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Preposterous is a word that calls to mind the absurd or ridiculous. But it can also imply putting the back forwards – turning things around in ways that can be unexpectedly revealing.

My book, Seen from Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art, takes the rear view and views of the rear of the male body to gain perspectives on Renaissance art in its time and on its influence in later times. In that way it is intentionally 'preposterous', but hopefully not ridiculous.

By Patricia Rubin, published by Yale University Press

Seen From Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art

By Patricia Rubin, published by Yale University Press

It does, however, open with a fart.

A popular sixteenth-century joke book tells of a learned discussion about which part of the body was the most honourable. Most answers put the head first – the eyes, the tongue, the mouth. But the buttocks won the day, because, the reasoning went, was it not the case that when serious men gathered the most honoured among them was the first to take his seat – punning the words for sitting, seat, and backside. At the next meeting of the group the champion of the arse was greeted by a companion who pulled down his pants and farted in his friend’s face. When accused of rudeness, the farter replied that he had outdone the other in courtesy by greeting him not with his mouth, but with the more honourable part of his body. The tale, about turning tails, is typical of a long (and often still) enduring attitude to the bottom as comic.

Idol-Worship or The Way to Preferment

Idol-Worship or The Way to Preferment

1740, etching by unknown artist

An eighteenth-century satirical print makes the point. Titled Idol-Worship or The Way to Preferment, it depicts Sir Robert Walpole bending over to become the gateway to the offices that he controlled. Walpole’s massive posterior is being offered to those petitioning for governmental positions, who must reverence and kiss 'ye cheekes'. The whole is an indictment of the corruption of his regime. The print’s humour both makes an ass (or 'arse') of him and those who so abjectly curry his favour.

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist 17th C

Massimo Stanzione (1585–1656) (copy of)

Examples of this sort can be found from ancient art to our times. Exposing the male backside is a means to show things that are considered to be unseemly, obscene, rude, or shameful and to expose low behaviour and villainy. Images of torturers, executioners, and Christ’s flagellators, for example, regularly include semi-clad sadists from the back.

A Study of a Seated Nude Man for the 'Battle of Cascina'

A Study of a Seated Nude Man for the 'Battle of Cascina'

1504–1505, pen & brown ink, grey & brown wash, heightened with white (partly discoloured) over lead point & stylus by Michelangelo (1475–1564)

Study of a Crucified Man (Haman) with Separate Leg and Foot Studies

Study of a Crucified Man (Haman) with Separate Leg and Foot Studies

1512, red chalk by Michelangelo (1475–1564)

Yet the idealised male body seen from all angles became a key element of Renaissance art – an ideal epitomised and idolised in the work of Michelangelo, an artist who necessarily looms large in Seen from Behind.

Hercules (after Rosso Fiorentino)

Hercules (after Rosso Fiorentino)

1530, engraving by Jacopo Caraglio (1500–1565)

It is in the Renaissance that the rear view began a form of double life: while always retaining the potential for mockery, it could also signify the heroism of Hercules – as in the print after a design by Rosso Fiorentino – or solicit desiring gazes. Bronzino even reworked his allegorical painting of Venus and Cupid to give Cupid’s pert buttocks greater prominence to that end.

Whose gazes and with what type of desire are obvious questions addressed in this book. So too are the ways that the turned body in painting and turning around the body in sculpture can influence and inflect meaning in surprising ways. The essays in Seen from Behind examine such topics and feature works that include a naughty Greek vase, mischievous medieval marginalia, a New Yorker cartoon, and that range from Donatello to Degas and beyond.

Patricia Rubin is Professor of Renaissance Art at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

Her latest book, Seen from Behind: Perspectives on the Male Body and Renaissance Art, is published by Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2018

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