ROME IS AMOR by Christian Santini
Rome is “amor”, Rome is art and art is undoubtedly “amor”, love, love for beauty. Strolling through the streets of downtown Rome literally means being surrounded by beauty. The concept of beauty, theorized by the aesthetic philosophy in the 18th century, is a pillar of the classical Greek-Roman art and often shows sensuality and eroticism; just think of the various female and male nudes visible in the museums of the city, even in its sacred heart: the Vatican.
Greek and Roman literature is full of odes to love, sexuality, eroticism, both heterosexual and homosexual.
In Greece, male nudity was associated with glory, triumph and moral excellence: the perfect body, the canon of beauty, could give shape to the gods themselves. Thus, also in Rome, resuming this tradition, the emperors had themselves portrayed associating their face with the most celebrated nude sculptures of the Greek masters.
As to female nudity, the message is clearly different; large breasts and curved bellies suggest fertility, procreation and abundance. With Praxiteles and his Venus of Cnidus, seduction was added, paving the way to the countless nymphs and sexy Venuses of ancient art, of which the Roman museums abound. Once again nothing new for the reader, if you think of the famous Venus de Milo at the Louvre or the Callipigia - literally, with a nice a…. - of Naples (Google it, a real playmate, wow).
Even Renaissance adopts the representation of the "unveiled" Greek canon, both male and female. Michelangelo sculpts the ultra-nude David in Florence and depicts Adam naked in the Sistine Chapel ("the spark", the two fingers touching, yes, that one, you know it), and Raphael represents his woman, his wife, with uncovered breasts in a beautiful and sensual portrait known as "The Fornarina"…. So, tits, butts and genitals in abundance. It becomes normal to own and show works with sensual nudity that refer to famous biblical, mythological or literary stories, in a pseudo pornographic show ante-litteram, that is socially acceptable.
So, if you represent Bathsheba, later the wife of King David, curvy and erotic, bathing naked together with her bosomy servants – since it is a biblical story, protocol permits display in the halls of the noble palaces. (…)
But, as the reader would rightly think, "religion is something else", paintings for people’s homes… Well I can see that, but in works of sacred art, no way. Nevertheless, sometimes, walking through museums and churches, passing by chapels and altars, - almost without realizing it, perhaps because unexpected - all sorts of sensual nudes, images of "scandalous" naked limbs and orgasmic faces jump out at us as we wander by. All of a sudden we stop dead in our tracks thinking "Hey wait, but, what did I see?".
Naked flesh of the Saints and corporal ecstasy, the breasts of a Madonna nursing the Holy Baby, and curiously often even the " little thing", let’s say the groin of the child Jesus unveiled! Yes, it is there, in front us, clear and evident, free from any constriction. Mary points it out, sometimes touches it. How is it possible? Is this Christian art, is this the Roman Catholic Church?
Often, what may appear strange to us now, was quite common in the past. If art generally always reflects the culture, the thought and the society of the time that produced it, religious art does so even more, being never just a decoration but having always intrinsically a liturgical and theological value. Therefore, in Christian art sexuality has necessarily a religious value. These works of art may not be there by mere chance.
The sense of it, although almost sunk into oblivion for centuries, exists and is connected to the innermost part of Christian faith.
One can be Christian-Catholic or not, but certainly what is unique about this religious belief is the dual nature of Jesus, or rather the union of those two natures, divine and human, achieved perfectly in Mary's womb (Council of Ephesus 431 AD). It was not easy to accept that Jesus might be – equally - divine and human at the same time and this is one of the major and most debated mysteries of Christianity.
On the threshold of the Renaissance the divine nature of Jesus was generally accepted in Europe: he is represented in mosaics and altarpieces as the triumphant on the throne or alive and most divine on the cross, without any suffering. What was more difficult for the European culture of the time was to accept his human nature, his mortality, the fact that he truly could have died on the cross, that he had really agonized. Hence, in the nudity of Jesus there could be no shame because his human condition is truthfully perfect, without sin. His genitalia do not convey anymore virility but humanity. Similarly, being nursed by his mother indicates the human need to be fed, to appease hunger.
Leo Steinberg, an art-historian who first wanted to address these issues in our modern times, argues that the evidence of this deliberate exposure or ostensive unveiling of the genitalia of the Christ Child serves as a pledge of God’s humanation.
This is the reason why paintings and sculptures lavished particular care representing Mary and the nude Child, Mary nursing Him, the Deposition and the Pietà – that is the corpse of Jesus - or the Circumcision.
The importance of human flesh and sensuality are also to be found in sublime Baroque works, both in the ecstasy of Mary Magdalene, where the beautiful “Santa” oppressed by sin and in ecstatic contemplation often appears very seductive, sensual and somehow erotic, or in famous sculptures by Bernini such as Saint Teresa still displayed in A Roman church, where the saint IS theatrically portrayed in mystical ecstasy.
The limbs, lips and the clothes convey a carnal passion, waving unbelievably between sacred mysticism and orgasmic indecency.
Eroticism is certainly present, but its essence is dramatically religious and spiritual, the artist wants to show the divine love, enormously more powerful than human love, exploding in the body almost consumed by a rapture of uncontrollable euphoria.
Art had the mission to declare solemnly these religious movements.
The power of the images was to show God’s love and humanity, or better God's love for mankind.
If sexuality in religious art was not taboo and had nothing frivolous, there had to be a reason. And this is the reason.