Friday, November 6, 2015

When Nudity Was Heroic

In our modern (often puritanical) society, public nudity is considered lewd. To be photographed naked is risky; to have those photos published elicits criticism (if published with the subject's permission) or pity (if private photographs were leaked by a hacker or revenge-seeking ex). A common type of anxiety dream involves being unclothed in public. For modern westerners, nudity outside of one's private space is a sign of vulnerability and humiliation.

Altar of the Dioscuri
(Castor and Pollux)
The ancient Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, celebrated the human form. Although they usually dressed conservatively in public life, athletic nudity was celebrated. The word "gymnasium" is derived from the ancient Greek word for naked, because work-out clothes were not a thing in the ancient world.

Vase painters and sculptors delighted in portraying idealized human forms. Mythical gods and heroes were often shown naked, or nearly so. My recent trip to Rome revived my love of classical art and architecture. I toured renaissance palazzos filled with classical sculptures and rococo imitations.

Some of the subjects were visually familiar to me. Hercules, for instance, is usually recognizable by the club he carries and the lion skin he wears as a mantle. Others, like the Dioscuri, I knew by name but not iconography. Some were more obscure.

Funerary altar with winged figures
representing the four seasons
Time and again, however, I saw statues and carved altars showing male figures "in heroic nudity". I never took art history classes, so I was not familiar with the term. However, I noticed all of the figures so described were wearing some sort of cape or mantle--because we all know that heroes wear capes. My inner 12-year-old giggled at the thought of Superman wearing only his cape (and maybe his red boots).

Antoninus Pius
I was surprised to see two different Roman emperors (Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) portrayed in heroic nudity as the god Mars. I suspect they both had body doubles. Marcus Aurelius was joined by Faustina Minor as Venus, making a charming domestic scene. She appears to be adjusting his mantle--perhaps so he does not catch a chill when he marches north to battle the Germanic hordes.

Seeing all of these sculptures in context, I understand what Antonio Canova was thinking when he created his infamous statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker. I had a brief London layover on my way home, and I toured Apsley House, the home of the first Duke of Wellington, who eventually received the Canova statue as a gift.

Marcus Aurelius
Unfortunately, photography is not allowed at Apsley House, but you can see a picture of the Napoleon here. When I saw it in person shortly after my time in Rome, I hadn't the slightest urge to giggle.

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