenal, Martial, Boccaccio and Aretino. The text thus forms a compendium of existing knowledge about the manners and customs of women and their men. The discourses bear the following titles: Of Ladies Which Do Make Love, and Their Husbands Cuckolds; On the Question Which Doth Give the More Content in Love, Whether Touching, Seeing, or Speaking; Concerning the Beauty of a Fine Leg, and the Virtue the Same Doth Possess; Concerning Old Dames as Fond to Practise Love as Ever the Young Ones Be; Telling How Fair and Honourable Ladies Do Love Brave and Valiant Men, and Brave Men Courageous Women; Of How We Should Never Speak Ill of Ladies, and of the Consequences of So Doing and the final chapter, Concerning Married Women, Widows and Maids: to Wit, Which of These Same Be Better Than the Other to Love.
Brantôme begins with a discourse on the adulterous wife and her cuckold husband. He quotes a song from the time of King Francis,
- "If a man would make sure of his wife never going to the bad at all, he had best shut her up in a cask, and enjoy her through the bung-hole."
The tone is set. A certain lady, says Brantôme, never wants to kiss her lover, no matter how often she goes to bed with him. She explains her behaviour by saying that her mouth has sworn allegiance to her husband and that she would not dream that the same mouth would give her lover pleasure. But her body has never said nor promised anything, she gives that to him with the greatest fervour. She adds "it is not the responsibility of the upper body to be the boss of the lower body, nor the other way around. And furthermore, in order to come to a mutual agreement, the custom of law holds that the two parties should consent, and none has the right to decide for the other, nor for the whole."
Other reasons not to speak of adultery are described in the sophistries of two ladies. The first is of the opinion that she is not cheating on her husband because she always sits on top when making love to her lover. She says: "If my husband asks me whether this or that man has had his way with me, I can confidently deny." After all, it was not him who did anything, it was she. Because she has straddled the man like a real Amazon, he has never 'ridden' her. In a second case of twisted logic Brantôme tells the story of two lesbians and concludes with the cryptic postscript: "a strange thing," that is, "that where no man is, yet is adultery done." He is quoting from one of Martial's epigrams.
In his various discourses Brantôme shows himself the perfect causeur, as much a man of the sword as the pen. One can imagine how during evenings around the fireplace in the great cold halls of European castles, kings, queens and courtiers huddle together to listen to his unprejudiced narratives and how in turn Brantôme would gather new racy stories for future audiences. He closes the chapter on cuckolds and their wives with a quip about the widespread adultery of his age.
- "if all the cuckold husbands and their wives, were to hold hands, and form a ring, I verily believe this would be great enough to surround and encircle a good half of the globe."
The aforementioned lesbianism - Brantôme uses the term donna con donna, woman with woman - is given a few paragraphs: Brantôme knows of a number of European ladies whose love for each other was physical and mentions some by name. He quotes Juvenal, who speaks of women who '... frictum ... adorat ... ' love rubbing. Which body parts are rubbed exactly soon becomes apparent when a little further he uses the term tribadism, an outdated term for lesbian love which specifically refers to the technique of rubbing together the genitals. That Brantôme's overheated imagination allows inaccuracies to slip into his translation of the Latin original, does not lessen our reading pleasure.
The private parts of women are also discussed, albeit highly glossed. He calls them 'wings' as the Greeks and Romans used to do. Brantôme is the first early modern writer, to speak of oral sex performed on women. He does not mention it by name, nor uses the Latin word cunnilingus. One has to read deeply between the lines to correctly interpret the phrase "the best piece in the middle". When he continues by saying that we Christians are fond of kissing the "formless parts", his intended meaning becomes easier to decipher.
- "There was once a Spanish gentleman, who when giving his advances said: 'I have kissed your hands and your feet.' To which she replied: 'But sir, the best piece in the middle.'"
- "There be many husbands and lovers among us Christians which do desire to be in all respects different from the Turks, who take no pleasure in looking at women closely, because [the female genitalia] have no shape. We Christians on the other hand do find great contentment in regarding them carefully and do delight in such. Nay! not only do men enjoy seeing them, but likewise in kissing, and many ladies have shown their lovers the way. "
Brantôme not always manages to steer clear from the misogyny of the Middle Ages. Thus he quotes the famous verse of Ovid's "Casta est quam nemo rogavit" - she is chaste whom nobody has asked. Another amusing highlight of his antifeminism are the probably totally fictitious adventures of the French medieval writer Jean de Meung (c. 1240-c. 1305), who released with his Roman de la Rose (1275) a vitriolic line of poetry into the world "Estes ou fustes, d'effet ou de volonté, putes" - "women every one are, or have been, mere whores, if not in deed, then in desire."
According to Brantôme, this line of poetry got Jean de Meung into serious trouble and he incurred the wrath of the court ladies of that day, including the queen. They are out to teach him a lesson. One day they summon him and command him to lower his pants to his knees in order to whip him. But as all ladies are standing there to chastise him for his slanderous lines, he has one last request. He pleads with them that the "greatest whore of all should begin first." Not a sound is to be heard. None of the ladies, fearing to be the biggest whore, dares to strike first and Jean succeeds in escaping the humiliating lashes. Brantôme mentions that he has seen this scene depicted on a carpet in the interior of the Louvre. Is this piece of tapestry still around? Or did it only exist in Brantôme's imagination?
More aggression is to be found in the story of the skull of Magdalen, (image) the story of an unfaithful wife who suffers a particularly brutal, vicious and prolonged punishment by her husband. He catches her in adultery and kills the lover. He locks her in a room and hangs the bones of her lover's dead body in a closet, so he can always keep her 'company'. As if this is not enough, she is forced to eat each meal from the skull of her murdered lover, while being closely watched by her vengeful husband.
Equally cruel is the story of the Albanian knight who also kills the lover of his wife. And again the cuckolded husband concocts a strange punishment. He searches a dozen sturdy fellows of the hard and horny species, men who have a reputation for being powerfully built and very apt in the art to love. He locks these men in the room of his wife and instructs them them to perform their "duties" thoroughly on her and promises to pay double for a job well-done. One by one they take her, and in such a way that the woman does not survive the ordeal, much to the satisfaction of her husband. Just before she dies, he snaps: "This is what you loved so much, I hope that now you are completely satisfied." Brantôme clarifies that the poor woman would probably not have succumbed had she been of the same robustness and same construction as the girl in the Caesar's camp when he was in Gaul. That girl had been taken in rapid succession by two legions, but she had survived the havoc and was even dancing with joy, without complaining of any pain.
In this last story Brantôme exceeds the limits of plausibility, but in other parts of the book we need to credit him with remarkably clear insights into the psyche of women. He seems the predecessor of connoisseur of women Casanova. In the following passage Brantôme tells of women who need to be seduced with "soft compulsion".
- "I once heard of a lady who found the greatest pleasure in "these doings", when she was half forced and all but violated as it were. The more a woman shows herself recalcitrant and rebellious, she claimed, the more ardent is the attack of the man, and once he has forced a breach, he celebrates his victory more fiercely and savagely, and thereby gives the woman more pleasure. " [paraphrase from Allinson]
But again, Brantôme cannot keep clear from exaggerations. In two similar passages he changes from Brantôme the causeur into Brantôme the joker.
- "I have heard speak of a Frenchwoman, town-bred, a lady of birth and of handsome looks, who was violated in our civil wars, in a town taken by assault, by a multitude of men-at-arms. On escaping away from these, she consulted a worthy Father as to whether she had sinned greatly, first telling him her story. He said, no! inasmuch as she had been had by force, and deflowered without her consent. She replied: 'Now God be praised, for that once in my life I have had my fill, without sinning or doing offence to God!'"
Another lady of quality, a widow, who is similarly violated at the time of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, consults a man whether she had offended God and if she will not be punished with His severity. She also wonders whether she has not wronged her deceased husband. The confidant replies that if she enjoyed it, she certainly has sinned, but if she has felt only disgust, it's like it never happened. A good and wise counsel, Brantôme felt.
The extensive repertory that Brantôme covers is impressive: women who mummify the penis of their deceased husband, artificial penises and strap-on dildos (godemiches), shoe fetishists and hermaphrodites - the whole panoply of normal and not so normal sexual practices is discussed. But it is at the level of the female psyche that Brantôme excels. Thus he describes somewhat mockingly the uncertainties ageing ladies inevitably face. He even devotes an entire chapter to the subject.
"I have been told about a lady, very beautiful and dedicated to the art of love," begins Brantôme. When one of her lovers returned after an absence of four years, behold, he found "many changes in the pretty face that he once knew, which made him cold and even disgusted". The man had lost his appetite to renew their shared pleasures. She knew him all too well and thought of a way to get him to sleep with her: she lured him to his bedroom pretending she was sick. When he visited her there, she said that she very well knows that he detests her old face, but invites him to check with his own eyes to determine whether something has changed about her "down there". She pushes the blankets off her and said, "If my face has deceived you, at any rate there is no deception about this." The gentleman's appetite is rekindled and soon enough tastes the flesh which moments before he had considered unattractive and spoiled. "Now this is the way, Sir," said the lady, "you men are deceived! Next time, give no credence to the lies our false faces tell ; for indeed the rest of our bodies do by no means always match them. This is the lesson I wanted to teach you."
Another lady, according to Brantôme, is even more pragmatic in her approach. Every time she sleeps with her lover in broad daylight, she covers her face with a piece of fine Holland cloth, out of fear that the sight of her face would quench the ardour of his abdomen and he would despise her. Below the belt she has lost none of its beauty.
In 1901 the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud publishes his Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Freud is a medical doctor by training, but has a keen interest in archaeology, the classics and literature. In his discussion of the significance of slips of the tongue, he quotes from The Lives of Gallant Ladies. In the following tale, Brantôme 'knows' a lady who in a discussion of military affairs at the court had said, 'J'ay ouy dire que le roy a faiet rompre tous les cons de ce pays là.' I heard the king had all the cunts of the country broken. "She meant, of course, ponts (bridges) instead of cons (cunts).
Brantôme does not fail to mention male homosexuality, that bête noire of eroticism. Love between men is called sodomy in those days, but this umbrella term also refers to anal intercourse with a woman. Brantôme rules that sodomy is equally reprehensible and abhorrent to God as well as to man. He tells of a married man in love with a handsome boy, who is in love with his wife. The married man persuades his wife to give her favours to the young man. The wife concedes, as she too is in love with the boy. When they are consummating their love, the husband rushes into the bedroom and accuses the two of adultery. Since he caught them red-handed Medieval law allowed him to kill them both. He is, however, willing to refrain from the execution if the young man gives himself to him. And so it goes. In a second similar incident, the husband makes love to a boy while simultaneously taking his wife, allowing the three suitors to "simultaneously satisfy their lusts.
What goes unmentioned in the tale collection of Brantôme? It is surprising that not even once Brantôme speaks of the clitoris. The Italian scientists Realdo Columbo (ca. 1515-1559) and Gabriele Falloppio (1523-1562) 'discovered' this bonbon of love at about the same time. They described and named it around 1560, when Brantôme is in his twenties. It is difficult to imagine that he had never heard of it. Equally surprising is that the word orgasm is not used at the moment of Brantôme's writing. He describes the convulsions of love as jouissance.
- '... The fruit of earthly love is nothing else than jouissance [orgasm], and it can hardly be imagined without touching and kissing."
The love that dare not speak its name
Title image Amor Vincit Omnia (Caravaggio)
Of the three Renaissance masters, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Raphael Santi (1483-1520), two are homosexual. Only Raphael loves women. By the time Leonardo is 24, he is already involved in a sodomy trial. A special commission is created in Florence, the Officers of the Night, which scatter collection boxes throughout the city where people can anonymously denounce fellow citizens of crimes "against nature;" mainly meaning the severe but during the Italian Renaissance widespread offence of sodomy. In the years that the Officers of the Night are active - between 1432 and 1502 - 17,000 people are accused and 3,000 are convicted. So commonplace is this 'unnatural' act in Florence, that Germans adopted the slang term Florenzer, when they are talking about a homosexual man.
It is highly probable that many Florentines are falsely accused, but where there's smoke, there's fire, and Leonardo lands on the list of suspects. He is not convicted for lack of evidence, but today we know that after his trial Leonardo continues to entertain very intimate and lasting relationships with men, and one of his favourites is a certain Salaì, with whom he will be together for thirty years. Freud argues in his psychobiography, Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood that the Renaissance master lived chastely for most of his life, but he deduces from Leonardo's paintings and notebooks that he was a latent homosexual. A homosexual who did not out himself. In the closet, as they say today.
Leonardo's X portfolio, his collection of erotic drawings, features one of the only hard-ons (Image) of the Renaissance, and extremely beautiful at that. Art historians assume that the said member belongs to the favourite of Leonardo, Salaì, who was a bit of a Byron-type. When Leonardo lists his offences in one of his notebooks, he calls Salaì "a thief, a liar, stubborn, and a glutton." But beautiful he was, Vasari says of him that he was "a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair."
Even more than about Leonardo, there is a consensus that Michelangelo was gay. Michelangelo's preference for the male nude is often explained - by historians who really ought to know better - by invoking the zeitgeist of the Renaissance, which idealizes the human body and especially the male body and elevates man to the measure of all things. But that is too facile an explanation for Michelangelo's artistic output. Not only does he give us the megalomaniac athletic statue of David, a gay icon if there ever was one, but he also fills the walls of the Sistine Chapel with nude male bodies, the so-called ignudi. And if one looks at his Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, it is striking that there is almost no woman in sight, and the rare women who are nonetheless featured, look more like female body-builders, with breasts that can hardly be called appetizing. The writer Aretino condemns the paintings and one pope even refuses to conduct mass in the building in what he calls a repugnant 'bathhouse full of nude bodies', unworthy as a church to honour God.
For an intimate glimpse of Michelangelo's sexuality, we must seek the help of his sketches, drawings and prints. I show two 'erotic cartoons', two preparatory sketches that Michelangelo makes for his pupil Tommaso dei Cavalieri, who despite the age difference - he is 23 when he meets the 57-year-old grandmaster - will become a faithful companion of Michelangelo until his death. These erotic cartoons depict the Rape of Ganymede[image] and The Punishment of Tityus (image). Both prints feature predatory birds attacking young unbearded men, the elongated necks of the birds are unmistakable phallic symbols.
Later Renaissancist artists - often classified as Mannerist or early Baroque - Pontormo, Cellini (image), Bronzino (Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune), Caravaggio (Bacchus, Boy Bitten by a Lizard, Sleeping Cupid) are also more inclined to their own than to the other sex. All produce homo-erotic work and they are often self-proclaimed lovers of sodomy. Or should we say pederasty, the form of love and education between older men and young boys which has been since ancient times a most common practice, regaining popularity during the Renaissance? All of these artists are known for having homosexual relations, many of them with young boys.
Of course, being gay is not necessarily a prerequisite to enjoy the hard muscles of a beautiful male body, nor to paint it. That sexual identity does not always matter, is proven by he brothers Agostino (1557-1602) and Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) and their depiction of two quintessential macho archetypes, Pluto (Pluto) and Samson (Samson).
"Say ass, cock, cunt and screw," exclaimed Aretino at the beginning of the chapter on the Renaissance and that is exactly how the first libertine homosexuals felt. In a highly entertaining work, The Book of the Prick, written in the twenties of the sixteenth century by one Antonio Vignali (1501-1559), an older man (Arsiccio) explains a young boy (Sodo) that the latter is still very wet behind the ears and almost knows nothing of sexual matters. He is so ignorant that he does not even understand "why the balls never go either into the cunt or the asshole." The young man replies that his "philosophy does not deal with cocks and assholes," but the older man insists . The boy soon feels a petty amateur in the matters of love, a domain in which the older man is clearly an éminence grise.
Where the older man is actually after - you felt that coming - is to land the young man in bed as quickly as possible. He starts his argument with a defence of anal love by pointing out that the idea that anal intercourse is "against nature" is actually unknown to Nature herself. "If Mother Nature had not wanted that men sodomized each other, she would not have made the experience so delightful, or at the very least she would have ensured that it was physically impossible ... but in reality we see the opposite, since the anus receives the penis as easily as the vagina."
At this moment the young man begins to grasp it all, and being fertilized by the wisdom of the older man, it's time for him to be literally inseminated with knowledge.
"I haven't told you anything. Sodo. But before I go to bed, while I still have the energy for rational discussion, since we have entered into these matters, I would like to tell you — if sleep does not prevent me — about things in this world that, as you admit, you have little understood until now. Since I feel in the mood to talk, let's go to my house and go to bed together. And in that way, in bed, I will tell you some or all of the reasons that the balls stay outside the cunt. Those things that I can't tell you tonight we'll save for tomorrow morning." The next morning the old man explains why some cunts are more beautiful than others, why cunts can fart and why all cunts stink of shit. Not very edifying, but all this is told in a style modeled after Socratic dialogues, which gives the material a certain respectability. The icing on the cake is a story-within-a-story which explains why the balls have to remain outside of the cunt during intercourse. The story is set in an imaginary senate, a thinly veiled reference to the politics of Sienna of that time, the hometown of the author. That imaginary senate consists Cocks, Cunts, Assholes and Balls. The Cocks are the highest in standing.
The fable is about a world where the Big Cocks and Beautiful Cunts rule supreme and have dominion over the Little Cocks, the Ugly Cunts, the Assholes and the Balls, an allegorical representation of the world of alpha males and females. The Big Cocks have become so complacent that even the Beautiful Cunts turn away from them in alienation. The others are planning a revolt to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Big Cocks. They seek to mobilize the support of the Balls and the Assholes. Although at first they are willing to participate in the revolution, the Balls, known for their cowardice, eventually betray the plot, leading to a massacre of the Little Dicks, Ugly Cunts and the Assholes. In the end, decimated but not eradicated, the Little Cocks, the Ugly Cunts and the Assholes win the battle and murder almost all Big Dicks and Beautiful Cunts. All that remains to be done is to think of an appropriate punishment for the Balls, villainous and most evil traitors.
Everyone gathers at the senate and one by one the victorious Cocks addresses the other genitals on the subject of a worthy punishment for the Balls. A Big Cock, Cazzatello, takes the stand. Known as "a very honest, wise and temperate cock," Cazzatello "begins his oration with a balanced and soothing tone, referring to his audience as 'Honorable brothers and sisters' and invokes the idea of justice and stable government over chaos. His words are particularly effective on the Assholes who "sigh with compassion at the beautiful and affectionate words of Cazzatello, to which they had listened with open-mouthed attention — it seemed that the wind had gone out of them." A similar description of the reaction of the Assholes and the Cunts follow when Cazzatello condemns the conspiracy of the genitals. It elicited "a strong threatening shudder from the Assholes and the grinding of the lips of the Cunts."
In the end, common sense prevails yet again and tranquility is restored among the victorious Cocks, Cunts, and Assholes by means of a judicious sentence to be meted out to the traitorous Balls. They are forever condemned to the rank of ineffectual witnesses to the coital act, and they are denied access to Cunts and Assholes forever.
The Low Countries
- While you, Neæra, close entwine
- In frequent folds your frame with mine
- And hanging o'er, to view confest
- Your neck, and gently-heaving breast
- Down on my shoulders soft decline
- Your beauties more than half divine
- With wand'ring looks that o'er me rove
- And fire the melting soul with love
The Low Countries roughly refer to the current countries of The Netherlands and Belgium. The region forms the dividing line between northern Europe, with its Germanic culture that has fostered Protestantism, and Southern Europe, traditionally characterized by a 'Burgundian lifestyle', rooted in Catholicism. The Low Countries are caught between these two opposing cultures, which can be characterized rather effectively as on the one hand the people of Southern Europe who 'live to eat' and the people of northern Europe who 'eat to live.'
In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the Low Countries, are especially known for their religious and genre paintings, but in the 16th century, two remarkable artists celebrate Greco-Roman mythology and Christian allegory to create sensual oeuvres that skirt the limits of propriety: Jan Mabuse (aka Jan Gossaert) from Hainaut and Bartholomeus Spranger from Antwerp.
Mabuse (1478-1532), born 28 years after Bosch, is a pioneer in 1508 when he and his patron Philip of Burgundy travel to Rome to visit the Pope. He returns to Flanders struck by the beauty of Italian art and introduces the Low Countries to mannerism, a term used for Italian and Italianate art in the 16th century. The term derives from maniera, Italian for fashion or style, and actually refers to the style of Michelangelo, the undisputed Renaissance master. Imitation of Michelangelo and Raphael is indeed seen as quintessential, but Mannerism combines this with a deliberate defective sense of perspective and often unnatural-looking, twisted poses of life figures, the so-called figura serpentinata.
Mabuse is a bit of a maverick and his erotic works are gems. Adam and Eve, Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, Venus and Amor show the way to his bizar oeuvre, but two works are obligatory stopovers in the history of eroticism: Neptune and Amphitrite (image) and Danae (image).
Danae was, as you remember, 'visited' by Zeus as a golden rain. In Mabuse's interpretation of Danae, she is sitting in a circular bay window, which opens onto a monumental city. She's is wearing a blue dress that is so wide that a bit of the top of her garment has lost the battle with gravity, baring her right breast. We can not see what she is doing with her right hand, it is under the dress, which is slightly raised by her left hand. The golden stream of Zeus falls straight down, like a translucent giant phallus. Her delicate legs are half open and her feet are crossed. Her facial expression keeps middle ground between recognition and astonishment. It's hard to explain just why this Danae excites feelings of lust more readily than others. Is it the firmness of her breast or the inviting gesture of the raised dress? Her blushing cheeks or her full lips?
It is hard not to laugh when standing in front of Neptune and Amphitrite. More than any of Mabuse's work, it is reminiscent of 20th-century comics. The girl is of the same healthy type as Danae, with the same curls. The young man has a muscular body and also sports curls. They are standing in a kind of temple, on a pedestal with pillars on both sides. The couple looks sad. He is Neptune, the sea god, she Amphitrite, his consort. She is stark naked, and as is customary in the art of that period, has no pubic hair. To cover his penis, he is wearing a seashell, hanging from twigs that span his waist. Is his penis in the shell? His dangling testicles show from underneath the bottom of the shell. Although they are facing each other, the two figures are not looking at each other, they stare in front of them, their eyes crossing in an infinite point in space. Their naked bodies fill the composition completely, the figures seem too large for their setting, as if they were adults stuck in a puppet theatre, which contributes to the ludicrous nature of the painting.
This canvas clearly pokes fun at the ruling conventions of the then current art. Furthermore, despite the apparent laziness and boredom its protagonists display, it looks like neither would mind being made a pass at by a third party, what lends the work a slightly decadent taste. The Encylopedia Britannica of 1911 agrees and condemns the work fiercely:
- "It is difficult to find anything more coarse or misshapen than the Neptune and Amphitrite, unless we except the grotesque and ungainly drayman who figures for Neptune." They consider the work "realism of the commonest type."
Spranger is born in Antwerp in 1546 and dies a rich man in Prague in 1611. He owes this wealth to his mythological paintings that do not shun the nude, quite to the contrary. There is no better painting to introduce the Nortnern Mannerists than Spranger's twisting Hermaphroditus and Salmacis(image). Spranger's painting is based on a story from Ovid, one that has rarely been used as an inspiration for a painting. Spranger uses the story to depict two hyper-stylized bodies. Especially the full backward thrusted buttocks of the seductress Salmacis draw the attention. In another painting by Spranger, Vulcan and Maia (image), Maia, nymph of the mountains, flings her hips seductively at the viewer. And in Jupiter and Antiope (image) we see a very hairy Jupiter, so hairy that it seems to suggest that Antiope has a penchant for bestiality.
For a brief time, Spranger collaborates with the Dutchman Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617), who via engravings spread the art of the Dutch Mannerists across Europe. Art at that moment has become an international affair; not only do many European artists make the Grand Tour to Italy, but they find themselves travelling from court to court, at the request of patrons. Goltzius, born near the Dutch Venlo, makes his mark in engravings of hyper-masculine male nudes like the Farnese Hercules (image) and his series The Four Disgracers, treating the fall of Icarus (image), Tantalus (image) Ixion (image) and Phaeton (image), four gods who are punished for their hubris. Goltzius engraves The Four Disgracers after designs by his compatriot Cornelis van Haarlem (1562-1638), the man who with The Fall of the Titans (image) paints an early homo-erotic masterpiece.
During the 17th century -- an era that is usually designated as the baroque age -- ideas of the Renaissance are disseminated all over Europe. We are in an intermediate century: the Enlightenment has yet to begin, remnants of medieval occult thinking still stick to this century as pollen to a bee. The libertine and anti-clerical intellectual climate of the 18th century is in its embryonic stages.
The prime locus of erotic literature shifts from Italy to France, which will become the epicenter erotic writing. The genre of the whore dialogue is now firmly in the saddle with new publications as L'École des filles (School for Girls, 1655), Académie des dames (Ladies Academy, 1659) and Venus dans le cloître (Venus in the Cloister, 1683) [Image].
More babbling whores are to be found in Italian books with evocative titles like La Retorica delle puttane (The Whore’s Rhetoric, 1642), a fiercely anticlerical work, and La Puttana Errante (The wandering whore, ca 1650-1660). L'Alcibiade, fanciullo a scola (Alcibiades the schoolboy, 1652) is yet another work to defend pederasty and in England, the erotic masterpiece of the Baroque comes from the notorious British libertine John Wilmot, in all probability it was he who was the writer of the ribald and deadly funny play Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery (Sodom, or the quintessence of debauchery, 1684).
In the domain of the visual arts, the progressive enrichment of the middle class, provides for an even broader market for erotic imagery. The majority of these images are paintings commissioned by princes, nobles and gentry, but painters like Rembrandt also engage in mass market engraving.
There are several highlights in the ocular arts, very diverse, including The Monk and the Nun [image] by Dutchman Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem (1562-1638), which illustrates the budding anticlericalism, the unbearably sensual marble The Rape of Proserpina [image] by the Italian Bernini, The Young Martyr [image] and The Death of Cleopatra [image] by Guido Cagnacci (1601-1663), the fresh and frivoulous La Bohémienne [image] by the Dutchman Frans Hals (1583-1666), the decadent and voyeuristic canvas Venus (or a Nymph) Spied On by Satyrs by the French artist Nicolas Poussin [image], the sweaty and sultry Ledikant [image] by the Dutch Rembrandt (1606/1607-1669), the voluptuous portrait of Hélène Fourment [image] by the Flemish master Rubens, the voyeuristic Lady at her Toilette [image] by compatriot Jan Steen (1625/1626-1679) [in caption, her garter marks are visible on her legs] , the teasing Rokeby Venus [image] by the Spaniard Velázquez and the unattainable Girl with a Pearl Earring [image] by the Dutchman Vermeer.
The period saw a continuation of the tradition of mythological paintings, new elements of anticlericalism both in literature and in the visual arts, the realism of the Dutch painters and the obese women of Rubens. This variety of form is evidence of an erotic market with eager buyers among the libertine nobility and liberal bourgeoisie. However, at the same time, the epoch sees the rise of the Counter-Reformation, noted by a tightening of Christian morality, that will lead at the beginning of the century to such unfortunate excesses such as the burning at the stake of freethinker Giordano Bruno (1548-1600).
Venus in Spain
Opening image: Rokeby Venus
The emerging European libertinism does not necessarily mean that the painted nude is welcomed everywhere. Spain will have none of it. Or rather, can't have anything to do with it, since the Spanish Inquisition doesn't care for the female nude, and that is putting it mildly. In 17th-century Spanish art, even if sibyls, goddesses or nymphs are depicted, the female body is always chastely covered, and nowhere, in no painting whatsoever, whether it's genre works, historical scenes or portraits, are breasts bared. Even a peek at a bare arm is denied to the Spaniards.
But it does not always take nudity to heat the erotic imagination, as is shown in Alonzo Cano's Vision of St. Bernard (1650) [image], a painting which portrays the 12th-century mystic Bernard of Clairvaux - he who during his life detested the flesh so vehemently but who now allows Mary to squirt a ray of mother milk in his mouth from an impressive distance. Oddly enough, the theme, currently known as the 'Maria lactans', proved to be very popular in 17th century Spain.
Fortunately, the Spanish royal palaces have private rooms (called cabinets, the male equivalent of boudoirs), where kings, princes and lords of the court can read find peace and privacy tor read prohibited Spanish best-sellers like The Book of Good Love and La Lozana Andaluza, while being surrounded by the pin-ups of their day, in Spain for example, the aforementioned collection of Titian paintings, in Spanish royal hands since the 16th century. One of the contemporary works to have graced those walls is the Rokeby Venus, the painting by Velázquez (1599-1660) that teasingly shows a young girl from the back. She is stretched out, with one hand under her head. We catch her eye by a reflection in a mirror that Cupid holds for her, in reality this would be impossible if she was really making her toilet, as she would be unable to see her own face. She is completely naked, her figure is slender, her waist narrow and her buttocks are shapely. The painting is the only nude from the hand of Velázquez and it was hung in the "room where his Majesty retires after eating"1. There is not much more to tell about Spain in this era. We must return to France for our story.
1: Velázquez by Dawson William Carr; Xavier Bray, 2007
Poussin: The voyeur spies on the voyeur
Venus (or a Nymph) Spied On by Satyrs is a work by the Frenchman Nicolas Poussin (1594 -1665). It depicts a sleeping woman lying on her back. Her shoulders rests on a rock on which her head leans backwards, clearly exposing her neck in all its vulnerability. On the right side from her neck are two beautiful breasts and her left hand is resting on her pubic mound. Between her legs is a satyr, who is gently removing the sheet that covers her and now is rewarded with a frontal view on her genitalia. In his eyes: lust. Behind a tree, another satyr, he too is staring intensely at the woman.
In his early years Poussin finds his inspiration in the Amores and Metamorphoses by Ovid, under the influence of a friendly Italian poet who at the age of thirty invites him Rome. Works like Venus Spied On by Satyrs but also his Sleeping Venus with Cupid thematically hark back to the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders and Correggio's Venus and Cupid with a Satyr.
These works display a complex dynamic of several voyeurs. We, the audience, become voyeurs who spy on the satyrs, voyeurs in their own right. Poussin depicts the scene masterfully but paints this type of erotic canvases only at the beginning of his career. They are regarded by connoisseurs, who prefer to see him as the master of the landscape and historical tableaux, as blots on his escutcheon.
Bernini: ecstasy in marble
The 17th-century Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 -1680) is a deeply religious man, but like no other he succeeds in giving the hardest marble the appearance of the softest flesh. In The Rape of Proserpina [image, see above] Pluto's hands sink so realistically in the bulging flesh of Proserpina that it is hard to believe that the folds in her skin are not those of a real woman.
Bernini also understands the art of rendering facial expressions of religious ecstasy [image], facial expressions who I cannot -- with the best will of the world -- label other than orgasmic. A face in the grips of an orgasm is most fascinating. Shown to a child, it will react by saying that the person is suffering from extreme pain. An adult knows better.
- "I would see beside me, on my left hand, an angel in bodily form ... He was not tall, but short, and very beautiful, his face so aflame ... [an] angel who seem[s] to be all afire ... In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by the intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one's soul be content with anything less than God." (Teresa of Ávila)
This vision is recorded in the autobiography of 16th-century mystic Teresa of Ávila. Bernini hews the saint in marble in his sculpture The Ecstasy of Theresa. The mystic is lying on a bed, her back arched, towering above her an angel with a golden lance. The phallic symbolism is not waisted on us. Her mouth is opened in moans of "pain" and "sweetness". A similar masterpiece of Bernini, Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, is the perfect illustration for la petite mort and the superficial ambiguity of the ecstatic-orgasmic and tortured facial expression.
The work of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577 -1640) fails to excite the writer of this book. Not because he does not appreciate full, voluptuous women but because the women of Rubens are fat and flabby, women who manage to entice feelings of lust when he is very hungry and willing to eat the nearest thing he is presented with; but once he is satisfied, a Rubens woman looses her charm. Rubens is a fetishist avant la lettre. Today, his fetish is referred to by the acronym BBW: Big Beautiful Women. One wonders how Rubens succeeded in selling his taste, his personal fetish all over Europe. It is beyond the scope of this book to examine whether Rubens depicted a disproportionate amount of chubby women, or - as is often claimed - whether he faithfully reproduces a typical 17th-century beauty ideal. The Wife of King Kandaules [image] of his contemporary Jacob Jordaens, which is also a woman with an ample derrière, would be case in point for the latter contention. But on the other hand, there are simply too few canvases with 'big' women to prove that being 'big' really was a 17th century fashion.*
Despite the swelling bodies of the Rubens beauty ideal, Rubens paints his breasts always rather small and they miss the voluptuous shape we find for example in the Bathsheba painting (image) by the Dutch artist Willem Drost (1633-1659), which was painted fourteen years after Rubens's death. One thing must be handed to Rubens: the amount and diversity of erotic themes he covers in his work is astonishing. From biblical eroticism to portraits, from mythological eroticism to Roman legends, he has put them all on canvas and makes a visual synthesis of the entire vocabulary of the Renaissance Everyman. He even paints two versions of the "Roman charity" theme. (image)
Roman Charity is a Roman legend which gained in popularity in the print culture of the Renaissance. The story is about Cimon and his daughter Pero. Cimon, an elderly man sentenced to death by starvation is locked in a cell. His daughter Pero has just had a baby. She nurses her old father and saves him from certain death. In almost all its renditions the old man's hands are cuffed and his daughter offers him her breasts. She keeps him alive in a sacrificial act of filial love.
The story is first recorded in the Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings of Valerius Maximus (1st century AD). It is the perfect mythological or allegorical pretext to treat at least three taboos and to gratify the lust of artist and buyer. First, there is the large age difference between the old father who drinks from the breasts of his young daughter, secondly there is the incestuous side of the subject and thirdly there is the unusual fact that an adult man drinks fresh milk directly from the breast of a woman. Versions of this theme guarantee an exciting thrill, one of our favorite versions is that of Jean-Jacques Bachelier, painted in 1765 (image).
Despite his merits in the land of lust, the shortcoming of Rubens is that we have a hard time to believe that he portrays women of flesh and blood. Mentally, we remain stuck in his fetishistic and idealized dream world. His models always seem to pose self-consciously, even when he paints his own sweetheart and second wife Hélène Fourment. In short, his work lacks erotic realism.
*Recent research has show that it was the Rubens does in fact not represent a 17th century beauty ideal, see 'Did Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries really idealize fat (Rubenesque) women?'
The erotic realism of Rembrandt
The term 'erotic realism' is first introduced in the book What is Pornography? (1959) by Eberhard Kronhausen and his wife Phyllis, to distinguish between pornography and erotica: "In pornography the main purpose is to stimulate erotic response in the reader. In erotic realism, truthful description of the basic realities of life." The term 'erotic response' should be read here as 'being horny'.
Rembrandt (1606-1669) is born about thirty years after Rubens. Along with Vermeer, he belongs to the cream of the Dutch painters. A penchant for everyday subjects and ordinary, homely details characterizes much of his work and that is why Rembrandt is often named an early realist or naturalist. He distances himself from the idealization which is still evident in the work of Rubens and generously embraces ordinary life around him. This produces some remarkable erotic-realistic works, both paintings and prints.
Rembrandt's extramarital conquests are the muses and models in his more intimate work. One of his dalliances is Hendrickje Stoffels, twenty years younger than the master when she comes into his service as 21-year old maidservant. It is not long before their relationship deepens. She can hardly be called a beauty, as we can tell from the portraits. But Rembrandt finds her attracive and he paints her in one of his works in nothing more than a fur coat, like Rubens did with his Hélène. Stoffels is also a model for Bathsheba at Her Bath [image] in his canvas of 1654, but she really shines in the same year in Woman Stepping into a Stream [image]. Without doubt a most beautiful and very delicate work in which her nudity is accentuated by the shirt she wears, which seems to make her more naked, more real and more accessible than if she had worn no clothing whatsoever.
The erotic realism of Rembrandt is even clearer in his - lesser known - prints. These etchings have no equivalent in his oil paintings. The reason being that prints have always been part of the private sphere, produced to be enjoyed in private - a totally different medium than traditional painting. Part of that series of racy etchings include Ledikant, Woman Under A Tree, The Monk in the Cornfield, Jupiter and Antiope and Joseph and Potiphar's Wife.
The etchings reveal a Rembrandt completely under the spell of the bodily functions. In The Woman under a Tree Rembrandt depicts a urinating woman, in Joseph and Potiphar's Wife a very obese and domineering matron, in Jupiter and Antiope a sleeping beauty spied on by a lecherous satyr; the misleadingly titled The Monk in the Cornfield depicts a monk in a field having his way with a peasant girl.
The most remarkable print is is Ledikant. Of composition, it is similar to The Monk, with a man on top of a woman in missionary position. In a funny detail we notice that the woman has three hands: one right hand and two left hands, one embracing her partner and the other resting motionless beside her on the bed. We can imagine how Rembrandt wants to emphasize the savage fury of the coitus and thus unknowingly became a precursor to the art of the comic book and the photographic technique of multiple as well as long exposure.
Just like every other artist, Rembrandt is indebted to Ovid's Metamorphoses. In 1636 Rembrandt stages Danae in a traditional bed scene with a very attractive hourglass figure. [Image] Many contemporary critics disliked the realism of Rembrandt vehemently, especially in his female nudes. The mediocre Dutch poet Andries Pels complained about the "flabby breasts, distorted hands ... and the marks of the garters about the legs."
One would not hand it to the Dutch - they are generally known as little sensual and Calvinistic people - but at the time of Rembrandt; the Dutch Golden Age, Eros ran rampant, with work by Frans Hals, Jan Steen and Vermeer, who with his work Girl with a Pearl Earring produces one of the beauties of the 17th century painting. They don't call her for nothing the 'Mona Lisa of the North'. A very enigmatic work of Vermeer is The Procuress: it depicts a young prostitute who is tucked a coin in her hand by a man whose hand is already fondling her left breast, while her procuress, her madame, is watching approvingly in the background.
The 17th century, more than any previous age, is the time of the one-hit wonders, the mayflies of visual art by painters and etchers who have failed to leave us a significant body of work, but nonetheless highly amusing individual scenes like this print [image] by Theodor Matham (1606-1676), depicting a gentleman stirring the bared breast of a lady. The eroticism is generated here by the great contrast between the fully clothed couple, of whom we can suspect that they barely know each other, and the bare bare chest.
Before we leave the Netherlands and Rembrandt I want to mention two paintings. First there is The Rape of the Negress [image] by Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1604-1667), nowadays more politically correct known by the title Three Young White Men and a Black Woman. Two men are naked and one is dressed. One of the naked men has the black woman on his lap. She makes every effort to escape. The naked man on the left is pointing his finger at the scene and looks at us laughing. The dressed man in the background spreads the palms of his hands in a gesture of disbelief and dismay.
The second work is by Nicolaes Maes (1634-1693) and is called The Eavesdropper [Image]. At first glance, there is nothing sexual or sensual about this painting. But if you look carefully, you see a woman who is eavesdropping in concentration on a conversation between two lovers. Eavesdropping is the aural equivalent of voyeurism and to many erotomaniacs the impetuous and animal-like sounds of lovemaking are a treat in itself, a sweet gift of Eros. Maes makes eavesdropping scenes his speciality and returns time and again to the subject.
The caveman takes a biology class
- Opening image: Woman seated on the stool, anatomical drawing of Charles Estienne (1504-1564), showing the private parts of a woman. Caption: "the vagina is the tube through which the human race passes from the utter darkness of nothing to the light of day." (Satyra Sotadica)
If we enter the front door of a 17th-century world library, we immediately stumble upon Cervantes and his inglorious knight Don Quixote, who would single-handedly and for once and for all degrade medieval chivalry to a ridiculous phenomenon. Don Quixote is a Spanish nobleman who has lost his mind by reading too many cheap chivalry romances. His addiction to literature is significant: for the first time in history, we are in a literary age.
If we enter that same 17th-century world library by the side door, we find romances written for female readers, L'Astrée, Argenis, Clélie and La Princesse de Clèves, novels which sometimes resemble contemporary psychological novels but often represent no more than damsel-in-distress-is-saved-by-brave-knight and they-lived-happily-ever-after. For men - what else is new? - 17th century literature offers action and adventure. The male reader of fiction finds what he seeks in picaresque novels such as the Spanish Guzmán Alfarache, El buscón and the German novel Simplicius Simplicissimus.
But in order to find books which accompany its heroes into the bedroom we must enter the library via the back door. There, often behind a screen where only special permission will grant us access, we find erotic books. On the shelves we find numerous variations on the theme of the whore dialogue. The by then widely known literary tradition of the whore dialogue is continued with the Satyra Sotadica, written by the French jurist Nicolas Chorier (1612-1692), and first published in Latin under a pseudonym around 1659. Eleven years later, it is translated into French. It appeared in English in the 1680s, variously titled as School of Women and A Dialogue between a Married Woman and a Maid.
The book is conceived as a series of dialogues. One such dialogue takes place between Tullia, a 26-year-old Italian woman, the wife of Callias, who is responsible for the sexual initiation of her 15-year-old niece Ottavia, to whom she says, "Your mother asked to reveal to you the most mysterious secrets of bridal bed and to teach you what you must be with your husband, which your husband will also be, touching these small things which so strongly inflame men's passion. Tonight ... we will sleep together in my bed." (tr. JW Geerinck)
The Satyra Sotadica is more prosaic than its predecessors, and although the writer still uses many botanical, Latin and Greek euphemisms, the facts of life are called by their name and at times the story reads as a biology class. Amongst other things, Tullia describes the male and female genitalia, including a discourse on the labia majora and minora. For the first time - at least as far as I've been able to ascertain - the term 'clitoris' crops up in a fictional work. And appropriately Tullia observes the formal similarity of it to the penis.
This 'bonbon' of love is introduced by Tullia:
"But I forgot to tell you about the clitoris. It is a membranous body located near the bottom of the mound, and appears to be a smaller form of the male rod. As with the male rod, amorous lust straightens it. It itches and heats women even of little lively temperament and at the slightest provocation of the hand they melt into water, often without waiting for the right cavalier. When Callias inflicts his knavery, feeling it, tickling it, this happens often. When his hands are busy playing there too freely, my garden rains a heavy dew. For him the pretext for a plentiful harvest of sarcasm, a wide open field for his jokes. But what can I do? He laughs, I laugh also and blame him for being too vivacious, he accuses me of being too lascivious, we jostle the ball and while we quarrel for laughs, he throws himself on me, pushes me down willingly or unwillingly, forces me to undergo, supine, and the dew that my garden let go, as he laughingly says, he restores it copiously from his, so I do not go complaining to have lost anything by his fault."
Apparently, Nicolas Chorier must have been familiar with the then current medical treatises, but probably he has not read the following outrageous description of the clitoris in Tableau de l’amour conjugal, ou l'Histoire complète de la génération de l’homme (1686) by the French physician Nicolas Venette, first published in France some years after the Satyrica Sotadica. Venette's book was originally published under a pseudonym and the book proved very successful, it is translated in most European languages, in English as The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal'd and has dozens of reprints before the up until the early 20th century.
In this -- by way of its stupidity -- enormously amusing work, Venette accuses the clitoris as the seat of all evil, and even recommends the surgical removal of it in some cases, as a drastic solution to runaway lewdness. He even goes so far as to advise young girls not to wash their private parts.
- "The clitoris, fatal organ of the daughters of Eve is responsible for all temptations. This is where nature has placed the throne of her pleasures and delights, as it did in the glans of man. This is where Mother Nature has placed her excessive itching. It is a superfluous organ, unnecessary for reproduction, and in some cases its removal is necessary to prevent serious pathologies that may arise from its continuous excitation [...] It is therefore not necessary; even unwise, to introduce girls to personal hygiene, at the risk of them engaging in investigations that lead seeking impure pleasures. Do young girls and women really need this type of hygiene, there where it is futile and dangerous to linger? [...] Which keeper of the conscience would accept such intimate toilet [...] this sin against decency?" (tr. JW Geerinck)
Tableau de l’amour conjugal devotes no less than ten passages to the clitoris and one of these passages is grotesquely funny. It states that the clitoris can become as large as a goose neck and can prevent access to the "garden", when it is played with too frequently. The testimony of the physician Felix Platter (1536 - 1614) serves as evidence for this bold assertion . Venette fails to mention the results of an all too abundant play with the glans. A pity.
We stay in France, where once more a whore dialogue is worth mentioning. L'Escole des Filles ou la Philosophie des dames, translated into English as The School of Venus is a typical whore dialogue in which an experienced older woman explains the 'birds and the bees' in realistic terms to a young virgin. First published in 1655, it references few existing erotic works such as Ovid and Sappho and is limited to erotic passages interspersed with sex education. Suzanne has just explained to Fanchon the operation and purpose of the male erection:
Fanchon: And when it gets bigger, as you describe, he then puts it in the girl?
Suzanne: Of course, otherwise he would not be able to, but even then there is still fun in seeing how much effort he must muster to enter the girl, because he does not enter at once, as you may think, but bit by bit. Sometimes a boy is bathing in sweat before he can put it in completely, because the girl is not broad enough - but it does bring more pleasure as the girl feels his machine opening her boldly and rubbing hard against the edge of her pussy, giving her exquisite and violent pleasure.
Fanchon: Not me! I would be afraid that it would damage me.
Suzanne: No way my dear. It just gives a girl great pleasure. Obviously, the first blast of the horn, the one to enter her, provokes a slight twinge of discomfort, because the pussy is not used to it, but afterwards it only awakens and supplies the greatest pleasure in the world. (tr. JW Geerinck)
Shortly after its publication, the book is burnt by French officials and its author, Michel Millot, is hanged in effigy.
L'Escole des Filles is also known in England. One of the first reports of masturbation while reading a book is found in the 1668 diary entry of the British administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), who admits to buying it, 'pleasuring' himself with it and then throwing it into the fire. Especially Pepys' description of his 'pleasure' is amusing. As is often the case, diary writers use gibberish consisting of a mixture of Latin, French, Spanish, in short, all the languages that an accidental finder of the journal should prevent to understand it. The journal of Pepys reads: ‘… but it did hazer my prick para stand all the while, and una vez to décharger.’ An attentive reader only needs the word prick and décharger to understand just what Pepys' member has discharged.
The beginning of the British libertine tradition
The most hilarious piece of erotica of the 17th century is undoubtedly Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery by John Wilmot (1647-1680). And with Wilmot, we find ourselves back on English soil for the first time since Chaucer. During the early modern period, the English region has escaped the reach of the erotomaniac's radar, so to speak, simply because there is so little going in the field of eroticism, apart from a few isolated poems and miscellanea. 1
One of these isolated poems is the precious "It is not four years ago", a poem about a man who offers a girl a decent sum of money to sleep with him and who is coldly rejected. After some time, the girl changes her mind and offers her charms to the man, each time for ever smaller amounts. Now the man turns her down time and time again, until the woman offers herself for free. Only then does he accept and says that she is much dearer to him gratis than for a high price.
It is not four years ago,
I offered forty crowns
To lie with her a night or so:
She answered me in frowns.
Not two years since, she meeting me
Did whisper in my ear,
That she would at my service be,
If I contented were.
I told her I was cold as snow,
And had no great desire;
But should be well content to go
To twenty, but no higher.
Some three months since or thereabout,
She that so coy had been,
Bethought herself and found me out,
And was content to sin.
I smiled at that, and told her I
Did think it something late,
And that I'd not repentance buy
At above half the rate.
This present morning early she
Forsooth came to my bed,
And gratis there she offered me
Her high-prized maidenhead.
I told her that I thought it then
Far dearer than I did,
When I at first the forty crowns
For one night's lodging bid.
Who is it, who puts, apart from the above one-hit wonder, England on the map of voluptuousness? They are two, one is Thomas Nashe (1567-ca. 1601) and the other is the already mentioned notorious libertine John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester. Thomas Nashe acquires fame with The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), the first English picaresque novel, which is still in print today. He is also attributed with the scabrous poem "Choise of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo", written in the nineties of the 16th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary this poem is the first to use the word 'dildo' in the English language.
- My little dildo shall supply their kind,
- A knave that moves as light as leaves by wind,
- That bendeth not, nor foldest any deal,
- But stands as stiff as he were made of steel
John Wilmot is also quite fond of the cock, as would appears from his poem "Signior Dildo" from 1673. The British film The Libertine, which stars Johnny Depp as John Wilmot and John Malkovich as his protector and patron Charles II of England, paints an excellent picture of the then literary culture, which is strongly marked by libertinism, both in England and in mainland Europe. In The Libertine a very special theatrical piece is staged, to which we referred at the beginning of this chapter, Sodom, or the Quintessence of Debauchery. It is a short piece and features in the leading roles Bolloximian, King of Sodom; Cuntigratia, his queen; Prickett, young Prince and Fuckadilla, Maid of Honour. In the film Sodom is performed for the king, to the general hilarity of the court and deep indignation of the king. Ladies enter the stage dancing, and after a few minutes each take a huge dildo and perform a round dance with it and finally start to make thrusting movements with it, as if having an intercourse with a huge strap-on device. Then comes the 'pièce de résistance'. A grotesquely huge penis, ridden by a dwarf, appears onto the stage. Do we known if the play was ever performed for the King? Not really, it has yet to be shown conclusively that Sodom, printed in Antwerp in 1684, was actually written by John Wilmot.
What we do know is that John Wilmot paid dearly for his love for the cock and his sexual freedom in general: he dies at the age of 33 from the effects of syphilis, but not without having repented first. The career of Thomas Nashe was also short-lived. After his exile, nothing is heard from him after 1599 and most sources indicate he died in unknown circumstances in 1601, aged 34. The life of a libertine is not an easy one: exiles, trials, venereal diseases, executions by burnings and other discomforts often lead to an early death.
1 I leave Shakespeare out of the picture, although he actually deserves a place here. In 1947, the British lexicographer Eric Partridge dedicates a work to the sexual references in his work: Shakespeare's Bawdy. A large part of the sexual metaphors Shakespeare used has become incomprehensible for contemporary ears . It has been Partridge’s merit them back to unveil them.
The 18th century: Eros Enlightened
[Opening image: an anonymous print of Cardinal Armand de Rohan-Soubise (1717-1757), a satirical caricature. It is an exquisite example of satirical pornography successfully used as a weapon of political subversion against the tyranny of the Ancien Régime.]
In the second half of the 18th century we see a veritable barrage of erotic writings and images. It is the pornographic century, although the word pornography isn't coined yet. It is also the age of the Enlightenment, Rococo, Neoclassicism, the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, emerging feminism, the first public museums, proto-Romanticism, sodomite subcultures in European metropolises, the dandy, Liaisons Dangereuses, the era of the wigs, the French Revolution, secret sexual societies, condoms, the erotic novel Fanny Hill, Casanova and the Marquis de Sade. Without exaggeration, an eventful century.
The excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum lead to the discovery of erotic paintings and artifacts whose existence no one could have dreamt of. They are a revelation and put the revered classics in a new light. The erotic texts of Catullus and Martial are already well-known at that time, but their visual counterparts are the sensation of the day. The excavations immediately lead to the first secret museums: from now on risqué images will be actively hidden and the sexual impulse acquires its sweet, clandestine aftertaste. In England erotic caricature prints are mass produced, the Industrial Revolution creates a sexual revolution with the works of the British caricaturists William Hogarth (1697-1764), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and James Gillray (1757-1815).
France: The land of love
The German philosopher Immanuel Kant - the "Pope" of the Enlightenment - has little affinity with Eros, he even has a problematic relationship with the God of Love, likening sexually desiring someone to squeezing them as a lemon. This same lack of eroticism is indeed typical of the Age of Enlightenment itself, which is more readily engaged with the 'man is a machine' trope than the mysteries of love. When Immanuel Kant says "dare to know", he certainly does not mean "unravel the mysteries of love and have a better understanding of the opposite sex."
Not surprisingly, Germany is conspicuously absent from 18th century eroticism. The erotic gravitational point of this century will remain France, and more particularly the capital of love Paris. The country is now a superpower and goes through a period of light-hearted freedom in the arts embodied by the painters Watteau (1684-1721), Boucher (1703-1770) and Fragonard (1732-1806).
The Arcadia of Antoine Watteau
Antoine Watteau follows in the footsteps of Poussin when he creates the fête galante painting style. Gallantry - a term Brantôme introduced us to - represents an idealized love of elegance, charm and naturalness. The setting is nature, it is the décor of Watteau's forbidden loves: young couples who dream of a happy life, a gentleman wooing a lady with poetry or music and idyllic shepherds playing flute and lascivious shepherdesses form the painter's repertoire. The countryside symbolizes the rejection of city life with its consumerism and its political and other violent conflicts. Contrasted to the 'corrupt' city values are the 'real' values: love of nature, of ingenuous beauty, of music.
The titles to Watteau's paintings reflect his settings, with names like "Arcadia" and "Cythera". Arcadian in this context means: lovely, bucolic, unspoiled and naive. The name Cythera refers to the birthplace of Venus, or at least, where she first set foot ashore. Watteau chooses this setting as a compromise: he wants to charm both the bourgeoisie and the academies. His clients belong to the bourgeoisie, but he also wants the recognition of the state institution Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. The Academy had codified and regulated the arts and considers scenes from everyday life and portraits, the subjects that most appealed to private clients, as 'lesser' genres, i.e. lower than the morally edifying and educational subjects found in history painting and mythological painting. Because he portrayed his clients in the mythologised Arcadia, where people coexist harmoniously and peacefully with nature, he hits two birds with one stone. He receives the highest recognition from the prestigious Academy while pleasing his rich clients.
Watteau depicts mythical places of happiness, but situates them in recognizable French landscapes and populates them with contemporaries. Thus, the painting Embarkation for Cythera, a work that clearly belongs to the fête galante genre, nevertheless earns him an admission to the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. It is a rather tame and allegorical, so totally not explicit painting, the only nude shown is a stone statue of Venus that is decorated with garlands. It fails to arouse any feeling whatsoever, but another painting that does excite the senses is the great Judgement of Paris [image]. It depicts a pair of the most beguiling buttocks in the history of European painting. Even more so alluring because they rest on a pair of elegant, slender legs.
Other highlights of this erotic master are the Venetian Feasts [image (detail)], Jupiter and Antiope [image] [Caption: The most sensual representation of Antiope, a canvas in which Zeus disguises himself as a satyr and shares with us his pleasure in unveiling the sleeping Antiope.], two Lady at her toilette paintings [image] [image] and Le Faux Pas [image]. The latter is a magnificent work. It has a colour palette that is ahead of Fragonard and depicts the bad judgement of a young man who is - probably in the belief that his advances will not remain unanswered - coldly rejected. We've all had this experience: too eager, too greedy and too little attuned to the other, unwilling and unable to believe that we will be turned down. The rejection by the woman proves that it takes two to play the game of love.
The Goncourts, brother novelists and art critics, are the first to re-evaluate Watteau in the 19th century. In L'Art du dixhuitième siècle they describe the painting Embarkation for Cythera as "love; but ... poetic Love, the love that contemplates and dreams, modern love with its aspirations and its coronal of melancholy." (tr. Robin Ironside, London, 1948.) The Goncourts are avid collectors of the drawings and pastels of Watteau, whose work never gets the chance to fully mature since he dies young, at the age of 37. In the collection of the Goncourts is also the beautiful Flora [image]. It once again shows Watteau's preference for slender legs and small breasts.
The erokitsch of François Boucher
François Boucher is born sixteen years after Watteau. Where Watteau only reluctantly joins ladies in their sleeping quarters, Boucher follows them in their toilets, boudoirs and other private dwellings. He embodies the decorative rococo-light-heartedness to the bone, his pores breathe rococo. His most famous painting is a Portrait of Marie-Louise O'Murphy [image], a work that is in the collective memory.
Casanova tells in his Memoirs of a girl called 'O-Morphi', who he had painted by a German painter. The description of that painting eerily matches that of how O'Murphy was painted by Boucher: "The position in which he painted it was delightful. She was lying on her stomach, her arms and her bosom leaning on a pillow, and holding her head sideways as if she were partly on the back. The clever and tasteful artist had painted her legs and calves with so much skill and truth that the eye could not but wish to see more; I was delighted with that portrait; it was a speaking likeness." (tr. A. Machen)
The painting is as provocative as a 20th century pin-up. Reading the description of Casanova we feel the urge to lie down comfortably beside this beautiful girl and caress her soft skin. We sense that she is not some idealized representation, but to an actual portrait of a real girl. Lascivious, lusty and luxuriant are the words that best fit Boucher's canvases. Adjectives that also apply to the work of Rubens, but in the case of Boucher there is a certain elegance whereas in the work of Rubens there is unwieldy indolence. The model Marie-Louise O'Murphy the Boisfaily (1737-1814) becomes a courtesan and one of the many mistresses of the French King Louis XV when still very young. She poses for this painting when only fourteen, at the request of the king himself. The divine clouds in the mythological nudes that preceded this work, have here been replaced by plush pillows and a backdrop of silky sensuous sheets. The whole tableau -- even the folding of the linen -- exudes lust.
Boucher had painted a very similar scene seven years earlier. For that work his wife was model. The buttocks are heavier, more Rubenesque, but the work oozes with smooth sensuality. The enlightened philosopher Denis Diderot considered the work indecent and in a famous passage he reproached Boucher having 'prostituted' his own wife. But he is an unreliable narrator: Diderot apparently disliked the frivolous painter. He even complained in his review of the Paris Salon of 1765 that "not a single blade of grass is to be found" in his landscapes.
- "I defy you to find a single blade of grass in any of his landscapes. And then there’s such a confusion of objects piled one on top of the other, so poorly disposed, so motley, that we’re dealing not so much with the pictures of a rational being as with the dreams of a madman." (tr. possibly John Goodman, see Diderot on Boucher and Greuze)
In other texts directed against the libertine painter, Diderot writes that Boucher spends his time "with prostitutes of the lowest kind: "I don’t know what to say about this man. Degradation of taste, color, composition, character, expression and drawing have kept pace with moral depravity. What can we expect this artist to throw onto the canvas? What he has in his imagination. And what can be in the imagination of a man who spends his life with prostitutes of the basest kind?" These are rather bold statements, given that many of these 'prostitutes of the basest kind' are not only Boucher's models, but also the mistresses of the king. The French king Louis XV was known for his personal brothel next to the royaln palace, the so-called Parc-aux-Cerfs (literally stag park), where the beautiful Marie-Louise O'Murphy also stayed.
In light of Diderot's own clandestine erotic novel Les bijoux indiscrets, a novel about talking cunts, this diatribe against Boucher sounds rather hypocritical. His later defence of sanctimonious faux-prudish works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze put his statements in an even more dubious light.
Boucher makes hundreds of paintings and thousands of nude studies. His biggest inspiration is Venus, Venus vulgaris. The Leda and the Swan (image) from 1740 attributed to him, shows a supine Leda on a couch, her legs spread, with a large phallic swan's neck closely inspecting the focal point of the painting, her clearly visible genitals. Boucher will paint a much tamer version of the theme a few years later. Of the explicit version we can say with almost certainty that it always hung behind curtains and was shown only to a chosen few.
As always, the most exciting paintings are the most clandestine ones. Boucher also produces a series of six paintings for the boudoir of Madame de Pompadour, many years the mistress of King Louis XV. The works were lost in the fire of the Tuileries Palace of 1871 and are now only found in photographic reproductions. Two paintings show copulating couples, the other four are different scenes: a girl buying a winged phallus from a man who plays with her vulva, a man who takes a naked woman from behind, a man who is about to make love to a partially undressed woman while kissing her bare breasts, and finally a dressed couple that frolicking, the hand of the girl on the boy's erection. Too bad they are lost. We show you a one black black and white photograph of the series. (Image)
A number of Boucher's favourite paintings offer us a glimpse of women in the midst of the hygiene of their most intimate parts. The fashion of depicting women in that pose makes its first appearance with Dutch painter Jan Steen, Boucher makes his contribution to the genre with no less than three works, ("La jupe relevée," the raised skirt), ("La toilette intime", the intimate toilet) and an untitled one . Boucher has a taste for these kinds of intimate interior canvases. Once, in a letter to a fellow painter he noted that nature is "too green and badly lit." That's probably why Diderot didn't find a single blade of grass in his oeuvre.
The hypocrisy of Greuze
There is something odd about Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805). He is the favorite painter of Diderot and the antithesis of Boucher. Boucher shows all and condemns nothing. Greuze shows nothing and diffuses an anti-sexual, shame-permeated atmosphere and yet precisely this secrecy and shame that Greuze tries to foist upon us, his covert sexual allusions in which nothing is stated and everything is implied, make his work exciting. He goes against the zeitgeist and his moralizing works are the antithesis of the 'L'art pour l'art' mentality of rococo. His style, along with that of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), is therefore often called anti-rococo.
Greuze paints for both nobility and bourgeoisie and specializes in sentimental, kitschy works. The eroticism in his work is of a hypocrisy that can not be found in Watteau nor Boucher. The erotic undercurrent in his work is covered with a haze of academic respectability. He paints either prepubescent girls with budding breasts, or girls who are just out of their adolescence, with ripe breasts. He offers us deflowered farmer nymphs, their loss of virginity symbolized by broken eggs or a broken pitcher.
Greuze imparts us his fascination with swooning, ecstatic women in Ariadne [image] Fidelity [image] and Psyche [image]. The similar painting Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard [image] was attributed to him to him until the early 2000s, but recently it was found that it is the work of Auguste Bernard d'Agesci. He treats us to beautiful, round and full breasts, of which we can only barely see a nipple, and often even of only one breast, of which we the audience stealthily catch a glimpse, accidentally uncovered by a girl that imperturbably, completely innocent, meets the glance of us voyeurs, as in Young Woman in a White Hat [image] and The Broken Pitcher [image].
The frivolous love of Fragonard
Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806) is a pupil of François Boucher. His sensuous feel has much in common with that of his master and his paintings are full of creamy pink tones. The capriciousness of his lines will later make him a favorite of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. In his early years Fragonard devotes himself to religious and mythological subjects, but the patronage of wealthy clients connected to the hedonistic and licentious court of Louis XV makes him resolutely choose for the luscious love scenes with which his name will always remain connected.
The Swing [image] is one of the showpieces of rococo and a paragon of allegorical impropriety. As with Greuze, nothing is shown, but ever so more insinuated. A woman on a swing balances high in the air. She is pushed by her husband while she is being watched from the bushes by her lover who seems to enjoy the upskirt view. She stretches her leg and kicks a shoe which is said to symbolize the loss of her chastity. According to the memoirs of the French writer Charles Colle, the patron - a young nobleman - first contacted another painter, Gabriel Francois Doyen, who did not feel comfortable with the commission because of its frivolous and risqué nature. He referred the nobleman to Fragonard, who happily complied.
Two of Fragonard's most sensual paintings both have the French title La Gimblette. In the first work [image] we see a half-naked girl in bed playing with her dog. The white hairs of the tail of the animal hide her genitals. The second [image] work also depicts a girl on her back, she dances a young black dog on the feet of her outstretched legs. As a bonus we get to see her firm milky-white breasts.
In The Stolen Kiss [image] a beautiful young woman wearing a dazzling satin dress is embraced by an attractive young man who has surreptitiously entered the room. He quickly kisses her, she is visibly taken by surprise. In the background we see some ladies engrossed in a boring card game, wholly unaware of what is happening in the next room.
In the past, the majority of the reading public have been girls. Come to think of it, this hasn't changed much, women and girls are still the most avid readers of fiction. Men care less for fiction, they demand reality. Reading girls are therefore since the early modern period a favorite topic in painting. A Young Girl Reading [image] is the title of Fragonard's version. We see a beautiful young girl reading a book. What she is reading, we can only guess, but one of the following erotic works would be possible candidates: Histoire de Dom Bougre (1741), Le Sopha (1742), Les bijoux indiscrets (1748) or Thérèse philosophe ( 1748). In a similar painting, not by Fragonard but by contemporary Pierre-Antoine Baudouin (1723 - 1769), the girl has actually fainted from reading. Its title is La Lecture [image].
Fragonard is unfortunate to have lived during the end of the Ancien Régime. After the French Revolution, a violent settlement between a disgruntled population and its decadent rulers, his clientele disappears like snow in the sun. Paintings like the charming The Beautiful Servant (Pointless Resistance), [image] suddenly become as pointless as their title. When Fragonard blows his last breath, he has been all but forgotten. A famous art history book from the 1860s does not even mention his name. It will take up to the end of the 19th century before his work is finally appreciated, first to do so were the Impressionists.
Satirical pornography and pornographic satire, the caveman is agitated
That pornography and radical politics make apt bedfellows deserves some explanation. During the Enlightenment a number of French revolutionary thinkers start to publish obscene 'libelles' and cartoons to ridicule the ruling class, trying to oust them from the throne. Libertine pornography like the anonymous satirical caricature of the Cardinal Armand de Rohan-Soubise [supra, page x] attacks the Roman Catholic Church and its lust for power. The nobility share the fate of the clergy and both are depicted with their pants down, often quite literally. The barrage of mass-produced, anti-clerical, anti-authoritarian and anti-monarchist pamphlets are a concern to the establishment of the day, fearing -- not without reason, many of them will lose their heads in an unpleasant fashion during the French Revolution -- the questionable morality of the mob, the feeble-minded, women, slaves and illiterates.
This pamphleteering underclass uses obscene physicality as a weapon in the political struggle. For the first time in history perhaps, pen and pencil become mightier than the sword.
The alleged sexual shortcomings of Louis XVI are a favourite theme. And when the royal couple finally becomes pregnant, Marie-Anotoinette becomes the object of mockery. The satirical charges speculate about orgies, lesbian romps and the paternity of her children. One of the pamphlets is entitled Uterine Furors of Marie-Antoinette, Wife of Louis XVI.
The American cultural historian Robert Darnton, who specializes in the literary history of the French Enlightenment, made a study of banned books on the eve of the French Revolution. He opposes the prevailing view that there is a causal link between the spread of what we know as Enlightenment literature - namely by encyclopedists such as Rousseau - and the outbreak of the French Revolution. Darnton proves, on the basis of previously undiscovered bookkeeping accounts of a Swiss commercial printer that not the encyclopedists were the bestsellers of their time. That privilege was reserved for scabrous novels à la The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians (1741), The Indiscreet Jewels (1748) by Diderot and Thérèse Philosophe (1748), novels which both embody enlightened philosophy, and also deal with the enlightenment in an 'embodied' fashion. These forbidden libertine books are sold 'under the counter' and pave the way for the French Revolution, to a greater degree than the Enlightenment canon. It is obvious that the ingredients of these forbidden books are 'light' versions of the Enlightenment ideals of the encyclopedists. It is unfortunate however that this amusing anarcho-erotic oeuvre was subsequently ignored and carefully excluded from our literary and political histories.
Of course I won't go so far as to say that there is a causal link between the outbreak of the French Revolution and the underground literary and visual culture of the time. In intellectual history causal relationships are often difficult or impossible to establish. But on the other hand it is true that 18th-century thought in France is too often equated to Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot. Each of them wealthy men who saw Enlightenment as something for the "great souls". They needed the little guy to fight for the revolution, but preferred not to see him enjoying its new freedoms. The hack writers of the anonymously published The Story of Dom Bougre, Porter of the Carthusians and Thérèse philosophe were small fish themselves. They most probably read Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, but translated their egalitarian ideas of liberté, égalité, fraternité - liberty, equality and fraternity - as free love.
In itself, the leveling of political equality and free love is not new. Free love is already preached in the 15th century by the revolutionary medieval Anabaptists and will rear its head with rhythmic periodicity in many following anarchist and revolutionary movements, most recently May 68 and some contemporary sects. Our patron saint Eros looks on and approves. He knows all too well that we are all sexual beings, creatures that need to be nourished and nurtured. We are slaves of our bodies and serfs of its functions. "King, Emperor, Admiral, Popla is used by all" was a famous advertising slogan of a Dutch toilet paper manufacturer in the 1970s and it makes clear that we are all human beings with the same human needs. The slogan is an echo of the message of Montaigne (1533-1592) who assured us in his Essays that "kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies." "Nothing human is alien to us:" naked on the toilet and caught in the violent waves of lust we are all equal. In the final copulating crowd scene of the film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, directed by Tom Tykwer) we see 'liberty, equality and fraternity " at work.
It speaks for itself that the self-proclaimed libertines can count on very little sympathy from the Catholic clergy. Already in 1623, François Garasse (1585-1631) writes an anti-libertine pamphlet entitled "The curious doctrine of the would-be wits of our age." This Jesuit is not just any priest, he plays a major part in the death sentence of the French libertine writer Théophile de Viau. This is what he thinks of libertines:
- "Libertines I call our drunks, bar-flies and impious spirits who have no other God than their stomachs and who are recruited by that damned guild known as the Brotherhood of the bottle. [They] come chomping as young foals, enjoy the benefits of their age, and imagine that God will receive them with grace in their old age, and they are therefore worthy to be called libertines, although we may equally call them atheists."
The literary pornosophers, those who join eroticism and philosophy, pay little mind to Garasse's virulent attacks, despite the great risks that their publications entail. From the middle of the 18th century small pornosophical novels sell like hot cakes over and under the counter. They make the common man familiar with the radical enlightenment ideals. These can be summarized as the Unholy Trinity: hedonism (pleasure is life's goal), materialism (the mind is nothing but brain activity, there is no "soul" without living body) and atheism (God does not exist).
Interspersed with tableaux of debauchery, we find an apologia for precisely that unholy trinity in the book Thérèse Philosophe from 1748. This anonymous publication, today usually attributed to Boyer d'Argens (1704-1771), is a short novel starring Thérèse, a young girl of bourgeois origin. The novel begins as the seven-year old Thérèse is caught masturbating by her mother. We follow her to her first sexual games on her ninth. A few years later she is apprenticed to a certain priest Dirrag, a Jesuit who secretly theaches the cursed doctrine of materialism. Her fellow student is the pious, but very gullible Miss Eradice (both 'Dirrag' and 'Eradice' are anagrams and refer to the sensational trial of Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Girard and student Cathérine Cadière and their forbidden relationship a couple of years earlier, which received national coverage at the time). One day, Thérèse spies on her teacher Dirrag in the company of her fellow student Miss Eradice and who -- in her naive desire to be spiritually enlightened -- falls prey to the lust of the reverend father. First, 'he warms her up' by separating her mind from her body:
- "God wants of the people just their hearts and minds. By forgetting the body one can unite with God, become holy, and perform miracles. I can not conceal from you my little angel that I saw in our previous exercise that your mind still clung to the flesh. What? Can you not imitate a little the joyous martyrs who were beaten, tortured and burned with red-hot pincers, without feeling the slightest pain, simply because their thoughts, continually upon the glory of God, had no contact with the flesh that burned and tore? ... If you save enough willpower and by the power of meditation and the love you owe God, put all the particles of your mind to use for this purpose, I can guarantee with certainty that no particle will remain to inform your soul of the blows that your flesh will receive: you will not feel a thing."
Dirrag instructs her to kneel on a prayer stool and bare her white round buttocks. He sighs with admiration and waits for several minutes, letting her sit there. He then asks if her soul has already entered contemplation. "Yes, reverend father," she says, "I feel that my mind is freed from the flesh, I beg you to begin the holy work." "Well," he answers" "your mind will be satisfied."
He recites some verses and gives her three light strokes on the backside, followed by another three verses and three more strokes, this time a little harder than the first. After five to six recited verses, always interrupted by this strange ritual, the reverend unties his pants. His cock is big, capuchin red, hard and long. His face is ablaze. "I think you've reached the highest state of contemplation," he mumbles. "If, my girl, my holy expectations do not deceive me, you will hear nothing, see nothing and feel nothing." Then the brute gives here a salvo of blows on all exposed parts of her body. Her mouth makes no sound, she seems motionless, unmoved by the terrible blows, the only movement is the spasmodic closing and opening of both her buttocks.
- "I am satisfied," the Reverend decides after fifteen minutes of this cruel discipline. "It is time for us to reap the benefits of our holy work. Do not listen to me anymore, my dear girl, but let the bliss transport you. Press your face against the ground, then I chase with the venerable cord of Saint Francis the last impurity within."
This cord of which he speaks is nothing less than his cock, which he slides between her thighs. She comes back to life and exclaims:
- "Oh, reverend father, the pleasures that flow through me, are indescribable. Oh yes, yes, I feel the heavenly bliss. I feel my mind is freed from all earthly desires. Please, please, dear father, dispel any last remaining impurities on my corrupted soul. I see ... the angels of God. Push harder, ooh, push the holy relic deeper. Deeper. Please, dear father, push it as hard as you can. Ooooh! Ooooh! Dearest Holy Saint Francis. Ooh, good saint. Please, do not leave me in the hour of my greatest need. I feel your relic. It is so good ... your ... saint ... relic. I can not hold it any longer. I am dying! "
The prelude - the corporal punishment - is perhaps the beginning of sadomasochist eroticism, which undoubtedly has its origins in the Judeo-Christian contempt for the flesh, and which here is the target of libertine criticism without however losing its randy resonance. The atheistic free-thought of the libertines and its brutal repression by the Jesuits who in the 17th century sent the writer Claude Le Petit to his death by strangling and burning him, are combined here into an erotic scene.
In the second part of the book, which is more philosophical in nature, the clergy and its ideas are further castigated by a celebration of the Unholy Trinity of hedonism, materialism and atheism. Thérèse asks her audience aloud just who exactly is responsible for giving her her passions.
- "Answer, deceptive or ignorant theologians that invent our crimes at will: who was it that gave me the two passions that I have to fight? The love of God and the pleasures of the flesh? Is it nature or the Devil? Choose. But do you dare to claim that one or the other is more powerful than God? If they are subordinate to Him, then it is God who has allowed these two passions in me. It is His work. "
Libertines are freethinkers, liber being Latin for 'free'. Thérèse argues for hedonism and self-love:
- 'It is is self-love that determines all actions of our lives. By self-love I understand an inner satisfaction that we feel to act this or that way. I love you, for example, because I find pleasure in loving you. What I did for you, may suit you, be useful to you, but I am under no obligation: it is my self-love that led me, it's because my happiness has been deployed in contributing to yours, and it is for the same reason that you make me completely happy if your self-love can find its particular satisfaction in doing the same. "
That man is nothing more than a machine -- the doctrine of materialism -- is ardently defended by Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709-1751) in his L'Homme machine from 1747. De La Mettrie was in turn inspired by Descartes. That L'Homme machine would be echoed in pornographic writings such as Thérèse Philosophe published one year later, La Mettrie would not have dared to fathom. But Thérèse Philosophe is certainly one of the finest ways to get acquainted with the materialistic and mechanistic side of Enlightenment philosophy, much more fun than ploughing through the work of La Mettrie or his contemporary Paul Henri Thiry Holbach (1723-1789) and his medical and mechanical materialism.
Another fine way of familiarizing oneself with materialism is to cast a glance upon the robots of the French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson (1709-1782). He is known for his design of the mechanical duck that even sports a real digestive system. One sees how far the Newtonian action-reaction philosophy determines contemporary thinking. Not coincidentally, we find the same mechanistic world-view in an English scandalous novel of the same era, Fanny Hill, of which we will say more later.
About materialism we read the following in Thérèse.
- "We are no longer master to think this or that or to have this or that wish, than we are master of the fact whether we get or do not get a fever. In reality we see through clear and simple observations that the soul is never master but only acts in accordance with the excitations and abilities of the body. We also see that the causes that can lead to the disruption of the bodily organs, can also disturb the soul and alter the mind. That one disrupted blood vessel, one disturbed fiber in the brain of a man who is the smartest of the world, can turn him into an imbecile. We know that nature acts in the simplest of ways, ruled by a universal principle. So, since it is evident that we are not free in some operations, it is equally obvious that we are unfree in all of them."
Thérèse concludes with a critical note, in which she as a real freethinker explores the limits of reason and the Enlightenment - two concepts that she has just finished glorifying - and addresses the ill-tempered censors.
- "We do not think what we want. The soul has no will, is determined only by stimuli. Through matter, reason enlightens us, but barely determines our fate. Self-love (the pleasure anticipated or the discomfort avoided) are the motivations that define us."
And then she agrees to a wager with the man who will conquer her heart and cunt. He challenges her to lock herself up for a fortnight with a collection of erotica at hand. If she succeeds not relapsing into her old masturbatory 'malady' when viewing and reading all the goodies, he will bestow her the collection. If she fails, she will give her virginity to him. The end lets itself be readily guessed.
On the other side of the channel
Whereas the French courts of the 18th century and Louis XIV to XVII of the House of Bourbon celebrate life and art in equal measures, the English courts of that time are far more prudish. They can hardly boast an erotic tradition, which is limited to Sheela na gigs, Geoffrey Chaucer and John Wilmot. 18th-century English paintings barely feature eroticism, apart from the magnificent Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) who is not an English native anyway, but actually a Swiss immigrant. This lack of English erotic splendor is amply compensated by the appearance of a world classic of erotic literature: Fanny Hill. It won't be long before the first English pen-pushers are sent to prison because of risqué writings.
The British caricaturists
In order to run into Venus and Eros in 18th-century England, one must pay a visit to British caricaturists William Hogarth (1697-1764), Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) and James Gillray (1757-1815). The history of British caricature begins with Hogarth, who is best known for his moralizing work that, while commenting on the sexual and social mores of its times, rarely depicts sexuality itself. For example, there is the six-part sequence of paintings Marriage à-la-mode which criticizes arranged marriages. The work doesn't exactly make our knees shake, but our hearts do start to beat faster on seeing Boys Peeping at Nature, a print about four cupid-like boys (although one is clearly a satyr): two peek under the skirt of a marble statue, another is drawing the statue which sports, like the Artemis of Ephesus, multiple breasts. The really explicit work will have to wait for the next generation.
Rowlandson honors the tradition of moral and social criticism of his predecessor Hogarth in the work Selling a Wife. He becomes fare more sultry - although tongue still firmly in cheek - with Farewell, a fisherman tableau that appeals to the imagination. A woman waves her husband goodbye with a handkerchief, while invisible to the eye of her departing husband, she is taken by her lover below the window frame. Women of sailors are often the subject of the wildest fantasies: they often miss their spouses months on end and are game for some distraction. Not so implausible legend has it that antique wooden and ivory dildos are most frequently found in fishing villages.
In Such Things Are, or A Peep Into Kensington Gardens disembodied phalli come to life. Penises with legs chase fleeing women. Two penises sit chatting on a couch. A man licks his own penis. A man has balls so heavy that they hang down to the ground. Grotesque and laughable. The Belgian Félicien Rops (1833-1898) will also deal with the theme of the phallus becoming man. Rowlandson's penises have something of painter's brushes with angry red heads. A contemporary remarked ironically: "We object—strongly object—to the absurd form of the taper, which the gentleman holds in his hand. It looks more like a carrot than the genuine article. It burns brightly enough, but the shape is monstrously unreal—as any fair devotee will know."
Rowlandson is both rakish and erotic, and an astute observer of the sexual morality of its time. An eternal recurring theme is that of the 'dirty old man'. In a jaunty picture he draws two old men who are admiring the genitals and nice ass of a very plump young lady kneeling on a bed. They are looking thrilled as if they have never seen this body part before. Fine fleshy Rubenesque buttocks - we will find them later in the work of contemporary American cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb - are a trademark of Rowlandson and he draws them literally hundreds of times.
In another picture Rowlandson goes one step further. The design is entitled Cunnyseurs, a pun on connoisseur, French for art expert and cunny, short for cunt. The work satirizes -- just as the tamer Connoisseurs -- the enjoyment of gratuitous nudity under the guise of savoring Art with a capital A. In Cunnyseurs a completely naked girl is on a bed with her ass in the air. She is almost on her head and is examined by three old men standing around her with their faces close to her most intimate parts. They are fully dressed, but two of them have their penises hanging out of their pants. Two faces show that typical Rowlandsonian delight, a fourth man peeking around the door seems to loathe the spectacle. It is a beautiful girl and she smiles. The body position she has assumed is "difficult but not impossible," notes 19th-century erotomaniac Henry Spencer Ashbee (1834-1900).
Rowlandson more than once has a predilection for extreme poses, such as in the untitled picture of a young man making love to a seated young woman, her legs thrown Kamasutrian-style over his shoulders. Orientalism, the love of the Far and Near East which will become popular at the end of the 18th century is the subject of a drawing, sometimes called The Harem, depicting a sultan who is contemplating his huge harem in order to choose his 'bride for one night.'
Rowlandson is said to have been a bon vivant and one may assume that he produces these ribald prints to afford his lifestyle. Sex happens to sell, as we all know. Luckily, Rowlandson is well-informed of the erotic vocabulary of his time and one of his prints is a nice illustration of La Fontaine's bawdy verses, the Nouveaux Contes. He chooses the final scene of the story "Les Lunettes" (The Spectacles), about a young man who is hiding in a convent to enjoy his fellow nuns en travesti. During an inspection of the sisters, he is exposed and his erect penis, previously hidden, tucked between his thighs, is suddenly freed and pops up, striking Mother Superior on the nose, her eye-glasses flying up in the air. The story is later retold in the previously mentioned Venus in the Cloister.
Anticlericalism, so typical of 18th-century France, is conspicuously absent in Rowlandson and his contemporaries' oeuvre. Prints such as Meditations among the Tombs are indeed cheeky but at the same time rather good-hearted. Nevertheless, scenes such as The Empress of Russia Receiving her Brave Guards prove that the English censor was only watching with half an eye to the literary and visual productions of its day, or, and that is another possibility, that he simply did not have means to enforce censorship.
Gillray is slightly more acerbic than his contemporary Rowlandson. His oeuvre is also less sensual. Both are the first geniuses of caricature, a genre that although in that day practiced in France, does not produce any masterpieces as it does in England. France would have to wait a century for that to happen. That Gillray is not always subtle is proven amongst other things by the print National Conveniences: Four Ways of Shitting. We are witnessing a shitting Englishman, Scotsman, Frenchman and Dutchman, and the 'comforts' on which they sit. Show me their toilets, I will tell you who they are. Equally extravagant is the satirical print The Twin Stars: Castor and Pollux, showing two obese dignitaries, George Barclay (ca.1759-1819) and Charles Sturt (1763-1812).
The great contradiction in Gillray is that, despite the rather Rabelaisian character of the previous two prints, he still manages to produce the most tender satirical print about the love between two people, in this case the Duke and Duchess of York. Fashionable Contrasts shows two pairs of feet, two tiny and dainty ones of a woman lying between the giant feet of a man, in a detail of the missionary position.
Sex is a nightmare
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) is not a handsome man, yet despite being married he has several affairs, including one with feminist activist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) in which she, among other things, calls for an academic education for women. Sex is a nightmare. Or so we gather it must have been for the British painter, adventurer, Shakespeare expert and art critic Fuseli. This hineininterpretierung is easily forgiven even at the very first glance of Fuseli's erotic icon The Nightmare. The work depicts a woman who appears unconscious as her head and arms dangle next to the sofa on which her long limbs rest. On her stomach is an incubus. Between the red velvet curtains peeks a horse with a horrified gaze. One does not need be an psychoanalyst to assume that the work demonstrates Fuseli's innermost feelings.
Before Fuseli no painter has employed such sexual symbolism and at the same time seen his work accepted by the established artistic elite. In 1782 Fuseli shows The Nightmare at the prestigious exhibition of the Royal Academy in London. It is a succès de scandale. His only contemporary counterpart in bizarre and macabre sexuality is the Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828). The fact that the work pleased the Royal Academy remains a mystery, but Fuseli will remain active as one of Academy's professors and board members until his death.
Legend has it Fuseli made The Nightmare after eating raw pork chops, which were said to stimulate dreams. A copy of it adorned Freud's apartment in Vienna, next to The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt. In January 1783 an engraved picture of the design is published and the following years several parodies are produced, including from the hand of Rowlandson and Gillray. Goethe is intrigued when he sees the picture in 1783 at a fair in Leipzig. The iconography of the work is completely new. One does not find work - neither religious nor mythological - which The Nightmare elaborated upon. There are of course the classic reclining Venuses of Giorgione and Titian, and The Dream of Hecuba of Giulio Romano. And as predecessor of the horse the stallion from The Bewitched Groom by Hans Baldung needs to be mentioned. But Fuseli develops a unique idiom that is both a precursor of Romanticism and Surrealism.
Rubens was the fetishist of plump women, Brantôme was the first to describe shoe fetishism, Fuseli widely introduces fetishism of every kind with themes such as bondage, masochism, group sex and hair fetishism. He is the sick mind of dark Romanticism. Also, and paradoxically, Fuseli is a child of Neoclassicism to which he dedicates one of his finest works, which unfortunately does not fall within the scope of this book: The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins.
Sexual fetishism is defined as sexual excitement produced by objects, body parts or rituals, rather than by the body of the other or the act itself. Fetishes and fantasies are as far removed from the sexual act as a living pig from a sausage pur porc. Fantasy is the key. Sexual fetishism first emerged in the 18th century and should be seen as an intellectualization and de-animalization of the sexual experience. Fuseli projects his sexual fantasies in sleeping women, such as The Nightmare and The Sleeping Woman and the Furies. In their sleep, he renders them spineless and he subjects them in their and his dream world.
Fuseli's X-portfolio contains several hundred erotic drawings. His widow burns a number of them, but someone manages to rescue dozens from the flames. Many of them group sex scenes, all featuring surprising elements. One can hardly speak of vanilla sex. A very uncanny scene is Erotic Burlesque: a woman is waiting on a bed and another examines the big cock of a man, or bows humbly for it. In A Man, a Woman and a Helping Servant the member of the underlying man is inserted in the vagina of the female on top, with the helping hand of the servant. A similar helping hand is shown in a tableau with one extra woman, A Man and Three Women. Again the man is the bottom. The man is always assigned a passive role and Fuseli further exploits the theme with a Nude, Bound Man and drives it to its limit with Brunhilde Observing Gunther, in which Brunhilde has tied her husband to the ceiling. He is denied sex on his wedding night and left just to dangle there. Fuseli drew his inspiration for that last masochistic scene from the Niebelungenlied showing that he knows the naughty bits from the classics.
Most women in Fuseli's fantasy world have lush hairdos, braided and artfully decorated. His fascination with female hair is a recurring theme, most pronounced in a print that is called Kallipyga, after the Venus Kallipygos. A woman is standing in front of a fireplace, her back turned to us. Her buttocks are bare. Her hair artfully and carefully braided, hanging from her head down in the form of a cock. The mantel is flanked by two beautiful, large, erect phalli. The least you can say is that the sexual dream world of Fuseli is anything but ordinary.
Betty, Pamela and Fanny
The best-known work of 18th-century English literature is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), the story of a castaway on a desert island etched in our collective memory - he is often depicted all alone under the shade of his palm tree. Robinson Crusoe gave the novel as a genre the foundation on which it rests today and is therefore considered the first English novel. Undoubtedly, a large part of the appeal of the work is its claim of telling a true history.
Indeed, Fanny too is keen on promising us the "Truth! stark, naked truth" in the preface of the risqué novel Fanny Hill by John Cleland. Much like Defoe, Fanny also promises to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. We will listen to her in a minute, but first, a small sketch of the freedoms and limitations of her literary era. In 1708, the publishers of the pamphlet The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead are sued.
- Now I am young, blind Cupid me bewitches,
- I scratch my Belly, for it always itches,
- And what it itches for, I've told before,
- 'Tis either to be Wife, or be a Whore;
- Nay any thing indeed, would be poor I,
- N'er Maiden-heads upon my Hands should lie,
- Which till I lose, I'm sure my watry Eyes
- Will pay to Love so great a Sacrifice,
- That my Carcass soon will weep out all its Juice,
- Till grown so dry, as fit for no Man's use.
They are acquitted in the blink of an eye because the English government lacks proper laws to punish them. The officiating judge admits that the defendants have 'printed bawdy stuff' but in such a manner that it 'reflects on no person, and a libel must be against some particular person or persons, or against the Government. It is stuff not fit to be mentioned publicly. If there is no remedy in the Spiritual court, it does not follow there must be a remedy here [in a secular court]. There is no law to punish it: I wish there were: but we cannot make law. It indeed tends to the corruption of good manners, but that is not sufficient for us to punish.'
Very different at that time is the situation in France, where since the twenties of the 17th century the Jesuit-instigated terror of censorship prevails. It will not be long before that mentality makes its way to England. In 1725, seventeen years after the failed indictment of The Fifteen Plagues of a Maidenhead, the prosecutor is more successful. Attorney General Sir Philip Yorke has found a weapon to fight indecency: he invokes the disruption of public order. In the trial for obscene libel against the notorious English publisher Edmund Curll accused of publishing two books considered dissolute - the French whore dialogue Venus in the Cloister and a treatise on the use of the whip during the act of love (De usu flagrorum) - Yorke successfully argues that these books actually disturb the peace. From March to July Curll is held in custody. In total, he will spend fourteen months in prison and he is also sentenced to one hour in the pillory. Just before his pillory-day he publishes a pamphlet in which he asks for understanding and kindly asks the public not to beat him. Successfully, it would appear. Curll is cheered and after an hour in the pillory, remarkably free from incidents, the public carries him on its shoulders in what must have been a victory dance.
Less coquettish publishers seek complete anonymity. Many of them make use of the collective pseudonym Pierre Marteau - French for Peter Hammer. This is the imprint - a term in the publishing world which essentially means a label - of a fictional publishing house, supposedly based in Cologne. Contemporaries are well aware that this publisher does not really exist, but that publishers and printers in the Netherlands, France and Germany use this fiction to evade open identification with their publications. This necessary clandestinity in the erotic publishing world will last well into the middle of the 20th century and will provide gems of invented place names, such as "Eleutheropolis" (city of the free), "Erotopolis", (city of eros), "Allopolis" (somewhere else) or "Utopia" (No place or nowhere).
Authors working in the public sphere, such as Defoe, also occasionally write scabrous essays. In "Conjugal Lewdness, or Matrimonial Whoredom" (1727) Defoe mockingly attacks contraceptives and equals them to infanticide.
Other writers are even less serious in their approach. In a curious genre, the distribution of which is limited to England, woman is described in ambiguous metaphors as a topographical landscape. A species of erotic cartography that gives free rein to the use of well found to silly euphemisms for the primary and secondary genitalia: bushes, hills, valleys, caves, harbors, bays, creeks and roads are summed up in rapid succession. The first work in this genre is The Present State of Bettyland (1684), about an island 'exploited' by men. Merryland from 1740 follows the same principle. In itself the genre is not new: birds and bees, agriculture and topography are popular sources of sexual symbolism since ancient times and the genre plays with pseudo-Latinisms such as Frutex Vulvaria (the vulva fruit).
Thus the female frutex in the similar work The Ladies Delight from 1732 is described as: "the tree is of slow growth, and requires time to bring it to perfection, rarely seeding to any purpose before the fifteenth year; when the fruits coming to good maturity, yield a viscous Juice or balmy succus, which being from time to time discharged at the Pistillum is mostly bestow'd upon the open Calyx's of the Frutex Vulvaria or flow'ring Shrub usually spreading under the shade of this tree, and whose parts are by a wonderful mechanism adapted to receive it."
And just above the waterline of admissibility is Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). According to literary critic Colin Wilson this book, and its successor Clarissa, in which a virtuous girl is drugged and raped, marks the beginning of 'real pornography' in England. He is exaggerating, but for their alleged indecency, Richardson's writings do earn a place on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the list of forbidden books of the Catholic church. Come to speak of it, The Index is a useful tool to track down risqué literature. Every European writer or philosopher can be found in it - even those who believed in God, as Descartes, Kant, Berkeley and Malebranche. That some atheists, such as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, are not included, is attributable to the general rule that heretical works (meaning works with any element - however small - criticizing the Catholic faith) are ipso facto prohibited. The fact that some other important works are missing from the list, is due to the circumstance that nobody took the pains to turn them in.
Richardson is sufficiently famous to grant him and his Pamela and Clarissa a place in that pantheon of forbidden books, despite that even the spiciest scenes are rather bland. Both books are epistolary novels, a form of literature that reduces the reader to eavesdropper or voyeur, forbidden witnesses of other people's pleasures.
Pamela is a beautiful fifteen-year-old servant girl whose boss is determined to get her into bed. She does not respond to his indecent proposals and is rewarded in her obstinate refusal by a marriage far beyond her positon with her assailant, the boss. Pamela is a bestseller on the same scale of Robinson Crusoe. Sold, bought, borrowed, read, commented upon and parodied, it is part of the 18th century English national collective memory. The success of the book is not limited to England, with translations in several European languages, even Dutch. The infamous Marquis de Sade borrows the title of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue from Pamela.
A European bestseller, by all means. An entire merchandising industry rises around it and that attracts the attention of moral crusaders. An obscure work that is much more explicit, would have not have caused such a scandal. Controversy always requires a presence in the public sphere. What exactly do these moral crusaders find objectionable in the 'upstairs downstairs' story? Well, some lustful and voyeuristic scenes. As her boss Mr. B. develops more and more lustful feelings for his young maid, he spies on her in her room, he tries to seduce her by offering clothes and if that fails, he abducts her and attempts to rape her in his mansion. Again he fails, for she faints. She says:
- 'He by force kissed me ; and said, "Who ever blamed Lucretia ! All the shame lay on the ravisher only : and I am content to take all the blame upon me : as I have already borne too great a share for what I have deserved." - "May I," said I, "Lucretia-like, justify myself with my death, if I am used barbarously?" - "O my good girl," said he, tauntingly" you are well read, I see: and we shall make out between us, before we have done, a pretty story in romance, I warrant ye." I got loose from him by a sudden spring, and ran out of the room; and the next chamber being open, I entered it, shut to the door, and it locked after me : but he followed me so close, he got hold of my gown, and tore a piece off, which hung without the door; for the key was on the inside.'
Pamela turns England into a nation of readers. Bored housewives, their children and husbands for the first time 'escape' from real life and 'dive' into a novel, like someone jumping into bed and pulling the covers over his head. Bestsellers such as Rousseau's Julie, or the New Heloise and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther complete the reading revolution. Lending libraries and cheaper books make the new 'reading drug' available to all who master language. Those who cannot read, find readers to read to them. Colin Wilson considers Pamela the first English novel and sees 1740 as the date of both the invention of the novel and of daydreaming. For the first time in history, he says, people take a ride on a magic carpet and escape the dreariness of everyday life, to exchange it for the life of fictional characters for the duration of a novel, in the case of Pamela 450 pages, that is nine hours for someone who reads fifty pages per hour. The sofa as reading furniture makes a massive entry into the English home.
The cultural pessimists of the day soon criticize the novel in the same way they criticize TV and video games today. They find it a huge escapist waste of time. In short, the couch potato of which it usually claimed that it as a late-20th-century phenomenon was actually born during the heyday of the novel. Moreover, in the eyes of the ecclesiastic authorities, reading fiction can find no mercy whatsoever. Fiction is considered a falsehood, falsehoods are lies, and lying is a sin, they say, probably following the same reasoning as when funerals in consecrated ground are denied to actors and actresses.
If Pamela turns England into a nation of readers, then Fanny Hill turns into a nation of wankers. Fanny Hill is a remarkable book, written by John Cleland (1709-1789) and published in 1748, eight years after Pamela, a year in which Thérèse Philosophe and Les Bijoux indiscrets by Denis Diderot also see the light. The book features about forty sex scenes, more than fifty euphemisms for the male member (red-headed champion, flesh brush, battering ram, king member, dear morsel, beloved guest, her blind favourite, plenipotentiary instrument, pleasure pivot, standard of distinction and master member of the revels) and a wide variety of love positions that can safely withstand comparisons with the Kamasutra and I Modi by Aretino.
Fanny from the title is a peasant girl who at age fifteen is forced by poverty to leave her village and go to London, where she meets a friendly woman who is actually a 'madam'. When 'madam' learns of Fanny's virginity, she sells it to the very rich Lord B. Later, Fanny falls in love with a certain Charles who mysteriously disappears, which forces her to take up her old profession again. Throughout the story, which will last until her eighteenth birthday and which is characterized by many ups and downs, she tries to make herself a woman of the world. When she inherits a small fortune she can resume her quest for her lost lover Charles and when the are finally reunited, they marry and live happily ever after.
In fact Fanny Hill is a variation on the genre of the whore dialogue. So far, not a single erotic book has had a man as narrator. The woman remains the guardian of sexual knowledge and who has more knowledge of men than a whore? New, however, is the fact that dialogue is exchanged for prose. All eroticism before Fanny Hill was made up either of of verse or of dialogue. This is as significant in the history of eroticism as in the history of literature in general. In the forties of the 18th century, literature goes through a shift from poetry to prose, a shift that began in the 14th century with medieval chivalric romances. Prose proves itself to be an excellent way to explore and convey inner experience, to depict the mechanisms of the human psyche in a realistic manner. Moreover, Fanny Hill is presented as a memoir, to heighten the feeling of verisimilitude.
Colin Wilson notes in The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders that John Cleland has achieved a remarkable literary feat in Fanny Hill: he has managed to literally slow down time. What Wilson means is that the time it takes to read some scenes in Fanny Hill is significantly longer than the time required to execute the action. The character of Fanny is so true-to-life that the reader desires to stick around, to linger in her thoughts and feelings. Half a century later Marcel Proust will stretch the same premise to almost ridiculous lengths as far as bringing the reader to abandon his normal sense of time. But no writer before the time of Cleland would have dared to undertake such an attempt, "Cervantes, Lesage, Defoe, all relied on a profusion of incident to hold the reader's interest." says Wilson. Cleland, perfectly tuned to this trend, takes his time and stretches the desire of the reader until the latter's postponed delight, just like in the act itself, is driven to the top.
- "Curious then, and eager to unfold so alarming a mystery, playing, as it were, with his buttons, which were bursting ripe from the active force within, those of his waistband and fore-flap flew open at a touch, when out IT started; and now, disengag'd from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ'd, it must have belong'd to a young giant. Its prodigious size made me shrink again; yet I could not, without pleasure, behold, and even ventur'd to feel, such a length, such a breadth of animated ivory! perfectly well turn'd and fashion'd, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex, and whose exquisite whiteness was not a little set off by a sprout of black curling hair round the root, through the jetty sprigs of which the fair skin shew'd as in a fine evening you may have remark'd the clear light ether throught the branchwork of distant trees over-topping the summit of a hill: then the broad and blueish-casted incarnate of the head, and blue serpentines of its veins, altogether compos'd the most striking assemblage of figure and colours in nature. In short, it stood an object of terror and delight.
- But what was yet more surprising, the owner of this natural curiosity, through the want of occasions in the strictness of his home-breeding, and the little time he had been in town not having afforded him one, was hitherto an absolute stranger, in practice at least, to the use of all that manhood he was so nobly stock'd with; and it now fell to my lot ot stand his first trial of it, if I could resolve to run the risks of its disproportion to that tender part of me, which such an oversiz'd machine was very fit to lay in ruins."
Machine is clearly Cleland's favorite euphemism for the penis, which is not so surprising in an England at that time the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, a country where materialism reigns supreme. But the time is also full of superstition. On March 16 of the year 1750 Thomas Sherlock in a pastoral letter to his parish - London, that is - writes that 'dirty books' such as Fanny Hill and 'dirty pictures' as Rowlandson's and Gillray's are responsible for the two earthquakes that have hit London on February 8 and March 8 of the same year. What an allegation. Taking matters further he writes to Secretary Thomas Pelham-Holles that those "vile books" must urgently be dealt with. He finds in Holles a friendly ear and has Cleland locked up.
Cleland was no stranger to prison. During his previous stay, when he did time for debts, he wrote - in his own words out of boredom - Fanny Hill. What a godsend his confinement: Cleland invents with Fanny Hill a genre of erotic literature that can best be describe as wall-to-wall, as in wall-to-wall carpeting. The story of Fanny only serves as a narrative thread to lead us in rapid succession from sex scene to sex scene: the highlights and the raison d'être of this picaresque novel. Fortunately, the thread is strong enough to hold our attention and ensure that we continue to look forward to the next move of our picara Fanny. Because if that thread is too thin, the potentially erotic encounters, greetings, hugs and caresses will be bogged down in a pornographic mush. Fanny is not engulfed in that swamp: the work indeed boasts merits that elevates it above the merely pornographic. In the sixties of the 20th century, the term 'literary merit' was put forward, a term that was apparently coined solely in order to distinguish between permissible literature and stroke books, or if you will, between eroticism and pornography.
But in the middle of the 18th century that distinction is not made. In court, Cleland disavows the novel and says that he can only "wish, from my Soul," that the book be "buried and forgot". What finished Cleland off, is perhaps the fact that all ends well for Fanny and she shows no remorse for her libertine way of life. Two female protagonists of novels that preceded Fanny Hill, Roxana and Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe, also lead dissolute lives as a independent women, but these two do show remorse later in life. Moll Flanders, for example, at the age of 69 returns to England after a stay in the United States to spend the rest of her days "in sincere penitence for the wicked life she has lived." But Fanny dies no horrible death, does not succumb lonely and abandoned and is not infected with a terrible venereal disease or smallpox. No, she lives happily ever after. And at the time that is simply unheard of.
After Cleland's trial, the book is officially withdrawn from the market, but pirate publishers are only too happy to print and distribute this scandalous novel. Since the book officially doesn't exist, unscrupulous entrepreneurs see their chance to add scenes at will. A version with an added male-male anal sex scene appears. Cleland's answer is an expurgated version that appears in 1750 which is allowed to remain on the market, but which probably does not sell very well. His later books fail to attract notice and since he's unable to print the unexpurgated and therefore wildly popular version of Fanny Hill the writer dies poor, old and lonely at the age of 79. That he was given a generous annual state grant until his death in order to prevent him writing further obscenities is now dismissed as a fable, invented by the writer of his obituary in the Monthly Review of 1789.
Radical pornography and secret sexual societies in England
Twenty six years after the publication of Fanny Hill, on January 19, 1764 to be precise, the British radical parliamentary John Wilkes (1725-1797) is outlawed by the English government. He owes this to the poem "An Essay on Woman", a parody of the exalted verses An Essay on Man by literary star Alexander Pope (1688-1744). Wilkes will learn that it is one thing to privately print a joke in twelve copies for the gentlemen's club of which he is a member, but that it is something quite different for his rivals to declamate that same joke – without him knowing – for the whole of Parliament. Parliament did not take it well. Fortunately, Wilkes is in Paris at the time, with his enlightened French friends, the clique of d'Holbach. So he can't be jailed for the burlesque versions he and his friend Thomas Potter made of Pope's hit.
Pope writes in An Essay on Man:
- Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,
- That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:
- Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
- A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
- Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
- And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Potter and Wilkes corrupt this as:
- O blindness to the future! kindly given,
- That each may enjoy what fucks are marked in Heaven:
- Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
- The man just mounting, and the virgin's fall,
- Pricks, cunt, and bollocks in convulsions hurled,
- And now a hymen burst, and now a world
Wilkes is a remarkable figure, a true pornosopher in the sense that he links his political beliefs to the free will of the flesh. He squarely laughs at religious faith and sexualizes Pope's philosophical advice. He goes a step further by dragging the immortality of the soul through the mud in the same anthology, adulated by Pope in "The Dying Christian to His Soul". Wilkes and Potter pervert that poem to "The Dying Lover to His Prick".
- Happy spark of heavenly flame!
- Pride and wonder of man's frame!
- Why is pleasure so soon flying?
- Why so short this bliss of dying?
- Cease, fond pego, cease the strife,
- And yet indulge a moment's life.
- Hark! cunt whispers. Don't she say,
- Brother pego come away?
- What is this absorbs me quite,
- Seals my senses, shuts my sight,
- Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?
- Tell me, my prick, can this be death?
- Now you recede, now disappear!
- My eye looks round in vain; my ear,
- Fanny your Murmur rings:
- Lend, lend your hand! I mount! I die!
- O Prick, how great thy Victory?
- O Pleasure, sweet thy stings.
But also the "Universal Prayer" by Pope
- Thou Great First Cause, least understood,
- Who all my sense confin'd
- To know but this, that Thou art good,
- And that myself am blind:
is not safe for the corrupting pen of Wilkes and Potter:
- Thou first great Cause, least understood,
- Who all my Prick confined,
- To feel but this, that thou art good
- And that himself is blind.
And where Pope dedicates the poem to ‘Deo Opt. Max.’ – deo optimo maximo, to God, the best, the greatest–, Wilkes and Potter choose the cunt as the goddess to be worshiped. They turn it into ‘Cunno Opt. Min.’ – cunno optimo minimo, to the Cunt, the best, de smallest.
The first sex clubs
In essence, the 18th century is not very different from our present day. Someone with a more than average interest in the pleasures of the flesh, or someone whose sexual preferences lie left or right of center, moves - just as he would now - to the big city, where he will find like-minded people. In the 18th century we see for the first time that a number of sexual subcultures organize themselves into clubs, sex clubs for every taste. How should one imagine such a secret sexual society? There is a wide variety: from simple bars where homosexuals meet to exuberant sex parties, as in the Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut.
In England, there are several secret sexual societies, commonly known as Hellfire clubs. The most famous society is founded by Francis Dashwood (1708-1781), Minister of Finance but also a notorious debauchee. John Wilkes is also a member. In 1755 Dashwood buys an old abbey, has it renovated according to the then current Gothic revival trend and established a pagan Gentlemen's club there. Above the door he affixes the rabelaisian maxim Fay ce que vouldras - Do what thou wilt. Each 'monk' of the abbey, a dozen at first, has a comfortable personal cell. They eat well, practice childish satanic rituals and indulge in all sorts of licentiousness. Women are allowed: everyone is masked at the meetings and they only take off the mask when they are sure that they do not know anyone personally. But female members are few and far between, and most often London whores are called upon for sexual pleasures. If such encounters lead to offspring, the abbey has its own midwife and a solution is sought for the little sprout. Everyone connected with the abbey is of course bound by a code of silence.
Retour a la douce France
Of talking cunts (2)
When looking for anchor points in history, dates are always rewarding. In the 18th century, 1748 is a key year. Excavations unearth the treasures of Pompeii and Fanny Hill and Therese the Philosopher roll off the presses. The encyclopedist Denis Diderot, challenged by a sweetheart who tells him that he cannot live off his pen and that he cannot write as smoothly as his French contemporary Crébillon fils, who Diderot himself claims is easy to copy, writes -- at the age of 35 -- the erotic novella Les bijoux indiscrets, known in English as The Indiscreet Jewels.
The story, written in no more than two weeks, has a simple plot borrowed from a medieval fabliau covered earlier, Le Chevalier qui faisoit parler les cons et les culs; as far as we are concerned, one of the wittiest themes in the history of erotica. Mangogul is a bored sultan from an imaginary oriental kingdom. Like so many Orientalist fables of the time, the Oriental setting provides an excuse for criticism of contemporary society and court life. This sultan - readers of the time can't help but recognize Louis XV in it - is tired of the gossip at his court and the flirting of his courtesan Mirzoza - a barely concealed portrait of Louis' beloved Madame de Pompadour. To stave off his boredom, the djinn Cucufa gives him a magic ring that makes him invisible and allows him to move Startrek-style. The ring also has the magical power to make women confess their most intimate secrets, not through their lips, however, but through their pussy. It puts ventriloquism in a whole new light.
'"Do you see this ring?", he said to the sultan. "Put it on your finger, my son: any woman to whom you point the stone will reveal her love affairs in a clearly audible voice. Do not think, however, that they will speak with their mouths." "But with what do they speak?" asks Mangogul. "With their most sincere body part that is also best informed of the things you would like to know," says Cucufa, "with their Jewel."'
From then on, the book moves from forced confession to forced confession. Mangogul is forced to conclude, to his dismay, that not all is as it seems in his court. The respectable reputations of some court ladies are not at all consistent with their greediness and sexual excesses. Honorable wives of wealthy gentlemen turn out to have young lovers, a widow who receives a state pension for her deceased husband is unfaithful, and a jealous wife who has falsely accused her husband of rape is exposed. The scales fall from his eyes. He wants to find one virtuous woman at all cost, a woman who speaks with one voice, a woman who makes the same sound through both mouths. This proves impossible. The bawdiest story is that of a well-endowed cunt, Cypria, whose stories are so bawdy that she tells them each time in the language of the country she has traveled: in English, Spanish, pidgin, and Latin - the latter for the bawdiest story of all. At the end, Mangogul uses the ring on his wife Mirzoza: something which had been strictly forbidden by Cucufa, but he has to in order to save her from a fatal swoon. However, he discovers that she is loyal to him and he returns the ring to Cucufa. All's well that ends well.
The theme of talking genitalia is known to folklorists under number AT 1391 - from the Aarne-Thompson indexing system - as "every hole tells the truth" or "the member tells the truth". One also finds the theme in the 1970s French porno film Le Sexe qui parle, in Marquis, the Franco-Belgian puppet film adaptation of de Sade's life (with a talking cock) and in a masterful but non-sexual way in the novel Naked Lunch' by American author William S. Burroughs.
When Diderot is jailed the following year, it is not for his juvenile sin The Indiscreet Jewels but for the atheist essay Letter on the Blind. After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write detrimentally about religion again - this is also the reason that his most controversial works The Nun and Jacques the Fatalist are not published until twelve years after his death - Diderot is released from the dungeons of the fortress of Vincennes after three months of imprisonment. The famous L'Encyclopédie, on which Diderot is working with d'Alembert, will only enjoy royal favor for a short time and is subsequently put on the list of banned books.
For more than a thousand years, nuns were allowed to go wherever they wanted, move around as they saw fit. Beginning in 1298, this comes to an end when Pope Boniface VIII (1235-1303) orders in the papal decree Periculoso that the brides of Christ had better be locked up in convents. Indeed, he fears for their chastity. It is appropriate that the term 'cloister' derives from the Latin claustrum, from which the word 'claustrophobia' is also derived.
- "Wishing to provide for the dangerous and abominable situation of certain nuns, who, casting off the reins of respectability and impudently abandoning nunnish modesty and the natural bashfulness of their sex […] we do firmly decree […] that nuns collectively and individually, both at present and in future, of whatsoever community or order, in whatever part of the world they may be, ought henceforth to remain perpetually cloistered in their monasteries […] so that [the nuns] be able to serve God more freely, wholly separated from the public and worldly gaze and, occasions for lasciviousness having been removed, may most diligently safeguard their hearts and bodies in complete chastity."--tr. Elizabeth Makowski
Much safer from the temptations of the flesh, however, the nuns confined in the convents are not: often they find comfort in each other's arms. But granted, just as often they do not find it, and the deprivation of carnality has its consequences, both physical and psychological. As early as the beginning of the 18th century, breast cancer was known as the "nun's disease". The Italian physician Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) wrote in the first book on occupational diseases that:
- "[...] tumors of this sort are found in nuns more often than in any other women. ... Every city in Italy has several religious communities of nuns, and you seldom can find a convent that does not harbor this accursed pest, cancer, within its walls."
Today it is widely known that breast cancer is more common in women who are sexually inactive or never suckle.
Sexual abstinence also appears to be detrimental to the psyche. There are several well-documented descriptions of monastic nuns who become psychotic en masse, as if possessed by the devil. In France alone, there are the bewitchings of Aix-en-Provence (1611), Loudun (1634) and Louviers (1647). The most notorious bewitched nuns are the Ursulines of Loudun. An eyewitness describes them as follows.
- "[The nuns] beat their chests and their backs with their heads, as if they had broken their necks ... they turned their arms around in the bowls of the shoulder, the joints of their elbow or wrist, two or three times ... their faces were so repulsive that the sight of them was unbearable. Their eyes remained open without blinking. Their tongues suddenly popped out of their mouths, terribly swollen, black, hard and covered with pustules, although they were still clearly intelligible in this state. They threw themselves backwards until their heads touched their feet, and walked in this position with incredible speed, and for a long time. They uttered cries so horrible and so loud, never had one heard such a thing. They used expressions so indecent that the behavior of the most lewd men would pale in comparison, while their actions, both how they bared themselves, and the obscene inviting gestures they made in doing so, would astonish the occupants of the meanest brothels in the land." [The History of the Devils of Loudun, Des Niau, own translation]
Supposedly responsible for their bewitchment was the local priest Urbain Grandier (1590-1634). Grandier wi a charismatic man and lifelong womanizer, which ensures that he has many friends but just as many enemies. According to the frustrated mother superior, he has bewitched the poor souls with black magic. Claude Quillet, the physician called to Loudun in 1633 to give his verdict, disagrees. He examines the nuns and decides that they are not bewitched, but rather suffering from sexual hysteria or erotomania. He pragmatically recommends them the "remedy of the flesh."
- "These poor little devils of nuns, confined between four walls, fall madly in love, fall into a melancholy delirium, and are influenced by the desires of the flesh. The truth, however, is that the perfect cure for them is the remedy of the flesh."
This judgment was to no avail for Urbain Grandier, who, on the basis of fabricated evidence - a diabolical pact signed by all the demons who had taken possession of the nuns - was sentenced to death and burned alive on August 18, 1634. In the 20th century, the story is revived in The Devils of Loudun, Aldous Huxley's historical and hysterical novel, and in The Devils, the excellent film adaptation by British director Ken Russell.
Diderot also left us the story of a nun, La religieuse (The Nun). This epistolary novel - a genre very popular at the time - is about Suzanne Simonin, an illegitimate daughter who is placed in a convent against her will by her mother. It is often said that The Nun was not published at all during Diderot's lifetime, but that is only a half-truth. Indeed, the work was not published in book form during Diderot's lifetime, but as a serial between 1780 and 1782 in Correspondance littéraire, a private French-language newsletter for a select group of intellectuals. The enlightened Russian Empress Catherine the Great was subscribed to it. In French, such newsletters are called nouvelles à main, because they are copied by hand, just like in the Middle Ages. Several copyists copied the work of Diderot and his companions word for word, letter for letter in order to keep the broad-minded members of the European nobility informed of the most radical developments of the Enlightenment. And this without the censor getting wind of it: no printing presses were used, something that required the permission of the king at the time. The list of subscribers to Correspondance littéraire is until today a secret.
Back to Diderot's nun. His approach to the nun theme arises from an unparalleled literary joke that does full justice to the tumultuous nature of the Republic of Letters. Diderot has a friend, the Marquis de Croismare, who around the age of sixty decides to leave Paris to visit his native Normandy. He promised his friends that he would return to the city soon, but the open air does him so much good that he becomes devout and devotes himself to the pleasures of his garden. The year is 1760. After a year, Diderot and his companion, the German writer Friedrich Melchior Grimm, decide to lure the marquis back to Paris by means of a ruse.
The two know that the marquis has a very big heart and that two years earlier he had moved heaven and earth in the infamous case of Marguerite Delamarre. Marguerite was a nun who had taken her chastity vow under emotional blackmail and then tried in vain to dissolve her 'marriage with God'. During the Ancien Régime, there were more than 55,000 nuns in France, in about 5000 convents. In the years leading up to the Revolution, the convent is a symbol of social oppression, on a par with the lettre de cachet': arbitrary arrest warrants issued by the king which can put someone behind bars without justice, as happened to the Marquis de Sade. Both the compulsory nun and the lettre de cachet are ways of defusing undesirable individuals by royal or ecclesiastical means. Two ways which are abolished towards the end of the century: in 1789 the royal house goes up in smoke and three years later the Catholic Church is abolished in France.
Diderot and Grimm decide to create a fictitious nun, Suzanne Simonin, and to send an entreaty in her name to the Marquis. Suzanne is said to have met him once, and now asks him for help; he is her last straw. She was locked up in a monastery against her will, Diderot and Grimm write. The gullible marquis immediately accepts this and responds to her letter with concern. A correspondence develops between the 'nun' and Marquis de Croismare, but instead of returning to Paris he offers her a position as his maid in Normandy. De Croismare really cannot be persuaded to go to Paris, and after a correspondence lasting from February to May 1760, Diderot and Grimm feel cornered. They decide to let the 'nun' die of a lingering illness. On 10 May they write the last letter to de Croismare, which begins with: 'The dear child is no more.' Suzanne Simonin is dead without ever having lived. It will be another eight years before de Croismare finds out the truth. Apparently, he saw the humor of it.
But for Diderot, Suzanne is not yet dead. His fictional nun keeps haunting his mind and he works out her story. At sixteen, her slightly older sisters are married off and there is no money left for her dowry. Her parents therefore decide to marry Suzanne off to God and entrust her to a convent. She will eventually serve under three mother superiors: Madame de Moni, a motherly loving type, Sainte-Christine, an unstable sadist, and finally an unnamed lesbian libertine who tries to seduce Suzanne, fails, goes mad with rejected desire and pays for it with her life. It is that last lesbian mother who will especially appeal to the imagination. In 1966 it even led to a censorship controversy in France, when the filmmaker Jacques Rivette made a faithful reproduction of the film.
Diderot is not the first to depict sexual life in a convent. That honor belongs to the rather tame 1683 book Vénus dans le cloître (Venus in the Convent), the book that gets publisher Curll into trouble and gives rise to La Fontaine's burlesque poem Les Lunettes. And even earlier there is the even tamer Lettres portugaises (1669). But actually these stories go back to the Middle Ages with Alibech and Rusticus from The Decameron and similar tales from the fabliau culture. The Non, however, resembles none of the previous ones. It lacks the sexual education aspect of Venus in the Convent, the passion of Lettres portugaises, and the farcical of Alibech and Rusticus.
Diderot's Nun demonstrates a psycho-erotic realism that we have so far found only in the English school of Richardson and Cleland. Incidentally, Diderot is a great fan of Richardson, as he attests in his essay "Éloge de Richardson". And indeed, Diderot shows himself here to be a seasoned novelist of the sort found predominantly in England at the time. But the difference with his British colleagues is that Diderot is also a philosopher. And the best novels simply emerge from the right combination of the wisdom of a shrewd philosopher and the empathy of someone with life experience. Erotic literature is not an exception to this rule.
Don't expect to end up in bed with The Nun, read with the use of just one hand, and doze off satisfied. The Nun is soft reading, literature that breathes the atmosphere of the sultry foreplay and the sighing afterplay, but nowhere smells of sexual accomplishment. Of course the subject lends itself to that: in an environment where all sex is strictly forbidden, the slightest allusion to sexuality is like a waterfall of stimuli.
The most talked-about scene: one night the lesbian mother superior comes to Suzanne's cell. Suzanne hears the Mother Superior standing very close to her door, wailing, sighing and moaning. She prays and the Mother Superior leaves, but she comes back and enters the cell. Suzanne pretends to be asleep. When she opens her eyes, she says startled at the sight of the superior: "Dear Mother, what are you doing here at this hour of the night? What has brought You here? Why don't you sleep?""I can't sleep," the Reverend Mother replies. It's the dreams that keep her awake. Dreams of Suzanne. Dreams of vicarious horror for the torture Suzanne endured in her previous convent. Her bleeding feet, the torch, the rope around her neck. She shudders at the love she feels for the pure Suzanne, and she wants to ascertain the well-being of her protégé.
- "Oh mother, how good you are," Suzanne replies.
The superior keeps the conversation going and at one point says she will leave, but she just can't seem to remove herself from the sleeping quarters of the pure Suzanne. She continues to stare at her, now with teary eyes, and suddenly she closes the door, extinguishes the candle, and leaps for Suzanne. She embraces her over the covers and presses her face against Suzanne's. Tears wet her jaws, she sighs and says in a pleading and jolting voice:
- "Dear friend, have mercy on me."
The still unsuspecting Suzanne asks worriedly what is wrong, if she might feel sick. She agrees and says:
- "I am trembling, I am shivering, and a deadly cold has spread over me."
At that, she asks Suzanne to lift the blankets so she can
- "come closer, warm me so I can heal."
Suzanne, who knows full well that heavy ecclesiastical punishments are meted out for this kind of behavior, is slightly alarmed but the superior gives her blessing. After all, it is she who hands out the punishments and rewards in the monastery. She tries to manipulate Suzanne emotionally, making comparisons to sharing the bed with a sister, or sleeping in the parental bed as a child. After all, she is her "mother," isn't she?
Mother Superior wraps one arm around Suzanne's chest, and tucks the second under her waist. She warms her feet on those of the good Suzanne, who suddenly becomes audacious and asks
- "What prevents you from warming yourself in the same way everywhere?"
Mother Superior does not have to be told this twice: she takes off her linen nightgown and Suzanne does the same. Just then there is a knock at the door. It is Thérèse, a jealous nun and the current lover of the Mother Superior. The latter is quite upset, but follows Thérèse into her cell anyway. Cut! End of scene. Just before the erotic denouement.
Harder passages that will appeal to the sadomasochists among us are not lacking either. There are the inhuman punishments that the second mother superior devises for her nuns. She is the archetype of the sadistic prison warden who was featured in the later exploitation films in this genre.
Yet The Nun is never explicitly banned. The reason is simple. Diderot's collected works are already on the index, so this should not be done explicitly with The Nun. It would only add to the interest in the work, turning a smouldering fire into a blazing inferno.
On April 7, 1742, Crébillon fils (1707-1777) is exiled 50,000 feet outside Paris. He has published an objectionable novel that same year: The Sofa. Crébillon fils is then 35 years old, son of a successful playwright of somber tragedies about which no one today is ashamed not to have read them. He is the complete opposite of his father: son Crébillon exchanges his father's grim tragedies for debauched books and plays.
The Sofa is about a soul who was cursed in a past life and transformed into a sofa. This magical transformation, like Diderot's The Indiscreet Jewels, takes place in an oriental setting, and as with Diderot, with a small effort, one can recognize the French King and Queen in the sultan and sultana. This oriental influence can no doubt be attributed to the immensely popular French translation of The Tales of a Thousand and One Nights from the beginning of the century, a book brimming with magical transformations. In the French gallant tales of the time, men are transformed into sofas (in The Sofa), into a bidet and a sponge (in B***, histoire bavarde) and into an artificial penis (in Le Joujou mystérieux). Talking anuses (Nocrion) and cunts (The Indiscreet Jewels) are not lacking.
The Sofa is actually a parody of One Thousand and One Nights. Crébillon's sultan is a grandson of Sheherazade, the narrator, and Shahriaar, the deceived king. The narrator here is Amanzei, who has to amuse the bored king, though without being immediately threatened by death. He tells us that - in a previous life as a woman - he showed himself to be particularly indolent, after which he was cursed and transformed into a sofa. He can only regain his human form "only when two persons, with myself as opportunity, should render each other the first fruits of mutual affection." Fortunately, Amanzei does retain his senses, and his soul is allowed to travel from sofa to sofa, so that as a 'peeping tom' he can tell us the story of seven couples. What follows are outpourings of seduction strategies, delayed gratifications, and rejections that make the novel less explicit than the title would suggest.
Rather than an erotic novel, The Sofa is a novel of manners. Some of the women on the sofa are thinking of someone other than the man with whom they are having sex, and then Amanzei's deliverance doesn't work. The final couple consists of two teenagers, Zeinida and Phlebas, whose young hearts give each other innocent pleasure. Their relationship does indeed meet the condition for the release of Amanzei's body. The various chapters give Crébillon the opportunity to expose hypocrisy in all its forms - decency, virtue and devotion.
The Brahmin who curses Amanzei does not choose the sofa at random. The sofa, like the bidet, is an invention of the 18th century. Also typical of that century is the interest in Eastern religion. The principle that the soul of a human being can incarnate not only in another human being, but equally in a plant or a thing, is called metempsychosis and is a central concept for the followers of Brahmanism.
The most beautiful clitoris of France
Paris is the undisputed capital of love in the 18th century, but love is not always as gallant as the frivolous novels of a Crébillon would like to suggest. Love is not always given and received, just as often it is sold and bought. For many men, their sex life remains a matter of love for sale. This century sees the first publication of guides to assist the whoremonger to scavenge the best girls. In France, they are called 'guides roses', like the Almanach des demoiselles de Paris, an almanac of Parisian street walkers. In England, there is the über-famous Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, which takes its name from the main whore district, Covent Garden.
- "Known in this quarter for her immense sized breasts, which she alternately makes use of with the rest of her parts, to indulge those who are particularly fond of a certain amusement. She is what you may call, at all; backwards and forwards, all are equal to her, posteriors not excepted, nay indeed, by her own account she has most pleasure in the latter. Very fit for a foreign Macaroni - entrance at the front door tolerably reasonable, but nothing less than two pound for the back way."
But one does not always have to take to the streets to pick a streetwalker. After all, noblemen or men of standing cannot afford to be seen in public that way. The risk of STDs is also too considerable: that makes virgins so sought-after, they are assumed to be free of disease. Fortunately, there are brothels and professional matchmakers. One such French entremetteuse is Marguerite Gourdan. In 1759, she starts an luxuriously opulent brothel in rue Saint Anne, a quarter in Paris that will remain known as a draw for gay prostitution until the mid-20th century. Later, she settles in rue Comtesse d'Artois.
The literary climate of the Enlightenment is densely populated by hack writers who like to hit it big with a potent mix of sexual and political scandals. Marguerite Gourdan receives le tout Paris in her salon, and after her death in 1783 - entirely according to the rules of poetic justice plagued by venereal diseases and totally impoverished - one of them, Charles Théveneau de Morande (1741-1805), yellow press journalist, extortionist and spy, publishes her correspondence under the title The Portfolio of Madame Gourdan. It makes us much wiser about Parisian mores and the sexual subcultures that flourished there in her time.
Madame Gourdan's correspondence is harrowing. On 28 December 1778, la Gourdan writes to one of her female clients, Madame de Fleury:
"I have at your service the most beautiful clitoris of France; in other words an unwonted virgin of no more than fifteen years. Try her, I offer her to you and I am sure you will thank me for it. Besides, should she not please you, you would not do her too great an injustice by sending her back. Her hymen can still serve the finest of my gourmands excellently."
Madame de Fleury is said to have been part of a lesbian coterie called the Anandrynes, a term derived from Greek which literally means 'without a man'.
Once Gourdan's name and fame have spread across the whole of Paris, virgins spontaneously offered themselves to her. Thus, in a particularly touching letter from a certain Françoise, we read:
- "Madame, I am but a simple country girl, but no one can deny that I am beautiful. I am an orphan and not yet eighteen years old. I have heard from the servants in the castle that I have a hymen for which much would be paid in Paris and that I would be worth a lot of gold to you, Madame. From them I got your address, they laughed at me but gave it to me anyway. If you want me to come, you have only to summon me and I will come with my hymen. I don't really know what that is, but they say you will take care of everything. Most esteemed, Françoise."
Mothers also shamelessly prostitute their own daughters. "My daughter is turning 14. If you wish, we can talk about the first fruits. It will not be so difficult to groom the child. With a few chocolates and a little courtesy, one can do with her what one wants. One only needs to prepare her a bit. You do have to take her in as a chambermaid. Arrange an appointment, I will come with my daughter and we will arrange everything. Meanwhile, I remain in all respects, your very devoted F."
There is also a lot of ogling, flirting and scheming at the theatre. A gentleman informs Madame Gourdan by letter: "Yesterday at the Comédie-Italienne, I saw you in the company of a beautiful young girl. If you can get me her for one night I will pay you six golden louis. Entirely yours. R." Not everything goes according to plan, however. For instance, a mother informs Gourdan: "My daughter is unable to meet your wishes at the moment. Immediately after the ballet, she had a miscarriage. As soon as she recovers, she will be back with Madame, fully at your service."
Dangerous love affairs
A year before Madame Gourdan's letters hit the market, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1741-1803) publishes Les liaisons dangereuses (1782). The work exemplifies the way in which early libertinism slipped from its original meaning of freethinking or free spirit to the meaningless amorous and jet-set entertainment of the rich and lazy aristocrats of the ancien régime. If in Thérèse the Philosopher sex, seduction and eroticism are liberating and a way of throwing off the yoke of the ruling class and clergy, in Les liaisons dangereuses they have become ways of getting the other under one's thumb.
Two wealthy aristocrats, Count Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, hold each other in a firm grip of jealousy in what may be called the most exciting epistolary novel ever written. Rather than carnal lust, the stakes are vicious lust for power, and the two decadent and ruthless protagonists confront each other with degenerate humiliations. They make a bet: the Count is challenged to get 'ice-queen' Madame de Tourvel into his bed. If he succeeds and produces evidence of this, the marquise will spend a night with him, she promises. Otherwise, he will retire to a convent.
Valmont eventually manages to seduce Madame de Tourvel, but in the meantime he actually falls in love with her. The marquise lures Valmont back to her, but refuses to sleep with him. Meanwhile, in a side intrigue, Valmont has incurred the hatred of a rival and is challenged to a duel. In it, he is mortally wounded, but even before he dies, he betrays the marquise. She flees, gets the smallpox which disfigures her face forever and she loses her beauty, and thus her weapon, forever. When Madame de Tourvel learns that Valmont has died, she too falls ill and dies. Nowhere is it suggested that they get their due.
Although seduction and ergo sex are central to this story, nowhere does the book get explicit. Although one can imagine the nudity of the characters when Valmont writes in letter 47 to Marquise de Merteuil that he uses certain body parts of a 'slut' as a writing desk. In the film by Forman, the backside of the girl. It is the most beautiful, most explicit but also most sobering passage in the book:
- "This complacency on my part ... of Émilie being my desk to write to my beautiful princess [Tourvel], who I thought it funny to send a letter from the bed and almost into the arms of a girl, interrupted even by a complete infidelity, and during which I gave her an exact account of my situation and my conduct. Emilie, who read the letter, laughed like crazy."
In letter 48, de Tourvel reads the words Valmont has written on Emilie's posterior:
- "The very table on which I write, for the first time devoted to that use, becomes to me the sacred altar of love, how its beauty will enhance to my eyes."
These words signified the death knell for libertinism. Wayland Young rightly notes that "Boucher painted the book of libertinage, de Nerciat described its feeling, but Laclos pencilled its lines in vitriol and thereby destroyed it."
Adventurers, libertines and writers
There are two kinds of writers: those who live to write and those who write because they have lived. The first kind gets his life experience from books and second-hand stories. The second lives his life, moves from adventure to adventure and - usually later in life - decides to make the rest of his kind partake of his experiences. We prefer the second kind. All follow in Brantôme's footsteps. Adventurers, soldiers, scouts, spies, double spies: here is a cue from the literary prowess of Vivant, de Nerciat and Mirabeau.
The most beautiful opening lines in French literature
Dominique Vivant (1747-1825) is a man privileged to accompany Napoleon on his conquest of Egypt, where he produces some fine drawings of monuments preserved from antiquity. His 30-page novella Point de Lendemain (Once, Evermore) is known for its elegance. Milan Kundera calls the opening staccato the most beautiful opening lines in French literature.
"I was desperately in love with the Comtesse de —— ; I was twenty years old and I was naive. She deceived me, I got angry, she left me. I was naive, I missed her. I was twenty years old, she forgave me, and, because I was twenty years old, because I was naive—still deceived, but no longer abandoned—I thought myself to be the best-loved lover, and therefore the happiest of men."
The devil under your skin
André Robert de Nerciat (1739-1800), soldier, secret agent and writer, is best known for two works that together form a diptych. The first is Les Aphrodites ou Fragments thalipriapiques pour servir l'histoire du plaisir (1793, The Aphrodites, or nymphopriapic fragments serving the history of pleasure), the second Le Diable au corps (1803, Possessed by the Devil), a work with a very evocative title. Nerciat writes his legitimate works under his own name, but uses the pseudonym Docteur Cazzoné - from the Italian root cazzo, penis and by extension fool), "extraordinary member of the merry phallic-coital-reading-and-linguistic faculty" for his piquant works.
In Les Aphrodites, Nerciat invents an account of a secret sexual society. He succeeds wonderfully: for the coming hundred years people will believe that this society really existed. Les Aphrodites and Le Diable au corps are both bizarre works with protagonists who resolutely choose to live in a fantasy world. For instance, knights try to break the record of "hanging weights from an erected penis". Orgies take place in super brothels. And characters with colourful names like the Countess De Motte-en-feu (Countess of the Hot Hill) indulge in excesses and lustful extravaganzas of all kinds, such as the orgy with the donkey [image].
The ugly Casanova
Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791) is a key figure in the history of both the French Revolution and the history of eroticism. Faut le faire. All accounts, including a letter from his father, agree that he is an appallingly ugly man. He has an enormous head, a crooked foot, two large teeth and a tongue attached to the frenulum. His father writes to his brother saying that “his nephew is ugly like the son of Satan” and calls him "the little monster they say is my son" as if he doubts that the child is his. At the age of three, the young boy also contracts smallpox which leaves him pitted and scarred. His relationship with his father will remain rather unhappy, due to his many escapades and his tendency to squander money. Both these vices get him into trouble time and again. His father has him incarcerated up to five times by way of the odious lettre de cachet. At the age of 31, he has already completed six years in captivity and the father will even go as far as to forbid his son to carry his family name.
On 28 June 1778, he is thrown in the dungeons of Vincennes for ‘abducting’ Sophie, the wife of an aristocrat nearly fifty years her senior. They flee to the Netherlands, but are both apprehended. Like Villon and Cleland before him, it his in prison that he develops as an intellectual and writer. His entire oeuvre emerges there, including the correspondence he conducts with Sophie, the love of his life. After his death, published as Letters to Sophie. This correspondence provides him with his first star in the erotic firmament. His second proof of erotic prowess is called Ma Conversion (1783, My Conversion), a novel in which the gigolo makes his first appearance in Western literature. Finally, there is the highly remarkable Erotika Biblion', also published in 1783, which is, among other things, a kind of erotic Bible study.
Mirabeau is a politician, royalist, Freemason, convinced Enlightenment thinker, defender of human rights and undaunted opponent of royal despotism. His pamphlet Des lettres de cachet et des prisons d'état (1782, Lettres de cachet and state prisons) has been called a key document in the fall of the ancien régime. But he is also a first-class womaniser and excellent orator, earning him the epithet the French Demosthenes or the Shakespeare among orators. He complements this eloquence with his 'inner beauty', and this is how – it is said – he seduces several dozen women.
He dedicates his erotic novel Ma conversion to none other than 'Mr Satan', whom he feels is no longer as lustful as he used to be. He concludes with the words: May the scenes I have the honour of placing before your eyes revive a little of your old-fashioned bawdiness. May the whole universe jerk off at this reading! Please accept these wishes as a token of the deep respect with which I hold for you, Mr Satan, your diabolical highness. Your most humble, most obedient and most devoted servant, Desiderius McCunt.
My conversion is the story of a man who decides to offer his services to women for a price only. The first gigolo in Western literature, as far as we can tell.
He writes the book – he says –so as not to be driven mad by the loneliness of confinement. In a letter to Sophie, he puts it this way: 'Alas my dear, in prison one has to give oneself the spurs a little in order to be cheerful. Otherwise one would soon lose courage, and die or go mad.'
'Free your mind, and your ass will follow,' wrote George Clinton of the US funk band Funkadelic in the 1970s. Mirabeau's libertinage also takes place at the level of both personal and social morality. With him, free spirit, free enquiry and free speech go hand in hand with sexual liberation. It is as if Baudelaire's famous words “The Revolution was made by the voluptuous … libertine books comment on and explain the Revolution.”
One day Mirabeau writes to Sophie from the cellars of Vincennes that he is working on a new book, a highly remarkable one, he says, one that is sure to amuse her. It is about eroticism in the Bible. Translated from Greek, the title of the book - Erotika Biblion - does indeed sound like 'erotic Bible' or 'erotic book'. After all, biblion means both book and Bible. The work traces all references to scabrous elements in the Bible and in the literature of antiquity. Of course, Mirabeau favours perversions of all kinds, such as tribadism and masturbation. But it also covers physical discomforts such as hemorrhoids. The result is a critical apparatus for the Bible and Latin and Greek texts serving 18th-century studious pornosopher. Of course, Mirabeau prioritises perversions of all kinds, such as tribadism and onany. But it also addresses physical discomforts such as haemorrhoids. The result is a critical apparatus for the Bible and Latin and Greek texts at the service of the 18th-century studious pornographer.
Mirabeau has the guts to mention on the title page of the Erotika Biblion that the book was published in "Rome, at the Vatican printing office.” This must have caused general merriment among kindred spirits, but it causes the work to be placed on the index. It is hardly known today. It is the only piquant work of Mirabeau that has not been commonly translated, because, strictly speaking, it’s not very erotic either. This is a pity, because the book is one of the world literature's rarest rarities. Because besides its existence as a bizarre Bible study, Erotika Biblion is also remarkable in other respects. Concepts such as the elective affinities that Goethe will introduce, obscure scientific and later totally discredited ideas such as sympathism and effluvia, and even more obscure ancient philosophers and astronomers such as Maupertuis and Shakerley are presented to the world. An entire chapter is devoted to a fable set in the rings around Saturn. The inhabitants of those rings each exude their own specific emanations, which are directly related to certain 'perceptual antennae'. The emanations intertwine with those of others, producing a 'vivid coherence' of two beings with similar molecules. In Saturn's rings, both knowledge and feelings are transmitted through the atmosphere. Mirabeau draws on the sympathism of Tiphaigne de la Roche, an 18th-century author with great sympathy - pardon the pun - for alchemy. In short, Erotika Biblion has no equal in world literature.
During Mirabeau's stay in Vincennes prison, Marquis de Sade will also be held there. The two are no strangers to each other. Apart from the fact that just about everyone knows Sade at the time, Sade is a second cousin of Mirabeau. One day, Sade pays a visit to Mirabeau's cell, who later writes about it to police chief Boucher on 28 June 1780:
“He did me the honour of introducing himself to me, and without the slightest provocation on my part he made me the object of his infamous outbursts. He accused me of being the favourite of the prison inspector - from whom I was given the privilege of a daily walk, which he was refused. Finally, he asked my name so that he could have the pleasure of cutting off my ears when he was released again. Then I lost patience and replied, ‘My name is that of a gentleman who has never cut open women nor poisoned them, and who will write his name on your back with blows of the cane, for which business I shan't have much regret.’ Then he was finally silent and has not opened his mouth since. If you would have a problem with that, I must reply that it is easy enough to exercise patience from a distance, but very sad to live under the same roof with such a monster.”
It is the first time Sade's infamous name is pops up. We will meet him later, he will close the door this century. Last but not least.
Restif, writer on whoredom
‘Fucked Agnès fully in the cunt at half past four, dressed, shoes on, in her alcove' - Restif de la Bretonne
In 1796, writer Louis-Sébastien Mercier (1740-1814) complains that French bookstores have literally degenerated into ‘pornographic’ libraries and that "the only books on display are obscene ones, with titles and prints that cast aside both modesty and good taste.”
“What age has so soiled itself with obscene books as this great century?” critic and writer Jules Janin (1804-1878) joins him in retrospect forty years later.
“Even men such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Montesquieu and Mirabeau sacrificed their works to the tastes of the day, even the sublime fellow Diderot wrote an ungodly book full of senseless stupidities entitled The Indiscreet Jewels,” he adds to his lament.
Both Janin and Mercier use the words obscene here. Although the word pornography has already seen the light of day, it is still far from common usage. Everyone agrees on the etymology of the term 'pornography': it comes from porne, Greek for 'whore', and grafein, Greek for 'writing'. But using the term before the 19th century is an anachronism. After all, in all of Greek literature, one encounters the compound pornographoi only once, in the writing Deipnosophistae'] (Scholars at the Dinner Table) by the 2nd-century Greek writer Athenaeus of Naucratis. Using that term, the writer refers to a number of artists who painted courtesans.
We owe the contemporary use of the term "pornography" to the French writer Restif de la Bretonne (1734-1806). In 1769, he published the book Le Pornographe. It is part of a line of works with similar titles, such as Le Glossographe, Le Mimographe, Les Gynographes, L'Andrographe and Le Thesmographe. In these tracts he successively offers his opinions on the future of spelling, the theater, the position of women, general morals and general legislation. What he says all sounds pretty much in same vein of the May 68 discourse.
Restif de la Bretonne did not begin writing until around the age of thirty and at the time of his death forty years later, leaves some 50,000 pages in two hundred works, many printed by himself on his own clandestine press, for he was a printer by training. Restif is an enigmatic figure. This self-taught polygrapher devotes himself to every conceivable subject, but specializes in libertinage. In that category, he stands out with two works: L'Anti-Justine, ou les Délices de l'amour (The Anti-Justine, or the Delights of Love) and the aforementioned Le Pornographe.
No one knows if he is aware of the Greek antecedent of the term "pornography," he probably just made it up himself. The title Le Pornographe fully covers its message: Indeed, Restif has set out to write about the 'whore problem'. That there exists a whore problem and that it will never go away, of that he is is sure. He even goes so far as to compare prostitutes to the at that time incurable leprosy patients. His solution is therefore cosmetic rather than fundamental in nature. He does not want to outlaw the 'necessary evil' of whoring, but to hide it under a layer of makeup. He wants to house the whores of Paris in 'parthenia', utopian communities for girls of pleasure. To his opponents he is quick to reply, "I see you smiling. The half-barbaric name "PORNOGRAPH" wanders on your lips. Never mind my dearest, the term does not frighten me. Why should it be shameful to talk about the abuse we want to reform? Le Pornographe is a work about whoredom, but because it is educational rather than lubricational in scope, it can hardly be called pornographic according to contemporary understandings of pornography.
Le Pornographe may not be pornographic, but Restif's L'Anti-Justine clearly is. According to its title, the book is 'anti'. Anti who? Anti Justine. Justine is one of Sade's heroines, whom Restif thoroughly dislikes. The farmer's son Restif more than once labels Sade a "monster" or "that monster writer" in his work. The feeling is mutual: Sade does not even deign to mention Restif's name. In his highly enjoyable treatise on the history of the novel Idées sur les romans (Reflections on the Novel), he says: ' R*** floods the public with his works; he needs a printing press at the head of his bed. Fortunately, one press alone will groan beneath the weight of his terrible output; his is a vile, pedestrian style, his adventures are disgusting, inevitably taken from the lowest, meanest milieux; a gift of prolixity his sole merit, for which only the pepper merchants are grateful to him.” [Wainhouse and Seaver translation]
The unfinished novel L'Anti-Justine goes to press seven years after Sade's Justine was published. The work aims, Restif says in his preface, to be the “anti-Sade.”
“My goal is to make a book more savory than his, one that wives can give to their husbands to be better served, a book where the senses speak to the heart, where libertinism has nothing cruel for the fair sex, and which offers them life rather than to cause their death; where love brings back to nature, free from scruples and prejudices, and renders nothing but cheerful and sensuous images […] Anti-Justine must surpass Justine in delight as much as cedes it in cruelty."
Or, take this translation from ehof by Marchand:
“My purpose is to write a book that will be juicier than the others, one that women can confidently put into the hands of their husbands in order the better to be served by them; a book in which the heart will have its place by the side of the senses, in which passion knows no cruelty; in which love conceived naturally without any affection or hesitation conjures up only gay and joyous pictures."
Unfortunately, he did not achieve that goal. In the chapter "A fuckster à la Justine," he indulges in the same necrophilic and cannibalistic excesses to which Sade owes his infamy. He does so, however, with a childlike half-heartedness characteristic of him. Patrick Kearney, the Anglophone authority on erotic literature, concludes that “reading L'Anti-Justine it is impossible not to wish that he had kept to incest and shoe fetishism; at least he was on home ground with those two."
And an incest perpetrator he was. On May 4, 1788, he notes in his diary, "Fucked Agnès.” On May 13, the same message. The 29th of the same month: “Fucked Agnès from behind.” And finally on June 24: 'Fucked Agnès full in the cunt at half past four, dressed, shoes on, in her alcove.' Agnès is Restif's daughter, then seventeen years old.
The mention of his shoes during the act with Agnès is significant. The diary entry quoted above shows his two obsessions: shoe fetishism and incest. The former is expressed in his novel Le pied de Fanchette (1769, Fanchette's Pretty Little Foot), the story of a girl who climbs the social ladder thanks to the beauty of her foot. Also in his roman-mémoire Monsieur Nicholas, he reveals himself as a shoe fetishist. He gives his name to this smaller sexual perversion, which specialists say is not the same as foot fetishism. Indeed, the strange preference for the woman wearing a shoe bears the name retifism, after Retif, the alternative spelling of his given name Restif. It is the greatest compliment to befall a writer: that his name becomes an adjective. Restif stands with his retifism among such adjectival greats as Franz Kafka, the German-speaking writer who sent the ajdectives Kafkaian and Kafkaesque into the world, Plato, who gave his name to platonic love, and Sade, who gave his name to sadism.
Philosophically, Restif is not a bright star. Although he writes utopian tracts in which he presents himself as a visionary, he is not a real thinker. Consequently, he is nicknamed by his adversaries "the Rousseau of the gutter" and "the Voltaire of the chambermaids.” But that populism is just his greatest virtue. If sex is the pollen to fertilize a society with new ideas, Restif is that pollen. He takes the ideas of the encyclopedists and harvests the flowers among the people. In his day he reaches a large audience and uses sex as a lubricant to reform politics and society; after his death however, he is instantly forgotten.
Rousseau and the 'new caveman'
'Muybridge, Mother spanks child'
'Beware of philosophers who are not sensual. They do not know life.' - Sholem Stein
Restif's great example is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who, although he was spared from oblivion, was not a great thinker either. But Rousseau forcefully and in a loud voice commands us in the right direction: "Back to nature.” A phrase we can only interpret as, "awaken the caveman in you.”
Both Rousseau (1712-1778) and Restif are self-proclaimed social reformers, which are also sometimes referred to as ‘moralists’. Rousseau is an erotic moralist, Restif his pornographic counterpart. Restif's life is dominated by sex; Rousseau never dared ask a woman what really aroused him and, by his own admission, had "very little intercourse with women.”
What is Rousseau's role in the history of erotica? He writes no obscene books, pens no debauched verses. No, his erotic fame rests on an anecdote from his posthumously published Confessions (Confessions), in which he admits an inclination toward a perversion never before entrusted to paper, thus making its debut in the Republic of Letters. “I am going to undertake something that has never been done before,” Rousseau begins his memoirs in 1764, just fifty. “I want to show to my fellow men a man as he really is, and that man, that is myself.” [my translation]
That he means business with this honesty, he shows in the first pages of his five-hundred-page literary exhibitionism. He introduces Miss Lambercier, a woman of about thirty who, together with her brother, a Calvinist priest, has custody of Rousseau. Father Rousseau entrusted his son to them at the age of ten. His mother was no longer there by then: she died nine days after his birth. The Lamberciers, Rousseau assures us, were strict but just. Yet he must tell us a passage about this period that will permanently overshadow the future of his sexual life.
“Miss Lambercier loved us like a mother and therefore she also enjoyed the corresponding authority. She sometimes took advantage of this by spanking us when we deserved it.'
“Mademoiselle Lambercier had the affection of a mother for us, she also exercised the authority of one, and sometimes carried it so far as to inflict upon us the punishment of children when we had deserved it.” We understand from the rest of the text that the punishment is a spanking.
Rousseau apparently does not mind very much, and he admits that he even sought the punishment again. He had found “sensuality […] mingled with the smart and shame” that made him long for more. Miss Lambercier noticed this too, for the second time she punished him in this way was immediately the last. She had noticed “did not produce the desired effect […] and that she renounced it for the future.” Two days later his bed, and that of a roommate of about the same age, were moved to a room of their own. Rousseau does not forget the spanking. His "peculiar, persistent and inclined toward perversity and madness" [back translation from Dutch, cannot find passage in original French nor English translation] continues to plague him. And he describes his ultimate fantasy in the words, "to lie at the feet of an imperious mistress, to obey her commands, to ask her forgiveness-this was for me a sweet enjoyment.” But he never confides in the women he loves about this and conceals his preferences. A sexual tragedy that leads to a life of involuntary ascesis.
Rousseau is full of contradictions. He defends the rights of children, but places each of his five illegitimate babies in a foundling home. He gains fame as an educational reformer, but only receives education himself until the age of twelve. He is paraonoid, antisocial and argumentative, but defends the thesis that man is good by nature. "Back to nature", he exclaims to us in his bildungsroman Emile. Man is born good, but society corrupts him. Looking for an example from Rousseau's personal life to illustrate the corruption of society, one can bring up Miss Lambercier, the woman who corrupted his sexuality and stood in the way of his "natural" sex life. As haughty and ignorant as some of his statements sound, he does advise us not to forego the intimate connection with nature, and ergo with our bodies. His ideas will find avid support among romantics in the next century. But during the Enlightenment, man is primarily spirit and only to a limited extent body. One is not yet ready for the ideal image of the free man, the "noble savage".
This "noble savage," whom we will call the "new caveman," obeys nature first and foremost. Not God, not civil laws, but Mother Earth, and thus his own free will. How does Rousseau sell that theory to the general public? Not as a philosophical treatise, of course, but as a popular novel. And what could be more popular than a beautiful - and above all tragic - love story? In his bestseller Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761, Julie or the New Héloïse), he has a couple of lovers go to bed with each other because "in the eyes of God they are married anyway." [not actually a citation, very few copies online of this book in reality, will post one at my place] Something so natural cannot be wrong, even if the two are not joined in holy matrimony. It immediately earns him the curse of the French authorities: premarital sex is still a considerable taboo at that time. In literature anyway, in real life nobody actually cares.
Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse consists of an exchange of letters. With the name "Héloïse," Rousseau refers to the medieval love story about the monk Abélard and the nun Héloïse, whose love was as impossible as the one in Rousseau's novel. Julie becomes a literary sensation on the scale of Robinson Crusoe, Pamela and Fanny Hill. The book is so popular that libraries lend it out by the hour. It has no less than 72 authorized reprints before the turn of the century. The tragic death of the heroine Julie, from a cold she contracted while saving one of her children from a later marriage from drowning, certainly played a part in the novel's extreme popularity. This death also helped make the work digestible to moralists; they considered it poetic justice. But in the meantime, Rousseau is able to present his central ideas about man's freedom to Europe. Julie can choose freely, for man is born free. He describes the same concept in his theoretical work Du contrat social: "Man is born free and yet everywhere he lies in chains". Rousseau's dictum is articulated by the revolutionaries and translated on the barricades as "liberty, equality and fraternity"; it becomes the slogan of the French Revolution. A compatriot of Rousseau, the Marquis de Sade, who is a great admirer of Rousseau's Julie, casts off the chains of morality for good and will pay for it with life imprisonment.
* "I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent, and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself.", 1896, from unexpurgated translation, no translator given
Sade, the divine monster
'Only one image of Marquis de Sade exists; the others, like this one, are imaginary portraits.’
'Oh my God, I have only one favor to ask of You, ... that for those who punish me, You do not choose people worse than myself.’
A compatriot of Rousseau, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814), is a great admirer of Rousseau's Julie. This man, better known as Marquis de Sade or Sade for short, will throw off the chains of morality for good and will pay for it with life imprisonment. In many ways, Sade is the antithesis of Rousseau. Sade's caveman is not a noble savage, but a predator. This caveman harkens back to the 16th century English philosopher Hobbes, who argued that man in his 'natural state leads a life that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short". Rousseau claimed that society corrupts man; the sadean philosophy implicitly proves that society protects man from the excesses of his fellows.
Compared to Sade, the libertines of the 18th century are choirboys. This century may be licentious, but Sade truly transgresses every commandment. People often mistake Sade for a monstrous murderer. Unjustly so. Sade is no Gilles de Rais, the first lust killer who tortured hundreds of children to death in the 16th century. Sade is no Jack the Ripper, the never-caught killer of English streetwalkers in Victorian England whose trademark was cutting up the remains of his victims. Sade does not belong in their category. Sade never murdered a human being. More than that, he forgives those who imprison him and spares them from death.
He writes to his wife, who remains faithful to him for a very long time:
“Yes , I am a libertine, I confess; I have thought of everything imaginable in that vein, but I certainly did not practice all that I thought of, nor would I ever do so. I am a libertine , but I am not a criminal nor a murderer.” [ Letter to Madame de Sade, written by Sade at Vincennes on February 20, 1781, translation quoted in The Marquis de Sade (1984) by Lawrence W. Lynch, possibly a translation from Must We Burn Sade?
So if he's not a criminal, nor a murderer, what is Sade exactly, you ask. A wimp? Not exactly. Just a small sample of his life: two death sentences, three banned books, the seduction of his sister-in-law, a very displeased mother-in-law and some thirty years of imprisonment. His story can be summed up in three scandals.
The first scandal occurs when he is 23. He has then been married for several months to a girl of the Montreuil family, a girl he finds ugly and plain, but she is rich and of noblesse de robe and thus a good match for his impoverished family. Despite his marriage, Sade continues to seek amusement in the brothels of Paris. Through a matchmaker, one day he hires the services of prostitute Jeanne Testard. He asks her if she believes in God, in Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin. When she answers in the affirmative, Sade gets a fit of anger and hurls terrible insults and profanities at her, saying that God does not exist. He can prove it. Once, he says, he snatched a chalice from a chapel and had it at his disposal for two hours. He masturbated and came inside the vessel. And once, he continues, he had sexual intercourse with a girl into whose cunt he had put two pieces of sacramental bread, saying: “If thou art God, avenge thyself!” Such, after all, is the testimony of Jeanne Testard, who also testified that Sade showed her his erotic print cabinet and asked her to take an enema and relieve herself on a crucifix. (Many of the misdemeanors described will later appear in his novels.) The girl, of course, is totally upset and goes to the police the next day.
Sade is interrogated and incarcerated for the first time. After a brief imprisonment of two weeks, he is put under house arrest for ten months. Sade promises, as he always will, to mend his ways. For five years he is able to keep his promise. He is meanwhile shadowed by the vice police, who inform Parisian brothel keepers that they had better not give girls to the marquis in view of his "peculiar tastes and habits." But in 1768, he loses control of himself again: on Easter Sunday, Count de Sade - for in reality Sade does not hold the title of marquis at all - finds himself on the Place des Victoires in Paris. Rose Keller, an unemployed cotton spinner, pulls his arm and begs him for a pittance. He gives her some money and promises her more if she comes with him to do some household chores.
They ride off in his carriage to his Parisian petite maison, the common name for the pied-à-terres and love nests of the French nobility and bourgeoisie. When Rose asks exactly what work she is to do, he fails to answer her and orders her to disrobe. She refuses. He threatens her life and she does as he demands. Then he grabs her and throws her face down on a sofa. She will later claim that he ties her up. He begins to beat her on her buttocks, until she bleeds, with a whip knotted from ropes or a rod. Or with both: Keller's police report and Sade's testimony contradict each other. In any case, the torture lasts for quite some time. When Sade has orgasmed, he rubs a thick white candle ointment with a healing effect on Rose's open wounds. He unties the ropes, gives her drink and food, and something to clean herself with. He locks the room and leaves the cottage. Rose ties a few sheets together and lowers herself through the first-floor window onto the street of the sleepy suburb of Paris. She runs. Langlois, Sade's chamberlain, hears her escape and runs after her. He waves a money pouch, begging her to come back and take the money. But she does not listen, runs on, into the arms of some curious women. His mother-in-law petitions the king for a first lettre de cachet, and Sade is imprisoned for eight months and then put under house arrest again.
Despite Sade's frequent use of prostitutes, women do find him appealing. He is smooth and gallant, and all court records describe him as an attractive man. His mother-in-law is obviously not very taken with her son-in-law's behavior: excesses in Parisian brothels, marital cheating and a conviction for ostentatiously trampling a crucifix. She sees her own name tarnished. But she is also charmed by him and makes the most of the situation. She repeatedly pays for the silence of his victims.
But in the fall of 1771, Sade commits an inexcusable mistake that his mother-in-law will never forgive him. He seduces her youngest daughter, the virginal 20-year-old Anne-Prospère, a vocational nun. It is only in the 21st century that correspondence between the semi-incestuous couple has surfaced. In the most remarkable of those letters, she swears eternal fidelity to the Marquis:
'I swear to my beloved, Mr. Marquis de Sade, never to belong to anyone but him, never to marry, nor to give myself to others, to remain faithfully bound to him as long as the blood with which I sign this letter flows in my veins. I offer him as a sacrifice my life, my love and my feelings with the same fervor with which I gave him my virginity.' [zie vertaling op site hier
Neoclassical puritanism vs. neoclassical eroticism
The phenomenal phallus