English 203 : Erotic Renaissance

Instructor: Professor James Grantham Turner

This course fulfills the elective requirement for the DE in REMS.

A sampling of sixteenth-century discourses of sexuality, theories of Eros, artworks and writings about the erotic in art, from major male and female authors in Italy, France and England. The aim is to test the hypothesis of my recent research – that an “erotic revolution” transformed Italian art and art writing – and to explore how far it applies to other literatures. For a brief period, after 1500 and before the Counter-Reformation, arousal could be interpreted as a positive experience that yielded new ways of seeing and producing art, at the center rather than the margins of the culture. Some of the texts we will read are openly libertine or obscenely explicit, others develop the amorous sonnet and the philosophical love-treatise in more elevated language, but all manifest the “corporeal turn” away from strict Petrarchanism and Neoplatonism. Authors include Pietro Aretino, Marsilio Ficino, Antonio Vignali, Baldessare Castiglione, Tullia d’Aragona, Veronica Franca, François Rabelais, Louise Labé, Michel de Montaigne, Pierre de Brantôme, Philip Sidney, Thomas Nashe and John Donne.

The first half of the semester will focus on art and writing in Italy, typified by the range of Aretino’s letters, poems and dialogues – from high aesthetics to (literal) pornography. The emphasis will be on primary texts and images, but to frame the conversation I will also designate passages from my recently completed book manuscript Eros Visible, which I describe as “a broad, synthetic history of this ‘sex-positive’ phase of the Renaissance, when lascivious became a neutral or endearing term, when sculpture was valued for ‘filling every viewer’s mind with libido’ (Aretino) and beauty was discovered in earthly rather than‘celestial’ love. Even more than beauty artists strove for the living quality of the image, ‘awakening’ and reanimating the Classical models they studied, and erotic response was the best guarantee of vitality. In this stimulating moment artists’ discoveries and writers’ ideas fed each other. Patrons and critics who valued ‘profane’ Eros more highly also encouraged sensuous intensity and sexual subject-matter. Recovering libertine art is only one element in this revolution, however. I explore the increasing emphasis on erotic passion in Renaissance art theory, which challenged artists to depict states of intense feeling and to evolve sensuous techniques that ‘melt’ or ‘penetrate’ the viewer likewise. My subject is not so much sex in the explicit sense as Eros in general – the evocation of desire in and for art.”

All texts will be taught in English, with originals in Italian, Latin or French on hand. 203- series courses are designed as exploratory “proseminars” or “readings” and may be taken by specialists and non-specialists, either as a survey (with paper topics on core texts or images from the syllabus) or as a research seminar. You may choose to write two shorter papers (note deadlines below) or one longer paper. Except for paperback editions of the Vignali, Aretino Dialogues, Labé and Nashe texts listed below, ALL course materials will be available in electronic form for download from bCourses, and include high-resolution images of the erotic engraving series I Modi and The Loves of the Gods, together with paintings by Titian, Parmigianino, Bronzino and Michelangelo. To pursue secondary reading, begin with the endnotes of Eros Visible, which can be mined electronically to generate a bibliography of the Italian part; other suggestions will be made once your individual interests become clearer.

Section times and locations in the Schedule of Classes