In times of Buonarroti, there was an almost legal way to produce erotic pictures by using plots from Greek mythology. Celestial sensuality, not being treated as negatively as the mundane one, was perfectly embodied in Renaissance engravings by lots of talented artists. Guilio Bonasone, a contemporary of Michelangelo, produced pictures that show us pagan gods fulfilling their first function to multiply cosmos by Eros.
Fig. 1. Cover of the book “The Loves of The Gods”, draft (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 2. The Rising of the Sun (britishmuseum.org)
Guilio Bonasone (1498-1574) was an Italian painter born in Bologna. All his paintings, unfortunately, were lost. The engravings are the only kind of his visual oeuvres that came down to us. Bonasone, who was active between 1530 and 1570, is considered one of the most important engravers of the 16th century. Nevertheless, it’s very little known of him, and his personality remains obscured. Art historians restore his biography and journeys through Italy, analyzing changes in his engraving technique.
Fig. 3. “Last Judgement” Michelangelo (Wikipedia.org)
Fig. 4. “Last Judgement” copy by Bonasone (Wikipedia.org)
Prolific and Precise
Judging even the part of Bonasone’s legacy that came down to us, we can call him a productive artist. According to Wiki, the total amount of the artist’s works, including attributed, is 357 engravings, 200 of which belong to him. Bonasone illustrated Old and New Testament, parables, histories of saints. He also produced portraits and architectural prints. His works include both original prints (approximately 150) and copies of his contemporaries, e. g. Michelangelo and Raphael. As a copyist, he carefully conveyed the specificity of the original work.
Fig. 5. The Creation of Eve by Michelangelo (Wikipedia.org)
Fig.6. Apollo and Daphne (metmuseum.org)
Bonasone’s original works can be distinguished by certain clumsiness in depicting faces and bodies. It’s visible through the comparison of the copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Eve” with prints like the one on Danae or Daphne. The disproportion of the head and body sizes is highly entertaining.
Fig.7. Apollo and Leucotea (metmuseum.org)
Fig.8. Venus and Mars embracing (britishmuseum.org)
Fig.9. Venus and Mars (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 10. Leda and the Swan looking at Castor and Pollux (metmuseum.org)
The Loves of the Gods
“Amorosi Diletti Degli Dei” is Bonasone’s book of lithographs devoted to adulteries of Greek gods. It includes images of both well-known and obscure plots. The examples of the latter are the story of Phylira or the myth on nymph Pitys.
Fig. 11. Danae (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 12. Suffering Semela, the mother of Dionysus after asking Jupiter to appear in his natural shape (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 13. Two Lovers on a Bed with Cupid (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 14. Apollo and Leucotea (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 15. Adonis caressing Venus (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 16. Pluto and Proserpine (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 17. Nymphs and Satyrs bathing (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 18. Men and Women bathing (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 19. The triumph of love: Cupid riding a chariot on the clouds, is surrounded by lovers below (metmuseum.org)
Phylira and Her Glorious Son
The daughter of titan Oceanus, she was among the lovers of Cronus/Saturn, whom we know mainly for his appetites. Saturn seduced Phylira in the shape of a horse. Afterward, oceanida gave birth to centaur Chiron. Phylira was so distressed by her child’s appearance that she preferred to abandon him at birth. Moreover, Oceanus’ daughter asked the gods to transform her into anything non-human as she couldn’t bear the shame of having such a monstrous child. Gods transformed her into a linden tree (Phylira means linden in Greek). Centaur Chiron became a mentor of famous Greek heroes Jason and Achilles.
Fig. 20. Phylira and Chronos (britishmuseum.org)
The Pities of Pitys
Pitys was a mountain nymph. The meaning of her name, which can be translated as “pine,” makes us suppose a story close to one of Daphne and Apollo. Pitys was chased by forest god Pan, like nymph Syrinx, who turned into reeds. Merciful gods turned her into a pine. The hysterical state of pursued nymphs became known under the term “panic.”
Fig. 21. Pan watching Pitys turning into a pine (britishmuseum.org)
Christianity and Pagan Eroticism
The Renaissance period combined medieval adherence to Christianity with the adoration of Greek art. Bonasone’s engravings, as well as Michelangelo’s works, allow us to look at Christian mythology through the prism of pagan eroticism. The naked breast of the virgin and her semi-transparent clothes correspond to the depictions of ancient nymphs. The breastfeeding of Christ resembles Phylira’s breastfeeding of Chronos.
Fig. 22. The Holy Family with the infant John the Baptist who holds grapes in his right hand and passes a bird to the Christ Child (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 23. Adam and Eve (britishmuseum.org)
Fig. 24. Cupid tied to a tree in the Elysian Fields (metmuseum.org)
Fig. 25. Jupiter’s love for Juno rekindled when she puts on Venus’s Girdle (metmuseum.org)
Sources: wikipedia.org, britishmuseum.org, metmuseum.org
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