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In on the Joke? Female Viewers of Renaissance Erotica

Each week this semester, our Humanities Research Fellows will publish short pieces here about their work in our seminar on humor.  We kick things off with this fascinating piece from Professor Maria Maurer about erotic art in the Renaissance.

Raphael, Mercury, Loggia of Psyche, ca. 1511-13. Villa Farnesina, Rome. Photo by author.

In the sixteenth century, Paolo Giovio described a female visitor to Raphael’s Loggia at the Villa Farnesina. The unnamed lady praised the figures, but wished that Raphael “had painted a nice rose or a figleaf over the shame of Mercury.” Raphael then teased her, asking “But why did you not suggest that I should do the same thing for Polyphemus, whom you praised so much, and whose shame is so much larger?” While this passage is full of errors (Raphael did not paint the Polyphemus, for example), Giovio nonetheless suggests that women were incapable of the wit necessary to appreciate Renaissance sexual humor. Mercury’s genitals are quite unassuming, and thus not in need of a figleaf, but he does gesture broadly to an engorged and suggestively shaped cucumber which is aimed toward an overripe, swollen fig. The phallus masquerading as a cucumber is the source of visual wit, a source the lady apparently missed.

We generally assume that women were not the intended audience of erotica, and that if they did see it, like Giovio’s lady, they didn’t get it or were scandalized. However, I want to consider a plate manufactured in the Umbrian town of Deruta during the early sixteenth century that seems to address a female audience.

Plate with a Woman and a Basket of Phallic Fruits, Deruta, first quarter of 16th century. © RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre)/Beck-Coppola.

The plate depicts a seated woman and a basket filled with “fruits.” The phallic nature of the wriggling fruits is clearly revealed as she grasps one and holds it up for our inspection. Sixteenth-century art often pairs beautiful women or handsome youths with fruits and vegetables, playing on the availability of the produce as a metaphor for sexual availability or, as in Raphael’s Mercury, using suggestively shaped vegetables as barely-disguised references to sexual intercourse.

Here, the metaphoric “fruits” of painting and poetry have become the phalluses they often represent. The plate also plays upon Renaissance conceptions of women’s voracious sexual appetites, which must be tamed by their more rational male family members. For a male audience, the dish ridicules and dismisses female sexual desire making it the butt of a lewd joke.

However, what if we, like Raphael’s female interlocutor, miss the joke? Taken at face value the inscription “Come get your good fruit, women,” invites women to initiate sexual activity, a sort of Renaissance “come and get it.” In that regard, the dish opens up a space for female sexual agency by depicting women as beings with sexual appetites that can and should be satiated.

I don’t mean to posit any easy answers here, nor to suggest that the plate has one meaning. Rather, I think its bawdy humor allows for multiple, even contradictory interpretations. Sexual humor in the Renaissance is often seen as reinforcing norms, as in this case where the plate appears to mock the sexual desires of women who were supposed to remain chaste. Yet, in representing female sexuality, the plate also makes it visible, and creates a space for female activity.

Further Reading:

  • Pietro Aretino, Dialogues, translated by Raymond Rosenthal (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005).
  • Linda Wolk-Simon, “‘Rapture to the Greedy Eyes’: Profane Love in the Renaissance,” in Art and Love in Renaissance Italy, ed. Andrea Bayer, 43-58 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008).
  • Patricia Simons, The Sex of Men in Premodern Europe: A Cultural History (Cambridge University Press, 2011).