Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

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By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.

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The Renaissance Nude

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Saint Sebastian – Agnolo Bronzino, 1533

Today, we live in a censored world where young minds are shielded from the harsh realities of life and people are quick to complain about things that never once crossed previous generation’s minds. The word “nudity” sets alarm bells ringing and is presumed by many to be synonymous with sexual content. Ironically, despite society trying to block nudity from the impressionable minds of under 18-year-olds, anyone can gaze upon the naked body in public in nearly all art galleries.

Once upon a time, nudity was culturally acceptable, as the Royal Academy of Arts showed in their recent exhibition The Renaissance Nude. The 15th and 16th century was a crucial moment in the history of western art with the birth of the Renaissance period and a renewed interest in the human body as represented in ancient Greek and Roman art. The exhibition explored the use of nudity in art from 1400 to the 1530s, exploring works in a variety of media and produced by some of the most famous names in the business: Dürer, Titian, Raphael, Michaelangelo and Leonardo.

Renaissance is a French word meaning “rebirth” and aptly describes the period when Europe was rediscovering the art and values of the classical world after a long, stagnant period of decline during the Middle Ages, or “Dark Ages”. Not only was the art world affected, the Renaissance saw a number of new discoveries including scientific laws, new religious and political ideas, and sightings of new lands, for instance, America. Therefore, the art shown at the Royal Academy’s exhibition was once a welcome change in a world where people’s minds were being opened to endless possibilities.

The nude flourished in Renaissance art, achieving an increasingly dominant role across Europe. Unlike today where nudity often goes hand in hand with pornography and offensive content, the study of the unclothed body was welcomed by sacred and secular communities alike and produced some of the most magnificent works in existence today. It is Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) who takes the blame for the world’s more prudish attitude to nudity after he ordered concealing draperies to be painted over some of the figures in Michelangelo’s (1475-1564) Last Judgement (1541) in the Sistine Chapel.

One of the first artworks in the exhibition was Jan Gossaert’s (1478-1532) Christ on the Cold Stone (1530). Christ is rarely depicted as fully naked in artwork, apart from as a young child, and in this case, a strip of cloth covers his nether regions. Looking anguished and weary, Gossaert imagines Christ’s demeanour as he awaits his physical ordeal and eventual death. His body is based on the Greek sculptures Gossaert would have seen when visiting Rome, hence the exaggerated musculature.

Religion and art had a tight relationship during the Renaissance and Biblical scenes, such as Christ’s death and resurrection, presented artists with plenty of opportunities to work with the naked figure. As a result, religious subjects became much more realistic than they had been during the Middle Ages as well as more accessible.

As well as Biblical narratives, saints and religious heroes or heroines, were also popular subjects for Renaissance artists. Saint Sebastian (d.288 AD) was one of the more prevalent being the saint of the plague-stricken at a time when outbreaks of contagious diseases were common. Saint Sebastian was killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s (244-311) persecution of Christians, initially being tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows, although it was not this that eventually killed him.

Cima da Conegliano’s (1459-1517) version of Saint Sebastian (1502) referenced his martyrdom with a single arrow piercing the right thigh of a young man with glossy hair, who stands naked but for a white cloth concealing his genitals. The youth is composed and appears unaware that he had been shot; nor is there any blood spilling from the wound. Cima replicated the physical beauty of Greek gods in his composition, thus making him appear pure, fit and healthy. The artist has achieved what the German painter Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) urged: to use “the most beautiful human shape” which the ancients had used for their “false gods” when drawing the body of Christ or the saints.

The idea of representing the saints or the holy in the beautiful manner of the ancient Greek artists can be explored further in Dirk Bouts’ (1415-75) The Way to Paradise (1469). This shows one of the possible outcomes of the last judgement in which those who are saved ascend to paradise or heaven. Whilst naked, the figures in the painting have their lower bodies wrapped in pure white cloth and their stature and pure facial features emphasise their godliness. On the other hand, the opposite scenario shown in Bouts’ The Fall of the Damned (1469) shows the victims entirely naked, tumbling down into the infernal landscape. In this instance, the nudity references the shame Adam and Eve felt when they realised they were naked after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

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Adam and Eve – Albrecht Dürer, 1504

Adam and Eve are undoubtedly the most famous characters of the Bible who allow artists to experiment with nudity. In an engraving by Albrecht Dürer, Eve is about to succumb to temptation and eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in the Book of Genesis. At this moment, Adam and Eve are unashamed of their nudity, however, Dürer has prudently obscured their genitalia with leaves. Unlike his contemporaries, Dürer tried to avoid using live models, preferring to draw people using a compass and ruler, therefore, creating his nudes geometrically. Although the figures have similar bodies to those in classical art, Dürer was quoted warning his fellow artists, “Your ability is impotent compared with God’s creativity.”

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Bathsheba Bathing – Jean Bourdichon, 1499

Dürer’s Adam and Eve (1504) proves that Renaissance art was not limited to the painted medium. As well as paintings, the Royal Academy displayed book illuminations, sculpture and drawings amongst other media. For instance, a French copy of Book of Hours contains an illustration of Bathsheba bathing naked in the open air. In the background, King David can be seen spying on her from the palace window. It is thought that this and similar images were intended to be erotic, wrongly depicting Bathsheba as a seductress rather than a passive victim.

As described earlier, the Renaissance was a time of discovery, and people were exposed to new and old thoughts and religions. Since artists were inspired by classical sculptures, it is no surprise that their subject matter turned to the mythologies of the ancient Greeks and Romans. In a similar fashion, these stories from classical literature allowed artists to continue exploring the nude.

Piero di Cosimo’s (1462-1522) A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (1500) is fairly typical of the way classical stories are depicted. Despite the sorrowful scene, the landscape, colours and figures have a beauty about them that make them appear otherworldly. The peacefulness of the painting also relates to the scene inspired by Ovid (43BC-18AD) and Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) in which a nymph has been killed by a wound to her throat. The wound is not gruesome and the nymph appears to have swooned rather than crashed to the ground, almost a graceful death. Yet, nymphs were known for their singing and this nymph will sing no more, hence the peaceful quietude the painting evokes.

The nymph’s nudity links this painting to Bouts’ The Way to Paradise, in which the semi-naked people are portrayed as beautiful and pure. Despite the painful wound to her neck, the nymph’s suffering is nothing like the deaths of those in The Fall of the Damned. The other characters in the painting – a satyr and a dog – are quietly mourning her death, a stark contrast to the hideous characters in Bouts’ painting. A similar, peaceful figure can be seen in Dosso Dossi’s (1486-1542) A Myth of Pan (1524). Unfortunately, the precise meaning remains a mystery and it is not clear whether the naked lady is slumbering or condemned to eternal rest.

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Venus Anadyomene – Titian, 1520

Typically, male nudes were based upon one of the most important Olympian deity, Apollo. The Renaissance artists had more choice for the female nude since all goddesses were beautiful, however, Venus, the Roman goddess of Love, was usually the most represented. The myth surrounding Venus’ birth is a popular subject for artists. In Pliny the Elder’s (AD 23-79) Natural History, written around AD 77, he describes a long lost painting by the Greek artist Apelles (BC 370-06), which depicts the birth of Venus. Born fully formed from the sea, the most famous version of this story can be seen in Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) painting from the 1480s. The painting displayed in the Royal Academy’s exhibition, however, was the less elaborate Venus Anadyomene or Venus Rising from the Sea (1520) by the renowned Titian (1488-1576). In an attempt to rival Botticelli, Titian focuses on the nude Venus standing in the water in a natural, human-like pose. The youthful goddess is wringing her long golden hair and glancing over her shoulder rather than at the audience. Whilst Venus’ isolation makes her seem vulnerable and innocent, Titian wanted her nudity to add to the erotic allure of the painting.

Despite their unearthly beauty, the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods often resulted in adultery, lust, drunkenness, debauchery and deception, which encouraged Renaissance artists to explore impulsive behaviours that had been condemned by the Christian Church. Once, this would have had disastrous effects for the artist’s reputation, however, humanist ideas were beginning to infiltrate society with themes of seduction, powerful women and same-sex relationships.

The woodcut Aristotle and Phyllis (1513) by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) explored the growing interest in powerful women. Medieval texts claim the Greek philosopher Aristotle (BC 384-22) punished his pupil, Alexander the Great (BC 356-23) for spending too much time with his lover Phyllis. The philosopher blamed Phyllis’ presence for arousing unwanted sexual feelings. Rather than taking the blame for sexually tempting Aristotle, Phyllis sought revenge on the behalf of her lover and demanded to be walked around the garden upon Artistotle’s naked back, while Alexander stood witness to the humiliating scene.

Other artists dealt with themes of temptation, especially the erotic dreams of some men, which due to their religious upbringing, were considered to be impure thoughts. The Flemish artist Hans Memling (1440-94) took these vices and vanities further in his book panels for the Loiani family from Bologna. Memling depicted beauty as vanity and vices as something to be punished for after death, hence the illustration of the devil. The final panel, Memento Mori, reminds us that regardless of our pure or irreligious behaviour, death comes to us all.

As the Royal Academy proved midway through the exhibition, nudity in art was not necessarily either religious, mythological or erotic; there were many more purposes for the naked body. Previous to the Renaissance, paintings of the human body (usually clothed) were unrealistic, often with awry proportions or strangely shaped faces. The introduction of nudity to art allowed artists to start studying the human figure with live models in their studio. It was standard for artists to produce preparatory drawings before starting a painting, therefore, there are a large number of anatomical sketches by famous artists in the possession of art galleries today.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1483-1520) are life studies of the same model in different positions captured in red chalk. By studying the way the body moves in each position, Raphael was confident enough to paint the Three Graces in The Feast of the Roman Gods at the Farnesina in Rome. Likewise, Michelangelo (1475-1564) also produced sketches before putting brush to canvas, wall, etc. The Italian artist concentrated on the musculature of the human body and surrounding his sketches are annotations that may have had instructive purposes.

Cesare Cesariano (1475-1543) was one of a few artists who produced a detailed drawing of The Vitruvian Man. Based on the treatise of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (BC 80-15), which demonstrates the three central themes of architecture and engineering: firmitas (strength), utilitas (functionality), and venustas (beauty); The Vitruvian Man is an anatomically correct drawing of the proportions of the human body. The most famous of these drawings, of course, was by the famous polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519).

Of course, the Royal Academy could not display sketches by Raphael and Michelangelo without showing the detailed drawings of the anatomy fanatic himself, Leonardo. During his busy career as an artist, sculptor, architect, inventor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, astronomist, geologist, botanist, writer, historian and cartographer, Leonardo somehow managed to find the time to dissect numerous bodies and make detailed drawings of human anatomy. The sketches displayed at the Royal Academy were those of the shoulder and neck. Unlike Raphael and Michelangelo, who were preparing for larger paintings, Leonardo was making preparations for his treatise about the human anatomy. Surrounding the illustrations of several views of the shoulders and neck are Leonardo’s tiny annotations. Known as mirror script, this can only be read when held up to a mirror and was probably an attempt by Leonardo to prevent others from stealing his ideas.

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Saint Jerome – Donatello, 1460s

Taking the naked body into consideration allowed artists to considered the vulnerabilities of the human condition. Prior to the Renaissance, artworks of the human figure were based on ideals rather than reality. Even in death, paintings of Christ looked pure and holy, if not regal. After being able to study human anatomy, however, artists learnt to portray suffering in a more realistic manner.

Donatello’s (1386-1466) polychromed wooden sculpture of the naked Saint Jerome (1460s) is a vivid example of the vulnerable human body. Scourging himself with a rock to quell carnal desire, Saint Jerome’s body is gaunt and aged, reflecting his long-term exposure to the elements in the desert. Unlike the paintings of Saint Sebastian seen at the beginning of the exhibition, in which his body remains unaffected by the torture imposed upon him, Saint Jerome is a stark visual reminder of the hardships of religious commitment and the evidence that the body can benefit from material needs.

The final section of the Royal Academy’s exhibition about The Renaissance Nude reveals that paintings involving nudes were readily accepted by society and even commissioned by notable patrons, for instance, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), Marchioness of Mantua. The Marchioness commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her distinguished studiolo, which she had designated for studying and contemplation. The themes of these paintings prove that secular subjects were welcome in a once predominantly strict religious country.

Dosso Dossi’s Allegory of Fortune depicts a semi-naked young man clasping a bunch of lottery tickets – apparently, Isabella d’Este’s personal emblem – which in this instance represent Chance. The nude woman opposite with her arms supporting a cornucopia represents Fortune. The latter is seated upon a bubble that could burst at any time, symbolising that fortune or luck can easily disappear. Why, however, did Isabelle D’Este request such a painting? Allegory of Fortune and similar paintings would have been a stark reminder to wealthy ruling families that they may not always be able to rely upon their good fortune.

Other paintings commissioned by Isabella d’Este had mythological connotations. Combat between Love and Chastity painted by Pietro Perugino (1445-1523) was produced from the instructions to paint an allegory representing the duelling forces of libido and restraint. The central female figures represent the Roman goddesses Venus (libido) and Diana (restraint). Diana, or Artemis as she was known in the Greek, was the goddess of chastity amongst other things. The clothed people in the painting represent her followers, whereas, those belonging to Venus are entirely naked. This suggests that nudity was associated with sexual impulses, much like it is today.

Telling people you are going to see an exhibition called The Renaissance Nude is met by mixed reactions: those who concentrate on the word “Renaissance” and those who focus in on “Nude”. The former are unfazed by the nudity aspect, believing that the Renaissance painters could not have painted anything sordid, whilst the latter question your morals and interests. Both, however, are wrong in their presumptions. Whilst Renaissance artwork cannot be considered pornography, they did tackle themes of debauchery, lust and eroticism.

If their aim was to explain how the nude became a common occurrence in Renaissance art, then the Royal Academy can congratulate themselves. Initially, nudes in the 15th and 16th centuries were produced for churches and private collections and it was only the erotic woodcut prints that circulated more widely. Ironically, the latter no longer exude sensuality and desire as they originally intended due to the changing of the times, morals and behaviours of recent generations.

Despite only focusing on artworks featuring nude figures, the exhibition taught visitors a lot about the Renaissance era. By combining artists from both north and south of the Alps, the differing attitudes towards the new ideas can clearly be seen. Whilst the Italians embraced the human body, its beauty and the opportunity for anatomical study, the northern European artists were more severe in their approach. The exhibition The Renaissance Nude included some of the most famous names from the Renaissance era as well as some of the greatest work from this period of momentous change. Most importantly, however, it shows the Renaissance nude to be far more diverse than previously imagined.