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Recently restored portraits uncover new questions about the Renaissance

By Ulinka Rublack

Unusually so, Bronzino depicted Morgante completely nude from the front and from behind. Later generations added vine-leaves, but these have now gone, while the owl Morgante carries on his shoulder has been cleaned up to startle us with its forthright gaze. The paintings lead us back into the world of the Renaissance, which closely linked the question of who we are to how we look.

Classical writers had already proposed that beauty shows health and integrity, so that deformity could easily appear as sign of evil. Christians often feared people who grew little or in unusual shapes as portents. Morgante’s century saw the rise of human anatomy, and it thrived on the new medium of print. Woodcuts put into pictures a fascination with bodies in their natural state as divine wonders. Such interests sparked the first writings on cosmetic surgery as a legitimate field of medicine. Case histories expressed compassion for those who had lost noses, ears, or lips, were marked by illness, or seemed “ugly” in other ways. For those who saw happiness linked to health and beauty, rather than as a spiritual pursuit that had to be fought irrespective off or even against the flesh, medicine had to help to re-establish natural order. The term kosmein meant order. Cosmetic harmony lay in the right proportions of a gracious body, which was neither too large nor too small, neither too fat nor too thin, was used to exercise without becoming grossly muscular, and had all its limbs. Women were meant to please through greater delicacy and softness. Special handbooks for those at court made it clear that such elegance went with that social role and kept everyone conversing smoothly, with equal agility, but reasonably spirited minds.

Morgante was thought of as clever and wonderfully entertaining, certainly not as despicable freak. No Paduan medic could make him grow to follow this ideal of proportionate beauty. He would have moved awkwardly at Cosimo´s court, with his short legs and protruding belly, looking up to everyone. Tailors made him special clothes. Then Morgante had to take them off for Bronzino; now fully an object of curiosity, nothing spared. Is this why he seems so angry; so much the man of extreme moods he was meant to be, encased in that body: very clever, very funny, very rude? How do we feel when we look at him, now that the vine-leaves are gone? Stripped down, this Renaissance and its love of images become uncomfortable.

Yet such discomfort in part defines good engagement with history and art. It’s been worth cleaning up these Bronzinos. They fascinate us with new questions about the Renaissance and the meaning of looks for our own time, dressed up, dressed down, or undressed.

Ulinka Rublack is Senior Lecturer in early modern European history at Cambridge University and a Fellow of St John’s College. Her latest book is Dressing Up: Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe, which shows how clothes made history and history can be about clothes. She has previously written this post for OUPblog. This article is posted with permission from the BBC History Magazine/Oxford University Press microsite.

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