1. Education

The Florentine School and the Portrayal of Male Youth

All the Young Dudes


In a previous article, Leonardo's "Angel in the Flesh" was mentioned (somewhat cheekily) as an example of an effeminate male as portrayed by the great Master. Though it is a convincing example, it is certainly not the only one. I have been remiss not to have pointed out - and more seriously, this time - that Leonardo was not alone in this perceived artistic gender-bending. He was his own man, but he was also a product of his time.

You see, in all of the hubbub over The Da Vinci Code, and the ensuing John vs. Mary Magdalene flap, one thing is often overlooked. Leonardo was from the Republic of Florence and received his artistic training in a workshop of the Florentine School.

The Florentine School had a long tradition of often depicting young males as sweet, pretty, rather effeminate persons. Why? Well, it was simply how it was done. It was tradition, and at least partly so because young men were frequently objects of desire - outright lust, if you will - of some, usually older, Florentine men. Yes, pedophilia, as we now describe it.

(Note: "Now" should here be emphasized to stress the fact that it's reckless to assign 21st-century moral judgments to that which was going on long ago in another location. Here and now most of us find beyond repulsive thoughts of sexually preying on minors, but our feelings don't apply to how people viewed things there and then.)

To be clear, the Florentine School was merely reflecting, in its art, Renaissance Florentine culture on the whole. Amongst its many grand, reputation enhancing attributes, Florence also had the rather dubious distinction of being known - all over Christendom - for its permissiveness towards homosexual behavior. In fact, a German dictionary published early in the 16th-century, contained definitions for both "Florenzer" (a descriptive noun meaning "buggerer") and the verb "Florenzen" ("to bugger").

So, by the time Leonardo was working on The Last Supper, he was simply the latest in a long line of artists to portray a young man (in this case, St. John the Evangelist) as feminine looking.

Because a picture really is worth a thousand words, let's cut to the chase and look at some examples in chronological order:

  • Fra Angelico. Communion of the Apostles. (1451-53)

As you can see, when Leonardo's version of The Last Supper is viewed in context, the John "gender issue" seems less of an issue. Leonardo was sticking to tradition: Biblical (John was the youngest Disciple), Florentine (young men were often love objects) and the Florentine School (young men were often painted as "pretty"). Considering this logically, it would seem reasonable to lend credence to the many art historians who've said no, based on contextual evidence Leonardo didn't paint Mary Magdalene, he painted John. Unless, of course, many art historians have got it all wrong, and the whole Florentine School actually believed that Jesus meant for Mary Magdalene to head His Church.

Sources and Recommended Reading

  • Rocke, Michael. Forbidden Friendships: Homosexuality and Male Culture in Renaissance Florence (Studies in the History of Sexuality).
    New York: Oxford University Press. 1998.

  • Dynes, Wayne R. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.
    New York: Garland Publishers. 1990.

  • Crompton, Louis. Homosexuality and Civilization.
    Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2003.

  • Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts.
    New York: Viking Books. 1999.

  • Trexler, Richard C. Public Life in Renaissance Florence.
    Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1991.

  • Karras, Ruth Mazo. From Boys to Men: Formations of Masculinity in Late Medieval Europe.
    Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2002.

  • Gallucci, Margaret A. Benvenuto Cellini : Sexuality, Masculinity, and Artistic Identity in Renaissance Italy.
    New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

  • Lucie-Smith, Edward. Adam: The Male Figure in Art.
    New York: Rizzoli, 1998.

  • Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style.
    New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

  • Vignali, Antonio; Moulton, Ian F. (trans.) La Cazzaria.
    New York: Routledge, 2003.

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