On the Genesis of Perving: ad quod respondit Servetus — TWO


This is a response to Judiang‘s discussion of objectifying Richard Armitage. In this section, I talk exclusively about the parallel between images of Armitage and Renaissance art made in Judi’s argument. If this topic doesn’t interest you, skip to the final section, which will be posted after Yom Kippur ends.


A picture I often use to make myself feel better: Mr. Thornton (Richard Armitage) kisses Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) in episode 4 of North & South. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

Turning to another piece of Judi’s assertions, those about art: In the end, I find it problematic to resort to argument about historical art as a means to argue that the way we view Richard Armitage is not objectifying. It’s very hard to argue based on our own perception of a historical piece that it didn’t involve an objectification. Indeed, objectifying processes (the reduction of a person to an image to allow instrumentalization or to make a particular point via the performance and/or reinforcement of aesthetic standards) are obviously underway in precisely the Renaissance art that she cites in her post. Admittedly, we do not know who posed for the Florentine David. This gap in our knowledge makes it easier for us not to think about the personhood of the model behind the image, since we have no idea who it was, and thus we need not worry about sexual objectification, since this young man is an absent object of the process of objectification. Even so, whoever it was, Michelangelo certainly instrumentalized him. It’s just that we tend to miss the means of objectification in the past because our cultural language has changed, and because in our own period, sexualization has become the primary language of the process of visual objectification. I agree with Judi that Michelangelo did not objectify his model solely or primarily for sexual reasons, but he and viewers of the figure did objectify him nonetheless, and some of these objectifications were sexualized ones. We can see the styles of objectification at work more clearly if we look at some of the conclusions art historians have drawn about Renaissance art in Florence and the creation of David in particular.

[At left: the lines to the Uffizi in Florence. Most of these people are eager to see the David, one of the museum’s premiere attractions. Today, the point of seeing the piece is as much being able to say one’s done so as any real aesthetic preference for Renaissance art. This, too, is an act of consumption that objectifies.]

Now, I am not claiming that people who saw the finished David for the first time in 1504 had no sexual response to the figure; I wasn’t there and as far as I know no documents survive that speak to this specific issue, which means for the historian’s purposes that we can neither affirm nor deny, but only hypothesize based on context and indirect sources. Even so, it’s almost incontrovertible that several of the most significant aesthetic meanings of that figure and thus of his objectification at the hands of the artist and the viewer are largely lost on the modern viewer because our culture has forgotten or abandoned those interpretive frameworks. Each of these exposes a particular kind of objectification that went on in the construction or appreciation of the piece. We can see these processes in the judgments that Giorgio Vasari, the most important contemporary commentator on Renaissance art, offers us in the chapter of his Lives on Michelangelo.

First, Michelangelo objectified the model in order to demonstrate his own artistry and mastery of composition, form, genre, and execution. The block of marble from which the figure was made had been marred in the hands of a less skilled artist who had abandoned his project, a figure for the church of S. Maria del Fiore. By receiving access to the block and promising to salvage the original design, Michelangelo was proving that he was a better artist not only than Simone da Fiesole, who had failed, but also than Leonardo da Vinci and Andrea Contucci, artists to whom the city had also wanted to give the opportunity. We can still see some signs of the effect of the original mistakes on Michelangelo in the statue, which is proportionally just slightly more shallow at the torso than one would expect a human figure to be. Vasari tells us:

Some of Michelangelo’s friends wrote from Florence … as they did not want that block of marble on the opera to be spoiled … Michelangelo … tried to obtain it, although it was difficult … and no other man except himself would have had the courage to make the attempt, but he had wanted it for many years… [U]nluckily one Simone da Fiesole had begun a giant, cutting between the legs and mauling it so badly that the wardens of S. Maria del Fiore had abandoned it without wishing to have it finished, and it had rested so for many years. Michelangelo examined it afresh, and decided that it could be hewn into something new while following the attitude sketched by Simone, and he decided to ask the wardens and Soderini for it. They gave it to him as worthless, thinking that anything he might do would be better than its present useless condition. … The marble had been hacked and spoiled by Simone so that be could not do all that he wished with it, though he left some of Simone’s work at the end of the marble, which may still be seen. This revival of a dead thing was a veritable miracle. … After seeing this no one need wish to look at any other sculpture or the work of any other artist.

So according to Vasari, the entire project — and his vision of the model which has come down to us in the sculpture — became a way for Michelangelo to demonstrate exactly what he could accomplish by producing a silk purse from a sow’s ear. This mood fits in with the general atmosphere that Vasari describes among Renaissance artists in Italy, which encouraged them to compete aggressively to demonstrate whose artistry was most highly advanced and whose power to move the viewer was most effective.

[At left: Verrocchio‘s bronze of David (1475), commissioned by the Medici family and later purchased by the city of Florence for display in the Palazzo Vecchio. In contrast to the naturalism of the figure, the features of the face are often described as following Gothic rather than Renaissance conventions of beauty.]

Secondly, although the execution of the David may not involve a sexual objectification that’s immediately apparent to us, it certainly responds as a created object to conventions operating at the time about the human form. Two of these are easily apparent — the first being the desire of Renaissance artists to emulate (and later, surpass) the artists of Greece and Rome. Responding to this convention, Vasari tells his readers of David: “It certainly bears the palm among all modern and ancient works, whether Greek or Roman, and the Marforio of Rome, the Tiber and Nile of Belvedere, and the colossal statues of Montecavallo do not compare with it in proportion and beauty.”

So, Michelangelo’s viewers were consciously looking backward in their notions of the human form to previous models because the ancients were thought to have been artistic masters to whose achievements the artists of the middle ages had never lived up. In looking backward, Renaissance artists and their audiences responded to and passed on conventions from earlier periods. The choice to depict the model nude thus does not seek to show him “as he is” or even ideally in response to human instincts about beauty, either those of the Renaissance or the Greeks (or even Roman copyists who imitated the Greeks, and with whose work Michelangelo would have been more conversant). Rather, it pushes the model into the modes of an artistic convention that had been developing over centuries and that determined what contemporary viewers saw as beautiful. An important aspect of these conventions in the Renaissance were responses to Greek conventions of the heroic male nude. A detailed discussion of the ways in which Greek viewers perceived the male nude through various historical periods, or what Renaissance artists knew about these depictions and perceptions is too lengthy to provide here. It may suffice, however, to mention that sexualization stands in the background of this figure insofar as Greek classical and post-classical statues appear to have been wrestling with the problem of the role of nudity as a symbol of masculinity in a period of cultural change. In earlier Greek heroic statues, nudity seems unremarkable and not necessarily a sexual sign. Many scholars would now argue that the beardlessness of the heroic Greek figure in later years of the Greek tradition is a sign that points to his sexual immaturity, a technique that functions to balance the apparent physical maturity of his musculature and makes the figure acceptable as a nude for display in public places — in an age when male sexual nudity was losing the innocence it had held in previous eras. In short, for the Greeks on whose work Michelangelo relied, the model would have been depicted in this particular way to ward off the viewer’s potential sexualization of the image, a problem that points to issues around sexualization. It was not done, or at least not solely, to represent ideal human forms or beauty.

[At right: Richard Armitage at the TV BAFTA awards in 2009, standing in a limited contrapposto. A relatively rare stance for Mr. Armitage, actually, who seems to prefer the more quasi-balletic second position stance or at least default to it when he’s trying to display equilibrium and confidence. Or maybe he’s trying to look shorter here to fit in.]

The second sort of objectification of the figure that stems from the Renaissance reception of the ancients responds tothe search in the Renaissance to make art seem ever more lifelike (as a reaction to much medieval art, which had sacrificed naturalism to theological or political messages). Regarding this theme, again turning to Vasari, we learn from his comments on a different piece of Michelangelo’s oeuvre that one of the artist’s most apparent talents was making it possible that “a once shapeless stone should assume a form that Nature with difficulty produces in flesh.” Seen from this perspective, the primary context for appreciation of David in the sixteenth century was its verisimilitude: “The legs are finely turned, the slender flanks divine, and the graceful pose unequaled, while such feet, hands and head have never been excelled.” The figure itself, however, does not truly obey these conventions, and details of it pop out in order to underline, contradictorily, the features of its naturalism that the artist most wants us to notice. The hands of the figure, for instance, are disproportionately large in comparison to the forearms, and appear to transgress intentionally against the demands of naturalism: they are almost surreal in their precision of depiction and their size makes us fully aware of the naturalism of their portrayal even as the size is unnatural. They are thus turned into things in order to broadcast the message of life-likeness. With regard to the theme of grace, something that Renaissance viewers appreciated in particular was the contrapposto, the way the figure appears to balance its weight on one leg, allowing the shoulders to turn against the axis of the body. This pose was thought to demonstrate equilibrium and confidence. It had disappeared from art after the end of the Roman Empire and had only been revived about a century earlier. So, seen from the standpoint of cultural history, grace does not inhere in the natural essence of the figure, but in they way that viewers evaluate the qualities of its pose.

Richard Armitage as Guy of Gisborne, standing in contrapposto in Robin Hood 1.9. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com. Guy, in contrast to male nudes of the Renaissance, only stands in contrapposto when he’s under pressure.

[At left: Donatello’s bronze statue of David (1440s), commissioned by the Medici for their own courtyard, then placed before the Florentine town hall after the Medici were expelled. The first free-standing nude since ancient times. Absent many contemporary reactions to the piece that have survived for us to find, beyond the comment that the figure was imperfect or disturbing, its failure to follow certain ancient conventions of the heroic nude has led modern interpreters to postulate that its soft belly and effeminate musculature may relate to a subtle message of sexualization of the nude in the artist’s own time. Note that such interpreters often adduce to their intepretations the face that Donatello was apparently had sex with men, which was illegal for men in fifteenth-century Florence but nonetheless popular judging by the number of convictions for the activity. I do not consider statements about the artist’s sexuality necessary evidence about the sexualization of figures they have made, not least because the term “homosexual” is anachronistic for the early modern period.]

Finally, the model for Michelangelo’s David was objectified in one further sense: the political. David was the symbol of Florence, perhaps because the defeat of the Philistine giant, Goliath, by an adolescent fit well with Florence’s sense of itself as a virtuous but beleaguered entity under threat from its more powerful neighbors. This information has two important consequences for understanding the David. First, people who saw Michelangelo’s work would be viewing it in the tradition of all the previous Davids sprinkled throughout the city — especially those in chapels and in public places, including the venues of the city government — two of which I’ve included in the images in this post for your comparison. Michelangelo’s figure was one of the first large public commissions that appeared in the city after the Medici were expelled and thus embodied a civic consciousness of the new patrician oligarchy (as opposed to the patriarchal government of the controversial dynasty). It signaled political independence and strength of will. Second, it means that the image of David itself was primarily directed at men as viewers, because men were the drivers of politics in the Renaissance. In the patriarchal context, this conclusion has certain implications for any hypotheses we make about the sexualization or non-sexualization of the sculpture. Key to the portrayal of Michelangelo’s figure, standard art history interpretations tell us, is not only to give the figure a much more classicizing musculature than previous Davids in Florence, but even more importantly, the choice to depict David before his battle with Goliath rather than after a successful decapitation. Hence, the calculating expression on the face and the contemplative but mostly hidden weighing of the slingshot in the left hand are supposed to signal not strength so much as anger, watchfulness, and intelligence. The now long-forgotten model, beautiful as he may have been, was instrumentalized in order to depict all of these political and moral qualities.

Richard Armitage (right) as a Greek, Epiphanes, in Cleopatra. Unfortunately not as a standing male heroic nude. Source: RichardArmitageNet.com

So, to sum up the point I’m trying to make here: whether or not pictures of a living person are the same as especially beautiful art, even the production of gorgeous Renaissance art was produced in an atmosphere of objectification, and some of these objectifications were sexual. That the figure was sexualized by later viewers is undeniable as well. (A historical curiosity around this topic are the removable “fig leaves” developed for copies of this statue for occasions when they were to be viewed by ladies with delicate sensibilities. One possible implication of this practice is that some viewers felt that the naturalistic presentation of the figure’s genitalia interfered with its qualities as an ideal figure of human beauty — though this was probably a minority position. And who ever knows how much someone articulates about what they think happens in response to what they think they “have” to say? This, to me, is a particular problem in Armitageworld.) In any case, speaking as a historian, I don’t convict or condemn people for “seeing things wrong.” The way in which any historical agent views a picture, the meaning it has for him or her, is the correct one for that individual, that time, and that place — and I extend this courtesy to my fellow fan girls as well. I just went into this in such detail so that we can all be aware of everything that we’re seeing in the range of possible things that we could see or could have seen if we had lived in a different period of history. All of these views — whether from artist or spectator, from contemporary or historical agent, whether in photos or art, whether of long-forgotten models or people alive now whom we could conceivably meet at a stage door someday — involve objectifications.

The people who line up for hours outside the Uffizi to wait for their viewing of the piece may indeed be looking at it for its beautiful qualities as they define those. Indeed, from our modern perspective, in which naturalistic depictions of the human form are always sexualized in an all-pervasive atmosphere of valorization of sexual desirability as a standard of social value that moves well beyond the bedroom, the hospital delivery ward, or even the entertainment industry, the image may look like an innocent depiction of an ideal, beautiful human male. But the objectifications involved in the Florentine David went far beyond that, to demonstrate the artistic, aesthetic, and political messages of the times in which its various audiences lived — just as the objectification of men in general in our own visual world, or Richard Armitage in particular, has further consequences than simply the creation of our own pleasure or appreciation of the ideal male form.


That’s the topic for next time, which will probably be no earlier than Sunday morning after Yom Kippur. What consequences from objectifying Armitage? Don’t assume you know what I’m going to say, though. And thanks for your patience so far.

~ by Servetus on October 7, 2011.

6 Responses to “On the Genesis of Perving: ad quod respondit Servetus — TWO”

  1. Thank you for that history lesson; it was quite informative. I was given to think that figures at that time probably weren’t sexualized, although as you pointed out that might not have been the case. However, I argue from the POV of the 21 century that such figures are not sexualized now and that the general public is given to believe these figures were an idealized depiction of beauty, notwithstanding mastery one-upmanship, political posturing etc.

    Was David’s model objectified? Clearly. However I still argue that David’s model and RA are not being objectified to a negative degree, although technically speaking, they were/are objectified in the strict sense of the term.

    I can’t begin to predict what you will say next. Hurry, Sunday. 😉


    • I think it’s both / and. I know it was kind of a tedious discussion, so I thank you for suffering through it 🙂

      Can you have positive objectifications without negative ones?


  2. I saw David on a school trip to Florence when I was eighteen and if the poor fellow is not sexualised I don’t know. All those statues surrounded by giggling teenagers, not to mention the postcards you can buy everywhere with strategically placed footballs. 😉


    • This is a smart comment and it addresses something that has been on my mind for awhile: the notion that certain kinds of gazes at anything are immature or at least sophomoric. I don’t want to claim that, even though I am annoyed by teenagers who giggle when they see naked statues — just that the primary focus for objectification for us (sexual) is one among many.


  3. […] of Richard Armitage that are available to fans objectify Armitage for the purpose of marketing. PART TWO IS HERE; its point was to use a historical example to make the case that art, no matter how beautiful, is […]


  4. […] as work of art, a theme that’s also interested me from time to time. I’ve tended to think his body would have been best suited to be a Mannerist […]


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