The world, or at least our Western civilization, hasn't changed much. Though, it has become more refined. First, behold the hand, by Titian.
Flora's left hand, says a scholar, points to her privates. Having made this startling observation, he runs with it, taking it to be an indication that this is a "wedding picture", and as such part of a genre of such, whose purpose was – we are told – to teach the wife about her place in the world as the breeding machine for her husband. Oh, and also -- to stimulate the man to perform his duty, by making the coded gesture full of promise.
Wedding pictures were indeed frequently made in the 15th and 16th centuries, but their ideological programs vary too much to justify this peculiar genitalization.
Look at this picture of my Sapphic girlfriend. The fingers, splayed, tensioned, upside down, seem to be secondary to the task of pulling down the nylons, but they have a powerful, more than subliminal role - I am about to give it to you. It is a promise of intimacy handed on a silver plate.
Flora's fingers, writes another scholar, form the shape of letter V, for Virtus, a clear indication that she is virtuous, and a virgin.
This, too, takes a fair bit of imagination, since the V, if that's what it is, would be lying on its side (actually, somewhat upsidedownish). Besides not being very much like the letter V, the gesture is a lot like something else: like just the sort of gesture you might see girls use from time to time to hold up an unruly garment. On top of which, it also happens to be pretty, which is what explains its presence in several paintings -- not the suspect implications of its putative-V shape.
But in any case, let us concede, for the sake of argument, that it is a "V". Whence the leap from here to -- "Virtus"? For why should the V, if that's what it is, be construed as standing for Virtue rather than, say, Victory? Or how about – Vitello? Or, Vanita, or Verita, or Vino, or Vescovo, or Vipera, or Violino, or Vigilanza, or Vicario, or Vaselina, or Vale? Or Vacuo. (This is a good one!). Or, indeed, while, we are at it, Volgarizzare?
Come to think about it, is volgalizzare perhaps the relevant word here?
For, surely, the reason why the scholar sees a letter V, and in it, in turn, decodes an indication of Virtue, is that he is gripped by the urgent need to answer just one question: is the woman in the painting virtuous or is she – significantly a word written with a doppie-v – a ...?
This question in fact summarizes about 80% of the scholarly writing on Titian's Flora – and about 50% of all scholarly writing on all Venetian women's portraits, whether nude or not. The question, in other words, is: did this so-and-so, whoever she was, or did she not, have sex? And -- would she have it with me?
Which goes to show you that the art-historian's mind isn't very far from the lacrosse players' locker room. The relevant question is the same: is she easy? Can I have her?
I don't know, dear Sapphic sisters.
This seems some really, really weird stuff. I mean, is someone frustrated here?
In all the years of looking at these paintings it has never occurred to me to ask whether these women are virtuous or otherwise. (I have always assumed them to be like most women I have known in my life – a little bit of both – virtuous for the most part -- and thank heavens for that "most"; what would we do without a little doubt in the more shadowy corners of our lives, ahem). And, in any case, in staring at their beautiful skin, and hair, and into their dreamy eyes it has never occurred to ask myself whether they would sleep with me.
They were paintings; portraits of women dead these 500 years. It seemed – well – just a little irrelevant to ask?
Or consider this woman by Sebastiano del Piombo. Wise Virgin - about which one of the authors says that her gaze is seductive.
Years of sleeping with women taught me to recognize the obvious, apparently. This woman is looking at someone seductively!
But then -- how to square this astute(!?) observation of the writer with what follows, the discussion that she is a Wise Virgin – because she holds a lit oil lamp? (For those of you who are a little shaky on the New Testament: 20 virgins went to spend the night with their boyfriends; 10 were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps and remained virgins; 10 were foolish, did not bring oil, the lamps ran out of juice, darkness fell and – well, you know). So here is the problem: why would a virtuous virgin with a lit lamp, and a supply of oil, look at anyone seductively? Has the author of this description – ahem – not thought through her conclusions? Become - a little befuddled in her thinking? You never know the parochially dark mind of New Testament composers.
Alright, I'll make an excuse for the author: she's a woman. No, I don't mean that she is therefore feeble-minded or any such male chauvinist thing. I mean that she probably does not spend much time in her real life analyzing women's gazes for their seduction value; and therefore is in her analysis of this painting is a little -- shall we say -- at sea? (I am similarly powerless when analyzing men's gazes in paintings: my women companions seem a lot more astute in interpreting them. Perhaps because that's what they do all the time while I do it never).
But let's not put too nice an interpretation on this thing. What happened was this: the scholar looked at the painting; and was baffled by the gaze; and not understanding it, assumed that it was meant for a man; and therefore had to be seductive. (How else could a woman gaze at a man). This conclusion seems to reflect the same preoccupation as experienced by the male writers mentioned under 1 and 2 above: when in doubt, assume it's about sex. (What else could it be about?!)
There must be something wrong with me: my head must be on backwards or something. I look at Flora's hand and do not see what it obviously points to and fail to decode its obvious intended alphabetical symbolism. All I can see is a pretty hand, so delicious I could die kissing it, trying to hold up an unruly edge of a nightie. And I look at Sebastiano's woman and do not see that she is seductively gazing at me and instead I think her gaze is partly knowing, partly quizzical, and partly – guarded.
And then I look at this painting (also by del Piombo) Dorothea. Besides not finding it one of the most captivating female portraits, like the writer says (alright, let us say this is a subjective judgment) I am entirely puzzled why her 800 word description of it has to end on this note:
"It remains to be determined whether Sebastiano's portrait represents a bride, a mistress, or even a woman named Dorothea."
For to me, dear friends, besides the fact that Dorothea may of course be a sex object (each of us harbors at least the seed of that delicious potential), sanctioned or unsanctioned, the questions which come to my mind -- and remain to be answered -- are not of this (apparently obvious and overriding) nature. Rather I ask myself: what kind of a person was this woman? Was she shy, or cunning? Forthright, or manipulative? Is that shadow in her eyes a memory of a tragedy or – a fear of the future? Was the role she was expected to play in life – indicated by the basket of fruits, which she seems to hold away from herself rather stiffly, as if she wanted to push it away, or at least forget about its existence – something she hated but believed in, or something she did not believe in – but was only resigned to?