Frescoes, Erotica and I Modi

April 12, 2009 at 10:31 pm (Uncategorized)


imodiThere used to be a show on PBS along with an accompanying column in Scientific America magazine called “Connections”, where the host took the viewer on a historic journey that connected, through events, people and technologies, people and inventions from the past, and created a road map that showed how seemingly unrelated items and people helped develop new technologies and artistic movements.

 There is a large part of Renaissance history that goes unnoticed, and minimizes many important aspects of art, connections, and technological advances. The main reason for the revising is that it deals with erotica. By leaving out or minimizing the erotic in Renaissance art creates a large gap  in technique, artistic theory, and how murals and frescoes played a vital role in the advancement of other artistic techniques. 

 While many are familiar with the erotic frescoes of Pompeii,  fresco painting in Italy during the Renaissance included a substantial body of erotic depictions. Mostly in private residences,  these depictions became the basis of future sculpture and painting in Italy, including Church commissioned pieces. One large commission in particular, in Palazzo Te, is a great case of collaboration between art forms, and in the theme of connections, helped further the art forms of engraving and print making.

Gulio Romano was an Italian artist working in the studio of Raphael, assisting Raphael in the commissions of the Vatican, and after Raphael’s death, took over the studio and finished many commissions, including  Coronation of the Virgin and the Transfiguration. To give a timeline perspective, much of his work alongside Raphael in the Vatican was done at the same time Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

After the death of Raphael, Romano was left in charge of Raphael’s studio, including finishing incomplete works, and carrying on the studio. After 4 years, Romano left the studio, which in many ways is rather odd. Of all the Renaissance painters, Raphael had business sense, and had his studios finances down to a science, and left a solid business plan in place.

 After leaving the studio of Raphael, Romano was commissioned to work in Palazzo Te, the recreational home of Federico Gonzaga. While much history is written that Romano left after the Sack of Rome, which diminished artistic patronage, there are writings that indicate Romano was planning on leaving Rome as early as 1521, with the blessing of the Pope.  It might seem a bit odd at first, considering Romano’s work in Palazzo Te would consist of large erotic frescoes. The reality is that the position of Pope was very much a political position, and artists were typically used as ambassadors of goodwill, and lent out for future political favors.

The frescoes at Palazzo Te would consist of erotic depictions of sex and sexual positions. As a sort of cover story, the individuals in the depictions were made in the form of the Roman gods and goddesses. Therefore not human, but deities, the sexual acts within were now slightly outside the realm of humans, and elevated to the gods, making them more acceptable.

The frescoes at Palazzo Te would become the inspiration for I Modi, a collection of sixteen engraved prints showcasing sexual positions and each accompanied by a sonnet.

   In the popular history, engraver Marcantonio Raimondi acted either on his own, or in collaboration with Pietro Aretino, a poet who created sonnets to accompany the individual prints based on the earlier work of Romano. The collection quickly became popular, and caused such outrage that Raimondi was jailed and Arentino was forced to flee Rome. Romano, on the other hand, was depicted as a victim, who’s work was appropriated by Raimondi and Arentino.

I Modi quickly became a commodity, and is considered one of the important documents in the history of reproductive prints. It’s popularity in bound form and  loose form as art prints signaled the beginning of reproductive prints using engraving, and was reprinted in various forms over the next 30 years, in many cases in the black market.

 There is evidence to the theory that Romano, Raimondi and Aretino collaborated from early on. All three had a history, with Raimondi also working in Raphael’s studio alongside Romano. Looking at Romano’s early plan to leave Rome and leave the fate of Raphael’s studio to fall, it’s more than plausible for him to leave Raimondi with sketches and drawings of the Palazzo Te project and in some form acted to either leave Raimondi with a plan for the future or plans on how to use the sketches. Only within church history  is Romano treated as the victim,  and this is the popular history we have today.  It seems more than likely for Romano to be spared by Pope Clement VII for political purposes, as Clements relationship with Romano was close, and would have caused Clement much grief if Romano was seen as a conspirator in the I Modi saga.

I Modi is still considered a pinnacle document in art history, and the concepts of collaboration of various art forms , fresco, poetry and printing, that would help create new technological advances in art and printing make it more valuable, especially for modern day artists.


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