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Art & Love in Renaissance Italy … and 21st Century Texas


by Holly Fetter 5 Jun 2009

I’m 18. Most of the art I appreciate is made by something with a rechargeable battery. It’s not that I’m superficial, it’s just that art older than my grandparents tends to bore me. It seems disconnected from our time,  unhelpful to a girl seeking answers to her 21st Century questions. But as a recent high […]

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I’m 18. Most of the art I appreciate is made by something with a rechargeable battery. It’s not that I’m superficial, it’s just that art older than my grandparents tends to bore me. It seems disconnected from our time,  unhelpful to a girl seeking answers to her 21st Century questions.

But as a recent high school graduate, I find myself one step closer to the real world, and so I’ve made a resolution. I’ll visit exhibits that are challenging — ones composed of art from distant decades; ones admired by real art scholars and people my parents’ age.

First stop: the Kimbell Art Museum’s Art & Love in Renaissance Italy.
The first room is essentially what I’d expected — portraits of gloomy Italians. Surrounded by ornate robes and stunning landscapes, the faces of the sitters are totally expressionless. Granted, this is due to the artistic limitations of the time. But still, these young people are supposed to be getting married — one of the most hyped-up life experiences — and they could not look more despondent.

But in the second room, things begin to get interesting. Painted onto a rectangular panel is a naked woman lounging on her side. A description of the piece tells me that she is Venus, and that this wooden rectangle was the inner lid of a chest that would have contained a woman’s dowry. She is painted on this lid in hopes that the “gentle eroticism” of the image would “encourage the young couple in their conception of a child.”

Say what? These archaic Italians were putting pictures of naked women inside these lids to make the newlyweds want to make a baby?! This is when I know things are getting good.
As I walk through a room of childbirth trays (still not entirely sure what that means), I see two small signs warning museumgoers of sexually explicit images on the other side of the wall. Given my preconceived notions about the prude Italians of the Renaissance and my experience with federally funded exhibits, I do not expect more than a bare breast or two. But once I step behind that wall, any prejudice I had is gone. The sign telling me that this room “explores the theme of carnal love” is a wild understatement.

First, there’s a beautiful plate with an image of a girl putting things in a basket entitled Basket of “Fruits.” Upon closer inspection, these “fruits” seem to be less of the produce aisle variety and instead resemble male genitalia.
Next comes a series of 16 engravings innocently titled The Loves of the Gods. That’s 16 images of Gods and Goddesses gettin’ busy. The text on one wall of this X-rated room reads: “Often [the sexually explicit pieces’] creators were artists who might, at the same time, be decorating churches with frescoes and altar pieces of sacred subjects.” So the people making the holiest works of art were depicting classical gods and goddesses in rather sinful situations. At this point, I’m fighting laughter. Not because I’m not mature enough to handle the birds and the bees, but because here I am in what I thought would be a dull exhibit looking at immortal beings engraved in bizarre positions. And no one around me seems at all fazed by the stuff they’re seeing, as if 15th-century porn is somewhat commonplace.

But the pièce de Renaissance résistance is a panoramic illustration of a lively parade entitled The Triumph of the Phallus. Men and women are prancing about as they usher in the guest of honor at this parade — a gigantic you-know-what. This thing is larger than a majority of the human revelers and is covered by a regal canopy. Maybe the bored couple in Lotto’s oil painting should take a look at this part of the exhibit.

And it just keeps getting better. In the next room, I see Tintoretto’s interpretation of a certain “illicit affair.” Venus, this young goddess of love and beauty, marries Vulcan, this sort of old and lame god. Then she has an affair with the sexy Mars, and when Vulcan finds out, he tells Apollo, who tells him to make a net and literally catch Venus in her unfaithful act. Sounds like a deific version of Gossip Girl to me.

And that’s when I realize, there’s nothing antiquated about this collection of Renaissance art. Beneath the big words and the polite euphemisms of this exhibit are modern ideas. The complexity of marriage, the drama of finding a mate and the infidelity of leaving him, and the “sensual aspects of love” depicted on the pornographic pottery still make sense in 2009. If you haven’t already paid the Kimbell a visit to see Art & Love, I highly recommend you do so before the show ends June 14. Don’t let the propriety of the exhibit’s labels discourage you — it’s a wild and relevant artistic romp that is not to be missed.

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