by Roderick Conway Morris

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Bibliothèque National, Paris
Ce qu'elle voit en songe, from Figures lascives by Jean-Jacques Lequeu, 1794-95

The Wilder and Dottier Shores of Love

By Roderick Conway Morris
TURIN 26 June 1992


The Greeks and Romans established the conventions for the visual depiction of love, and even set an example for explicitness, not least in the representation of love between the gods and mortals - for, just as the gods did not drink wine, having to make do with nectar, their Olympian existence seems rather chaste and they more often than not had to descend to Earth for sexual recreation.

Love and sex in art, from the ancient world to the present day, is a big topic for a single exhibition,and the organizers of 'L'Amore: Dall'Olimpo all'alcova' (Love: Olympus to the Bedchamber) have wisely confined themselves to European art in their diverting selection of some 300 exhibits, ranging from ancient statuary to Botticelli, and François Boucher to Allen Jones, lent by 40 museums and galleries, Italian and foreign.

The venue is the engagingly outlandish Mole Antonelliana, whose vertiginously steep-sided dome crowned with a rocketlike, sky-piercing spire is the dominant feature of Turin's cityscape.The Mole (meaning 'pile') was designed by Alessandro Antonelli and begun in the 1860s as a synagogue, but when the architect'salmost impossibly grandiose and fantastic project proved too much of a financial burden for Turin's Jewish community, it was taken over by the municipality.

The show, which runs through Oct. 4, is laid out in the cavernous hall beneath the dome and in what was to have been the synagogue's women's gallery. It is arranged under a series of headings, such as 'Arms of Seduction,' 'Intimacy Revealed' and 'The Cinema of Love.' There is frequent mixing of works of widely different periods, and though the exhibition does not attempt to reach any firm or startling conclusions, the constant juxtapositions can be enlightening and their cumulative effect interesting and suggestive. Thus, for example, a beautiful, naturalistic third-century Roman crouching Venus in marble is followed by a striking 'Black Venus' (1991) by the American Jim Dine, inspired by classical models, but impressionistically rough-hewn out of a block of maple wood and colored.

The Dark and Middles Ages were times of visual austerity, during which writers and poets enjoyed infinitely more freedom than artists to dwell on profane love and physical passion, but the rediscovery of the ancient world in the Renaissance again gave artists the license to depict nudity and compose powerfully erotic works, though they were usually careful to make the classical context clear. So, as a painting (c. 1610) by Leandro Bassano well illustrates, a voluptuous young girl could be shown unlacing her bodice exposing her full breasts, so long as the subject was Lucretia about to commit suicide to vindicate her virtue - the dagger itself replete with phallic symbolism.

But reliance on known classical art to set the limits of good taste was increasingly undermined by archaeological discoveries - above all the 18th-century excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum - revealing the true ubiquity of sexual imagery in ancient everyday life. Preserved in the volcanic ashes of Vesuvius were many erotic picturesand overt phallic emblems that had survived centuries of post-pagan religious cleansing untouched. Even a bakery in Pompeii was found to have as a sign a bas-relief phallus labeled 'Hic habitat felicitas' (Here happiness resides).

Some finds caused a kind of panic: A late Hellenistic statue of the god Pan in congress with a goat was unearthed in 1752 and, on the orders of the King of Naples, hastily put in a box and hidden away in the wardrobe of a restorer's bedroom, where not even his wife was allowed to peek at it. This and many other 'obscene' works ended up in the Reserved Objects Room of the Naples Museum, and they now comprise one of the most informative sections of the Turin show.

At one point the collection was walled up in a basement, and in 1856 it was locked up in a dank, dark storeroom - along with works by Titian, Veronese and Michelangelo also by then dubbed obscene. Only during brief periods of revolutionary libertarianism were they publicly accessible, as when Garibaldi came to Naples in 1880 (although boys, women and priests were expressly forbidden to see them).

One of the exhibition's bolder sequences is a group of line drawings byFrancesco Hayez, (c. 1825-1830), which were stumbled upon only recently in a secret compartment of an old desk: They depict the artist and his mistress, Carolina Zucchi, acting out their own personal 'Perfumed Garden' in Hayez's studio, shown side by side with an accomplished, affectionate and altogether more proper portrait of her in oils.

The wilder, and dottier, shores of love are embraced by some weird but well-chosen items. It was the Marchesa of Paiva's desire to own 'the most beautiful bed in the world,' and here it is: a giant scallop shell, borne through the waves by swans, a naked, life-size sea nymph perched atop the bedstead for the ride, all masterfully carved between 1865 and 1875 in solid Cuban mahogany under the direction of a Paris architect. Even more bizarre, but studiously and expertly executed, are the cool, neoclassical designs of Claude-Nicolas Ledoux for luxurious maisons de plaisir, one of which was planned to occupy the summit of Montmartre and another for a country park where young men were to be sent to dissipate their impetuous and lascivious desires once and for all, before embarking on a long life of probity, public service and matrimony.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024