The Renaissance Lets Its Hair Down

Gerard Ortiz

Human hair has been the matter of a great number of cultural tangles above the hundreds of years. The protein filament has been incorporated in definitions of the civilized and the savage, of the modest and the vain, of the chaste and the sensual, of the orderly and the anarchic. Above all, hair has been intimately written into definitions of sexuality and gender. Biology makes hair expand (except it does not), but culture asks: how extended, how small, how styled, how obvious, how hidden?

What artwork historian Emanuele Lugli calls the “hegemonic Christian depreciation of hairstyles” may perhaps be very best represented by the 13-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. A monk, Aquinas is ordinarily represented carrying a tonsure, the shaved best of the head that represented humility. Making off an previously Father of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, Aquinas lumped hair among the corporeal superfluities, along with urine and feces. These ended up matters which would not resurrect along with the overall body occur Judgment Day. Hair was irrelevant, when it was not irreverent as a image of flaming wish.

The idea that all people was heading to be hairless in Heaven may well not have sat very well with some of the artists of the Renaissance. A single of the classical concepts revived on the Italian peninsula for the duration of this period of time was the intricate hairstyle as an ornament of female natural beauty (at minimum as eaten by adult men). Ovid’s Ars Amatoria in certain kindled a reverence for hair. And Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445–1510) emerged as the excellent painter of hair, generating it what Lugli phone calls the “threshold to erotic desire” for spectators.

An case in point is Botticelli’s Idealized Portrait of a Girl (allegedly Simonetta Vespucci), imagined to have been painted in the early 1480s. The extended, pony-tailed, braided, curlicued, honey-blond hair is adorned with additional than two hundred painted pearls—during a time the carrying of pearls in public violated Florentine sumptuary legal guidelines.

“While desire in the resourceful prospects of hair was widespread—what is hair if not a mass of strains that can consider any condition?—no one particular went as much as Botticelli in capitalizing on its intricacy,” writes Lugli. Botticelli built exclusive hairstyles his signature in his 1st two decades as a painter. The system “paid off since arresting locks became a prerequisite of woman allure.”

This produced Botticelli no mates in the Church. Hair wasn’t only a theological superfluity, belittled as worthless to the problem of the immortal soul. In the arms, or really should we say on the heads, of ladies, hair could also be a non secular danger. Woman hair was a snare, luring adult males and boys to lust. In the words and phrases of Girolamo Savonarola in 1490—several decades just before his puritanical bonfire of the vanities and eight yrs ahead of his very own burning at the stake—unveiled women of all ages and ladies at mass were a entice for the two “the angels and the clergymen.”

Botticelli’s painted hair, writes Lugli, was “a network of ropes, levers, and cantilevers” that did the “muscular do the job of pulling the spectator’s awareness in.” But this perform was battling the odds. Spiritual repression gained out. By the 1490s, Botticelli “refrained from painting incredible manes, masking hair underneath thick levels of cloth, or turned them into wavy streaks, as repetitive as they are long.” No slouch in his youth when it arrived to painting men’s hair as perfectly, Botticelli appears to have been defeated on the hair front: his Christ the Redeemer of circa 1500 is the “only late portray in which he nonetheless reveals an fascination in hair.”

Lugli notes that “interest in hair has until eventually lately remained on the margins in art history.” The famed connoisseur Bernard Berenson, for occasion, regarded as Leonardo de Vinci’s bald heads the greatest drawings of the Renaissance, a judgement Lugli describes as “sustained by the patriarchal moralism that has shaped, and it continue to does, artwork historic scholarship.”

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