Art History via 2257

In the year 1494, a Dominican priest named Girolamo Savonarola became the religious and political leader of the city of Florence, Italy. Savonarola was not somebody who could be called a “fun loving guy.” Quite the opposite. He came to power preaching and ranting against what he considered to be excess. This was during the Renaissance, and that included fine art – something that had been supported by Florence’s previous rulers, the Medici family.

Three years later, Savonarola put his plan into action, holding a public burning of many of these lewd and immoral items in the Piazza della Signoria – an event that came to be known as the Bonfire of the Vanities. Here’s how Wikipedia describes the event:

[Savonarola and his followers] sent boys from door to door collecting items associated with moral laxity: mirrors, cosmetics, lewd pictures, pagan books, immoral sculptures (which he wanted to be transformed into statues of the saints and modest depictions of biblical scenes), gaming tables, chess pieces, lutes and other musical instruments, fine dresses, women’s hats, and the works of immoral and ancient poets, and burnt them all in a large pile in the Piazza della Signoria of Florence. Many fine Florentine Renaissance artworks were lost in Savonarola’s notorious bonfires — including paintings by Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti, which are said to have been thrown on the pyres by the artists themselves, though there are some who question this claim.

Now, move forward 512 years in time and westward across the Atlantic Ocean to the “Land of the Free,” where we see that Savonarola has risen again. This time, he goes by the name of the Unites States Department of Justice. Unlike the original, who destroyed works of art that had already been created, this new Savonarola is trying to prevent such artworks from ever being created in the first place through the implementation of regulations that are difficult or impossible to abide by.

Thinking about the similarities between the Justice Department’s new rules and the likes of Savonarola, I began to wonder what well known (and less well known) art works created throughout history may never have been made had the artists had to live with the new 2257 rules. After all, any art work displaying below the waist frontal nudity in a lascivious manner could have landed these artists behind bars for five years. Let’s take a look at some.

The Venus of Urbino by Tiziano Vecellio (aka Titian) [seen at the top]

Titian was the greatest painter in Venice during the Renaissance, and his “Venus of Urbino” may well be the sexiest painting ever made. I saw a program on TV not long ago in which a British art historian gave a description of it as such: she is a courtesan who has just finished pleasing one of her clients (as indicated by her tousled hair), but despite that, as seen from her direct look at the viewer, she is game for more. The placement of her left hand calls attention to where it’s placed. If this isn’t a lascivious depiction, then what is?

So, if Titian didn’t have positive proof of this woman’s age and real name (did she really use her real name in her line of work?) plus any maiden names or other aliases, and kept them available for inspection at least 20 hours a week, he could have gotten sent to the Doge’s (or should I say “ DoJ’s “ ?) prison for five years. The fact that a cute little dog has been exposed to such indecency and lewdness may have gotten him in trouble with the VSPCA, as well.

Allegory of Venus by Agnolo Bronzino

This painting by another great artist of the Italian Renaissance has so much in it to have gotten Bronzino into hot water. First, we can see the woman’s pubic area. Second, a boy is grasping her by the breast, which should render the whole thing lascivious. Third, there’s an even younger boy with his genitals exposed. Topping it all off is the presence of the proverbial ‘dirty old man’ with a beard at the upper right. Would Bronzino have dared to create such an artwork if he didn’t have all of the proper ID’s and papers kept in alphabetical order, made available for inspection at least 20 hours a week, for fear of getting bread and water for five years?

The Turkish Bath by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A large group of naked women getting all hot and sweaty together? With lots of frontal nudity and depictions of pubic areas? Ingres really would have been asking for trouble by painting this one if these new 2257 rules were in effect. How could this not be lascivious in nature? I mean, just look at those two women groping each other on the right side, second and third in. If Ingres didn’t want to have trouble when the gendarmes pounded on his door, he would need to have had the proper documentation to identify all of the women in this painting to be on the safe side.

Olympia by Edouard Manet

Okay, so this painting really was scandalous when it first went public. Similar to the painting by Titian, but this courtesan is defiantly proud of what she’s doing. Lascivious? You betcha! If “Olympia” wasn’t her real name, Manet had better have gotten her real name – and any other names she may have worked under – or else! (And if Manet told the authorities that she wouldn’t tell him her aliases – well, he could have time to think it over during his five years in the Bastille.)

[Yes, I know that the Bastille was destroyed before Manet’s time, but let’s pretend.]

The Birth of Venus by Alexander Cabanel

A group of naked little boys leering down at a woman lying there stark naked with her pubic area exposed? Shameful. Absolutely shameful! Just look at the face of the kid second from the right and try to imagine what lascivious thoughts are going through his mind. Better make sure all of those IDs are in order.

Venus Crucified by Norman Lindsay

If you saw the movie Sirens (also about attempted censorship of art), you should know about this one. I’m not sure how lascivious this depiction of frontal nudity is, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the government used that as an excuse to put this artist away. Lindsay had better have had the model’s proper ID (the movie claimed that it was his wife), and they’d best not go on any vacations, either, should the authorities come knocking on their door wanting to see the papers. After all, 20 hours a week is 20 hours a week – no exceptions! (as far as I know).

The Sleepers by Gustave Courbet

The new rules say that anybody depicted having either real or simulated sex need to be properly documented, so that would seem to cover this one. It doesn’t even have to be lascivious (though that would seem to go with the territory). Would Courbet have made this painting if he knew that failing to get such documentation, not keeping the documents in the proper order or not making them available for inspection at least 20 hours per week could land him in prison?

Phryne before the Areopagus by Jean-Leon Gerome

A beautiful young woman is stripped naked in front of a group of men, in a story from ancient Greece. Some look like dirty old men with long beards, so there’s got to be some lascivious meaning in here, and as her pubic region can be seen, Monsieur Gerome would need to have followed the letter of the law and kept the model’s ID in perfect order if 2257 were in effect. (Of course, to avoid any potential problems, he could simply have opted to paint something else without a nude in it. Besides being less trouble for him, it would have been less work for the government to do, too.)

The Rape of Prosperina by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

A great work by the master of the Italian Baroque, this time a sculpture. So let’s see what we have here. An old man with a long beard is trying to carry off a beautiful, naked young woman who looks like she’d much rather be somewhere else. This could be any dirty old man’s fantasy. (Well, at least dirty old men with long beards.) I’m sure that the old boy here has got some real lascivious thoughts in mind, doubtless regarding her pubic region, which can probably be seen. Add to that the fact that the title has the work “rape” in it, which is just asking for trouble. It may be a borderline case of 2257, but if you were Bernini, would you have wanted to take the chance of being labeled a sex offender and getting sent up the Tiber in irons for five years for failing to keep proper documentation, telling everybody where you keep those documents or making them available at least 20 hours a week? Perhaps not – and another masterpiece would have been kept from the world.

(Actually, I think David Swanson could probably make a good attempt at recreating this as a photo with Abigail. I would only suggest that he do so before March 18 of this year, unless he wants to turn his home or studio into an office with regular business hours of at least 20 a week. After all, it is our civic duty as creative artists and good citizens to accommodate the government in all it does to keep our lives free from indecency –and not the other way around!)

The Nymphaeum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Another large group of nude women with several exposed pubic areas. Not as hot and sweaty as the painting by Ingres, but this one is titled “The Nymphaeum,” which may suggest that some of these woman are nymphomaniacs, and we know how lascivious they can be in regard to their nether regions. Again, it may be a long shot, but the government needs to entertain all possibilities in the fight for public decency. Bouguereau would have needed to have the proper names, aliases and maiden names for all of the girls depicted (to be safe) and to have sat around in his studio for at least 20 hours a week in case the FBI (French Bureau of Investigation) decided to pay him a visit. Or – he could have just painted a landscape without any nudes just to avoid the bother.

The Nude Maja by Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes

This is one of the most famous works by the great Spanish painter Goya. (He painted another version of this young woman in the same pose and setting but fully clothed, so we’re not so interested in that one.) Again, would a painting like this fall under 2257 jurisdiction? There’s no sex going on, and no genitals can be seen, but her pubic area is exposed (you can see some hair), and the way she’s lying there with her arms behind her, looking coyly at the viewer, can we be certain that there’s no lascivious intent in either her or the artist? If you were Goya, would you have taken that chance and painted this version, or just stopped with the clothed one? Even if he had the proper ID, do you think someone like Goya had the time to sit around his studio for 20 hours a week with regularly posted hours?

The Origin of the World by Gustave Courbet

Another one by Courbet. If any one of the artworks I’m showing today would raise the hackles of the 2257 people at DoJ, this would be it. Sure, porno magazines may show stuff like this and more, but they have offices where they can keep their records with regular business hours. Do you think an artist like Courbet could have done that? And just think – if this very same painting were to be made on or after March 18 of this year, for it to be displayed in a museum or gallery in the United States (if I understand correctly), the full disclosure of where the ID records may be seen and when must accompany it on the wall. If 2257 doesn’t apply to paintings, then it surely would to a similar erotic photograph. So the question once again is: do you create something like this or do you play it safe?

Of course, some of the things I’ve written here are exagerations on my part, and I’m sure they’ll seem that way to most readers, too. The problem is that the church ladies and John Ashcroft’s of the world may one day say these very same things but do so with absolute seriousness. That’s what’s scary. (Just ask Jock Sturges.)

Finally, getting back to Savonarola, if you’re wondering what happened to him, the people of Florence finally tired of him and revolted. He was eventually tortured, hanged and then burned in the Piazza della Signoria – the same spot where his Bonfire of the Vanities took place. Let’s hope that these ridiculous new 2257 rules share a similar fate.

About Dave Rudin

Dave Rudin is a fine art photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. He specializes in art nude and travel photography, using black & white film and making silver gelatin prints in a darkroom.
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4 Responses to Art History via 2257

  1. Actually Abigail and I have done that one.Your 67 is still sitting here on the desk beside my monitor. Maybe tomorrow…if I remember.Good points made. But the time they are a changing. In another 200 years we will be back to free speech and free art once again, but for now we are on the down hill slide to covering up David once more with fig leaves.

  2. So, what’s this problem you seem to have with old men with long beards?Good post, DR. This law is indeed a travesty and certainly violates our constitution. I’m trusting in our court system to throw it out, as they should. I intend to look into who in congress voted for this truely obscene law and see what I can do to keep them from remaining in office.

  3. Lin says:

    Brilliant post, Darcy. The best you’ve ever done. The same argument applies to us with our new laws, which forbid posession of images which depict bondage and certain fetishes.Methinks it will be a while before the peasants revolt and burn the church ladies at the stake. As Mr Swanson said, in the meantime, all art will suffer.

  4. Great post, starting with one of my favorite painters and paintings, Titian and Venus of Urbino. Btw, Titian lived into his 90s. He was fathering children and accumulating new wives for a good part of that time.Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” sometimes referred to as Venus on the Half Shell, actually landed him in front of the Inquisition. He explained away the paganism by saying he had depicted the Virgin Mary being born with angels in attendance. They bought it.Thank you for a wonderful survey of the history of nude oil painting. I wish the subtext wasn’t so grim: censorship in the 21st century.

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