Hey, Hollywood, this queer woman should be the subject of your next biopic

Alla Nazimova created 'sewing circles' for lesbians in Classic Hollywood

Hey, Hollywood, this queer woman should be the subject of your next biopic
Queer Russian actor Alla Nazimova
It’s LGBT History Month in the United States and it’s got me thinking about all the amazing queer figures that have come before. Hollywood loves their biopic movies — they’re usually great Oscar fodder, true stories are appealing, and it’s fun watching celebrities pretend to be historical figures.
There’s no point asking why there aren’t as many biopics of queer figures. We all know the answer and this is not the article to discuss Hollywood’s diversity problems.
This is the article to talk about one historical queer figure and why she should be the next subject of one of the great Hollywood biopics. After all, the times they are — well, hopefully — a-changin’.


Art History: The Vatican and it's Renovation During the Renaissance

Form:  This small temple is a kind of cross between the Pantheon and the Parthenon.  It has a dome and is a central plan like the Pantheon but uses a different order, the Doric as in the Parthenon.  It is also contained within a small courtyard that was not part of its original design.   Originally, the building was to be placed in a circular colonnaded courtyard which was designed to "set off" the design of the temple itself.   According to the Brittanica, the building was "specifically inspired by the temple of Vesta at Tivoli."

Iconography:  The use of a classical design that refers back to the Parthenon and Pantheon is designed to give the building an antique and therefore authoritative and classic feel.  The circular shape is almost like a target from above and would have been even more powerful as an icon if Bramante's original plans had been followed.  As it is, the buildings shape and design are also very appropriate because the symmetrical design plays into its function which was to focus the attention of the monument on the site where St. Peter was supposedly martyred. 

Context:  The construction of the Tempietto was commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.  It's name is actually an affectionate kind of nickname.  Tempietto is an Italian nickname for small temple.

This building is specifically important in terms of context because it allowed Bramante to explore some ideas that he would later on use in his design of St. Peter's Cathedral which was rebuilt, at least at first, in central style plan. 

The Original Plan for St. Peter's from 315 CE looked nothing like it does now. 
Review of St. Peter's Original Plan 

Context: In 313 AD the Roman general, Constantine, possibly sensing the change in religious climate, had a miraculous dream and after his victory over Maxentius he adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire with his "edict of Milan."  After this happened, Roman Christians naturally adopted the traditional Roman art and architectural styles for use in the worship of Christianity. "Basilica" is a Greek word meaning "honored" and it is possible that for this reason one of the most used architectural form is the basilican plan which was used in the design of Christian churches. 
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Old St. Peter's Basilica was the 

first basilica of St. Peter's in Rome, a five-aisled basilican-plan church with apsed transept at the west end that was begun between 326 and 333 at the order of the Roman emperor Constantine and finished about 30 years later. The church was entered through an atrium called Paradise that enclosed a garden with fountains. From the atrium there were five doors into the body of the church. The nave was terminated by an arch with a mosaic of Constantine, accompanied by St. Peter, presenting a model of his church to Christ. On the clerestory walls, each pierced by 11 windows, were frescoes of the patriarchs, prophets, and Apostles and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Old St. Peter's was torn down in the early 16th century and replaced by New St. Peter's 
Form:  Although the overall plan and rising windowed nave adhere to the standard Roman basilican plan, the main differences between St. Peters Basilica and Constantine's were the materials and the technology.  Old St. Peter's Basilica was not as lavish.  Initially it had a post and beam design made of timbers rather than the groin vault and stone and concrete arches used in Constantine's basilica

The original building was torn down and new one was designed by Donato Bramante in 1502 to replace it. 

Bramante 1506 (Upper left) 
Sangallo c1510-1540? (upper right) 
Michelangelo c1546 (middle left) 
Giaccomo della Porta 1590 
Carlo Maderno 1607-15  (middle right) 
Bernini 1637 (bottom) Form:  The Plan of St. Peter's goes through several radical changes over time.  It started as a basilican tau plan ("T" shaped) in 315 CE.   When Pope Julius ordered the original building torn down Bramante designed the building to be based on a Greek cross central plan.  Unfortunately, Bramante's design was a little unstable and Sangallo redesigned the plan.  Sangallo and Michelangelo both thickened up the walls and slightly simplified Bramante's original design. 
Michelangelo also redesigned the dome and the facade of the structure.  His design was to create a more egg shaped or pointed dome than Bramante's original design because the shallow half sphere of Bramante's design was structurally a bit unstable.  Michelangelo's design was then completed by Giaccomo della Porta in 1590.

Carlo Maderno in 1607-15 didn't so much redesign the building but add to it.  Maderno lengthened the nave of the cathedral converting it from a central plan to a Latin cross basilican plan which makes the building appear as a crucifix from above.

Bernini's arms were commissioned by Pope Alexander VII (1655-67).  Bernini created the egg shaped atrium/plaza that are the "arms" of St. Peters.  The shape of the entire structure then appears to look like a key from above.

This bronze medal from the British Museum 
has an image of what Bramante originally had planned for  
St. Peter's in 1506.

Bramante 1506 (Upper left) 
Sangallo c1510-1540? (upper right) 
Michelangelo c1546 (middle left) 
Giaccomo della Porta 1590 
Carlo Maderno 1607-15  (middle right) 
Bernini 1650's (bottom)

The brick dome 138 feet in diameter rises 452 feet above the street, and 390 feet above the floor, with four iron chains for a compression ring. Four internal piers each 60 feet square.The dome is 452 ft high (above the pavement) and is buttressed by the apses and supported internally by four massive piers more than 18 meters (60 feet) thick.
—taken from John Julius Norwich, ed. Great Architecture of The World. p153.

"The medal by Caradosso (1506) and the partial plan drawn by Bramante (in the Uffizi, Florence), probably represent the earliest stage of the design, before the difficulties appeared which obliged the architect and his successors to propose, and in some cases implement, numerous changes. These changes related not only to the general conception of the plan—first a Greek cross, then a Latin one—but also to the plan of the transepts, which at one time were to have ambulatories; to the role of the Orders, first purely decorative (Bramante), then structural (Raphael, Michelangelo); and to the construction and shape of the dome, first with a single masonry shell (Bramante), then a double one (Sangallo, Michelangelo). The piers at the crossing, which were intended to support the dome, were one of the biggest problems; too slender in Bramante's plan, they were frequently reinforced... In the 17th century further important modifications were made by Bernini when he created the great colonnade that encircles the Piazza San Pietro."
—John Julius Norwich, ed. The World Atlas of Architecture. p276.

Bramante presenting his  
model to Julius

Here's what Sangallo's version of St. Peter's would have looked like based on his model.
Models were not toys in the Renaissance. They were working experiments in which the architects tried out ideas, explained concepts, competed for commissions and instructed their workmen. At a time when paper was still something of a novelty and masons could be illiterate, models were more important to the actual building process than were plans. Dozens of models were used in a major work of construction. Most of these were destroyed after their period of usefulness was over. But some lavish ones created for display have survived--including the colossal model, built to the design of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger, for St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. 
Sangallo's team, made up of highly skilled craftsmen led by Antonio Labacco, spent seven years on this detailed study of every major structural and decorative element in a church that was never built. Michelangelo changed the design after Sangallo's death--two of Michelangelo's own models for parts of the revised church were also in the show. 

The occasion for the show was the careful restoration of the Sangallo model, which itself took three years. Rotted wood was replaced with synthetic materials, stains were removed, delicate railings were re-created. Some things were not replaced--the paint imitating stucco and travertine, the row of statues around the lower tier of the dome, the metope reliefs in the frieze that runs around the whole structure, and various candelabra. But the basic elements are now restored, and are stunning. Vast quantities of fir, lime, elm and apricot were turned, carved, stamped and fitted with endless patience and ingenuity. The restored model was first taken to Venice, where most of the surviving Renaissance models were displayed around it in the Palazzo Grassi. Only half of these 28 models accompanied Sangallo's masterpiece to America. 

MICHELANGELO ON THE MALL ,  By: Wills, Garry, Civilization, May/Jun95, Vol. 2 Issue 3, p52, 6p

For more on the exhibit and more pictures, visit: 

Quoted directly from  
 "St. Peter's."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc.   November 30, 2002. 
Protected by the fortified Castel Sant'Angelo, St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Palace gained precedence over the cathedral church and Lateran Palace during the papacy's troubled centuries. St. Peter's was built over the traditional burial place of the Apostle from whom all popes claim succession. The spot was marked by a three-niched monument (aedicula) of AD 166-170. Excavations in 1940-49 revealed well-preserved catacombs, with both pagan and Christian graves dating from the period of St. Peter's burial.

Constantine enclosed the aedicula within a shrine and during the last 15 years of his life (died 337) built his basilica around it. The shrine was sheltered by a curved open canopy supported by four serpentine pillars that he brought from the Middle East. The design, enormously magnified, was followed in making the baldachin (1623-33) over today's papal altar.

In spite of fires, depredations by invaders, and additions by various popes, the original basilica stood for 1,000 years much as it had been built, but in 1506 Julius II ordered it razed and a new St. Peter's built. His architect was Donato Bramante, a Florentine who in 1502 had completed the first great masterpiece of the High Renaissance, the Tempietto in the courtyard of S. Pietro in Montorio, a mile away on the Janiculum Hill. Built to mark the spot where, according to tradition, St. Peter had been crucified, the Tempietto is round, domed, and unadorned. Its outer face is a colonnade of bare Tuscan Doric, the earliest modern use of this order. Because of its proportions, the tiny temple has the majesty of a great monument.

"St. Peter's."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc.   November 30, 2002.

For all the videos in order with a textbook and study guides please visit Udemy.

Michelangelo's Plan 

Michelangelo's dome completed by della Porta 

Bramante's ground plan for St. Peter's was central: a Greek cross, all of the arms of which are equal, around a central dome. Both he and the Pope died before much could be built. Successive architects, including Raphael, drew fresh plans. The last of them, Antonio da Sangallo, died in 1546, and the 71-year-old Michelangelo was solicited to complete Sangallo's projects, which included St. Peter's, the Palazzo Farnese, and the Capitol. He accepted but refused payment for his work on the basilica. 
Michelangelo adapted Bramante's original plan, the effect being more emotional and mighty, less classically serene. Of the exterior, only the back of the church, visible from the Vatican Gardens, and the dome are Michelangelo's. After his death Giacomo della Porta and Domenico Fontana, who executed the dome, altered the shape, making it taller and steeper than the original design.
The east end remained unfinished, and it was there that Carlo Maderno was ordered to construct a nave, the clergy having won its century-long battle to have a longitudinal church for liturgical reasons. Thus, St. Peter's orientation reverses the normal. Maderno added a Baroque facade in 1626. He was followed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who worked on the building from 1633 to 1677, both inside and outside. His pontifical crowd-funnelling colonnade in the shape of a keyhole around the piazza, a fountain for the piazza, the breathtaking baldachin, his several major pieces of sculpture, his interior arrangements for the church, and his dazzling Scala Regia (Royal Stair) to the Vatican exhibit his legendary technical brilliance and his masterful showman's flair. Before the lamentable assault in 1972, which damaged the sculptural masterpiece, one could enter the church and, in the first chapel at the right, see the "Pieta" (1499) of Michelangelo in the original splendor.

All the planning, plotting, labor, and faith of all the popes, priests, artists, and artisans produced a vast, gorgeous ceremonial chamber. Amid the gleam and glitter of gold and bronze and precious stones eddy throngs of awed, dwarfed humanity.

 "St. Peter's."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc.   November 30, 2002. 

For all the videos in order with a textbook and study guides please visit Udemy.


Queer Teens Find a Home Onstage

How queer youth theatre groups are shaping, and saving, the lives of new generations of artists and activists.
Queer theatre and activism often go hand-in-hand. From Larry Kramer documenting the early days of the AIDS epidemic in The Normal Heart to Taylor Mac putting the outsiders of U.S. history centerstage in A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, there are countless examples of work in the queer theatre tradition that strive to, as Mac says, “dream the culture forward.”
While the more well-known artists/activists doing this work run the gamut from Yale professors to emerging rock stars, there’s one group of queer theatre activists that may be flying under the radar: teenagers. Across the country, theatre groups are working with queer youth and their allies to promote self-expression, engage communities, and inspire change through theatre.
“Our youth programming is over 50 percent of what we do on a daily basis,” says Evelyn Francis, director of programs for The Theater Offensive in Boston, whose True Colors: Out Youth Theaterprogram is the longest-running queer youth program in the country. “We’re working with young people all over the community, and we provide training in performing arts and social justice as well as leadership. We were founded in 1994, so we have a long history of building this work.”


Zachary Z. Handler and Nick Horan (photo by Kiirstn Pagan)

A Wedding Ceremony Takes the Shape of an Art Exhibition

In Baltimore, two artists have upended the traditional wedding, realizing it as a month-long gallery exhibition and queer performance series.
Zachary Z. Handler and Nick Horan’s wedding at Miami Is Nice at SpaceCamp, Baltimore (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)
BALTIMORE — The global wedding market is a $300 billion industry where romance has been manipulated to such a high degree that getting married is often the most expensive endeavor of one’s life, aside from buying a home. Although wedding traditions appear to be governed by an iron (or platinum) fist, it’s shocking to realize that major retailers invented most of our customs — including the white dress, diamond ring, and gift registry — in the past 80 years. What is most alarming is how little Americans deviate from capitalist heteronormative wedding practices, despite the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, and how divisive weddings remain — for couples, extended families, and all who believe that love, not your gender or race, determines the right to marry.
Who better than artists to challenge and reclaim this oppressive system as a unique declaration of love? In Baltimore, two artists have upended the traditional wedding, realizing it as a month-long gallery exhibition and queer performance series. Miami is Nice, hosted at SpaceCamp, a cavernous artist-run gallery, features work by 45 artists from across the country and looks nothing like a traditional wedding, except for the cheesecake station, but manages to celebrate the aesthetics and values of grooms Zachary Z. Handler and Nick Horan in a variety of unique ways.


Art History: Women's Roles During the Renaissance

Context and Iconography: The Male Gaze

The series of images at the left are almost major landmarks in understanding the Renaissance conception of the difference between male and female roles.  Images such as these and the writings of Reniassance authors, such as those by Castiglione and Christine de Pizan are in some ways representative of the "ideal" roles for each gender.  Since images like this were primarily commissioned by male patrons and made by male artists some historians have named this phenomena the "male gaze."

Leonardo and his contemporaries literally believed that, "Man is the measure of all things."  In this drawing we see that Leonardo takes this idea almost quite literally and scientifically.  Leonardo, consistent with classical thinking, chooses to represent the nude male figure rather than the nude female.  This choice is quite deliberate because much of the thinking concerning classical humanism revolves around the specifically male experience of the world.  In fact, authors like Castiglione specifically look on men who have, 

. . .such a countenance as this is, will I have our Courtier to have, and not be so soft and womanish as many procure to have: that do not only curl the hair, and pick the brows, but also pamper themselves in every point like the most wanton and dishonest women in the world. One would think that in the way they walk, stand, and in all their gestures so tender and weak, that their limbs were ready to fall apart. Their pronunciation and language are effeminate. These men, seeing that nature has not made them women, ought not to be esteemed in place of good women, but like common Harlots to be banished, not only out of princes’ courts, but also out of the company of Gentlemen. To come therefore to the quality of the person,
Catiglione, Excerpt from the "Courtier"

Images of Mary can almost always be traced back to the Gothic depiction of Mary as the "Throne of Wisdom."   In most images, such as in these by Giotto and Leonardo, she not only serves as a mother but as a platform or throne for her child.  Stokstad refers to this as symbolic of the old testament references to the Lion Throne of King Solomon who is known as a wise and fair ruler and judge, but it is also a communication of the male conceived ideal of what the perfect woman should be.

Even when the Renaissance artist breaks with tradition and begins to think critically about the new roles of men and women, as in the Arnolfini wedding portrait and Christine de Pizan's writings, we still can see that both support the concept that there are appropriate roles for males and females in the world. 

God has similarly ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices and also to aid and comfort one another, each in their ordained task, and to each sex has given a fitting and appropriate nature and inclination to fulfill their offices. Inasmuch as the human species often errs in what it is supposed to do, God gives men strong and hardy bodies for coming and going as well as for speaking boldly. And for this reason, men with this nature learn the laws - and must do so - in order to keep the world under the rule of justice and, in case anyone does not wish to obey the statutes which have been ordained and established by reason of law, are required to make them obey with physical constraint and force of arms, a task which women could never accomplish. Nevertheless, though God has given women great understanding 

Christine de Pizan's The Book of the City of Ladies 1405

In the case of the Arnolfini portrait, the role is that of the good wife.  Notice that being a wife is also being a good mother and we can see this symbolically in Giovanna Cenami's swelling belly and bunched up drapery which symbolizes pregnancy according to Panofsky.

Both Castiglione and de Pizan seem to warn us off of changing the male and female roles and sticking to what we know or is prescribed in the Bible.  In fact, many images of females who break out of these traditional roles, such as the biblical women, Eve, Judith, and Suzanne and the not so biblilical Phyllis are responsible for our down fall and in this case of Eve for our "original sin." 

Form:  This is a simple sketch in pen and ink that was probably a preliminary drawing for an engraving or a painting.  The anatomy is rather stiff and less gestural than those of his contemporary Italian counterparts.
Space is created through a size scale relationship of foreground to background and a variation of marks in the background buildings indicates a use of atmospheric perspective. 

Grien uses cross contour lines (lines that literally follow the direction across the curves of the trunks) to indicate the texture of the tree and cross hatching to develop the value structure of the figures and their drapery in the foreground.  These linear techniques would have been important for a printmaker to master.

Iconography:  The them of an "ill matched couple," which usually depicts a young and beautiful maiden in the company of an older man is a common them in Renaissance art of the North.  In many images the younger woman has her hand on the purse of the older man but in this case the subject matter of the image is a young beautiful woman dressed in Renaissance clothing of the Northern style riding around or taming an older man. Images like this were meant to be a warning to men of the power of inappropriate passion and a warning against the sexual powers of young woman.

Context: More specifically this relates to the story of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher and Phyllis, the wife of his pupil Alexander the Great.  According to the Brittanica, 

"in late 343 or early 342 Aristotle, at about the age of 42, was invited by Philip II of Macedon to his capital at Pella to tutor his 13-year-old son, Alexander. As the leading intellectual figure in Greece, Aristotle was commissioned to prepare Alexander for his future role as a military leader. As it turned out, Alexander was to dominate the Greek world and defend it against the Persian Empire."
This union of older philosopher master was the beginning of a nearly lifelong advisory position for Aristotle. 
Alexander respected the superior intellect of Aristotle in all things and felt that Aristotle represented the ideal intellectual who represented a total mastery of the intellectual over the physical self.  (Remember the Apollonian Dionysian conflict?) 

Phyllis questioned Aristsotles absolute control and according to legend made a bet with Alexander that she could show him that passion was stronger than reason.  She began to flirt with Aristotle.  After inflaming Aristotle with lust, he began to beg for a sexual trist.  Phyllis informed Alexander that she had the proof he sought and instructed Alexander to hide in the bushes and watch while she literally mad an "ass" out of Aristotle. 

In order to get what he wanted, Aristotle had to agree to do whatever Phyllis wanted.  She instructed Aristotle to get down on all fours and allow her to ride him around the courtyard. 

Form:  In this variation of the theme, the two figures are nude and the total environment is much more worked out.  This image indicates a fairly good use of anatomy and perspective and shows more of a development of the mark making discussed in Grien's drawing.  The development of the vocabulary of marks would have been important for Grien to be able to make a high quality engraving. 


In engraving, the design is cut into metal with a graver or burin. The burin is a steel rod with a square or lozenge-shaped section and a slightly bent shank. The cutting is accomplished by pushing the burin into the metal plate. The deeper it penetrates into the metal, the wider the line; variations in depth create the swelling tapering character of the engraved line. After the engraving is finished, the slight burr raised by the graver is cleaned off with a scraper. The engraved line is so sharp and clean that it asserts itself even if cut over a densely etched area. In the print, the engraved line is notable for its precision and intensity. In engraving, the hand does not move freely in any direction but pushes the graver forward in a line; a change of direction is achieved by the manipulation of the plate with the other hand. Although copper, zinc, aluminum, and magnesium plates are used--and in the past soft iron and even steel were used--the best all-around metal is copper. It has the most consistent structure and is neither too soft nor too hard.
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Context: In the North, places like Germany, France and Holland, the art market was a bit different than in Italy.  Although the Reformation did not officially begin until 1518, there were stirrings of it earlier than that. 

In Northern towns and cities, there was a different distrubution of wealth and probably a larger upper middle class than in Italy.  In addition to these factors, the main patron for the arts was in Italy in the Churches of Rome, Padua and Florence.  Since individuals could afford to buy work for smaller prices many artists sought out this different market. The print market allowed artists to sell multiple copies of the same images to a larger number of people and make as much money from it as the sale of one or two paintings.

This also freed some of the artists from the typical more Catholic or overtly religious iconography of much of the art of the South and allowed them to explore other kinds of imagery and subjects.

Iconography:  Stokstad describes the iconography of this image as a "moral lesson on the power of evil" but more than that, Stokstad discusses the use of images of witches in his images as an expression of evil.  It is interesting that this is one of the roles that older, perhaps unattractive woman were accused of during the Renaissance and well into the 1800's.  In some ways, the depiction of witches in the art of the Renaissance represents the anti-ideal for a woman.  In this way, woman are still provided with a role model of what not to become. 

Form and Context: 

Woodcut is the technique of printing designs from planks of wood. . . It is one of the oldest methods of making prints from a relief surface, having been used in China to decorate textiles since the 5th century AD. In Europe, printing from wood blocks on textiles was known from the early 14th century, but it had little development until paper began to be manufactured in France and Germany at the end of the 14th century. . . In Bavaria, Austria, and Bohemia, religious images and playing cards were first made from wood blocks in the early 15th century, and the development of printing from movable type led to widespread use of woodcut illustrations in the Netherlands and in Italy. With the 16th century, black-line woodcut reached its greatest perfection with Albrecht Dürer and his followers Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein. In the Netherlands Lucas van Leyden and in Italy Jacopo de' Barbari and Domenico Campagnola, who were, like Dürer, engravers on copper, also made woodcuts.

As wood is a natural material, its structure varies enormously and this exercises a strong influence on the cutting. Wood blocks are cut plankwise. The woods most often used are pear, rose, pine, apple, and beech. The old masters preferred fine-grained hardwoods because they allow finer detail work than softwoods, but modern printmakers value the coarse grain of softwoods and often incorporate it into the design.

The printing of woodcuts is a relatively simple process because it does not require great pressure. Although presses are used, even hand rubbing with a wooden spoon can produce a good print. The ink used to print woodcuts must be fairly solid and sticky, so that it lies on the surface without flowing into the hollows. The printing ink can be deposited on the relief either with dabbers or with rollers. Thinner papers are particularly suitable for woodcuts because they make rich prints without heavy pressure.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

TIZIANO Vecellio (Titian) The Venus of Urbino 1538 Oil on canvas, 119 x 165 cm 
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italian Renaissance

In the background of Titian’s painting entitled "The Venus of Urbino" (1538) are two women looking inside or placing things inside a chest. This chest or cassone is most likely a dowry chest, in which case the women are then preparing the chest with gifts for the upcoming nuptials. Venus, the goddess of beauty, nude in the foreground, presides over the event, but there’s something wrong with this picture. Venus is really the Duke of Urbino’s courtesan (mistress) and the title of the painting is just a disguise to make a nearly pornographic portrait palatable. This kind of double meaning in a painting is common during the Renaissance especially in portrayals of women.

What is also interesting about this images is that the artist chose to juxtapose the eroticized female form with commodities or luxury items.  By playing the textures and body of the female against expensive fabrics, fur, fruit, and dowery chest containing the family jewels and porcelain, the artist is also making the human female form another commodity which can be bought and sold.  In this way, the wealth of the patron is also eroticized.  This device is played off again and again throughout the history of art.

The cassone is a familiar object in the upper class Renaissance home. Provided by the bride’s family and kept throughout her life the chest is symbol of her marriage. The decorations on the chest are designed to educate the woman who owns it. The images that adorn cassoni relate familiar classical and biblical narratives concerning the lives of great women. For example, San Francisco’s "Legion of Honor" has a panel from a cassone by Jacopo del Sellaio that depicts the "Legend of Brutus and Portia," circa 1485. Both Plutarch (AD 46-119), a Greek historian, and Shakespeare (1554-1616) in his play "Julius Caesar," depict Portia as a strong and loyal wife. In Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar," Portia exclaims, "Think you I am no stronger than my sex, Being so fathered and so husbanded?" (Act 2, i, 319-320) and stabs herself in the leg to prove to Brutus that she can bear any discomfort for him. After she learns of Brutus’ defeat, she kills herself by swallowing hot coals. Another cassone from the Louvre depicts the Old Testament story of Queen Esther and her self-sacrificing patriotic acts that saved the Jewish people. The subtext of these tales is not just loyalty but self-sacrificing loyalty in the face of adversity.

Titian's painting has been the subject of much observation.  It's interesting that so much positive "press" has been associated with this image considering how much it has been vilified in the past.  Mark Twain, in his biography Tramp Abroad, recorded his response to his encounter with the Titian painting:

You enter [the Uffizi] and proceed to that most-visited little gallery that exists in the world --the Tribune-- and there, against the wall, without obstructing rap or leaf, you may look your fill upon the foulest, the vilest, the obscenest picture the world possesses -- Titian's Venus. It isn't that she is naked and stretched out on a bed --no, it is the attitude of one of her arms and hand. If I ventured to describe that attitude there would be a fine howl --but there the Venus lies for anybody to gloat over that wants to --and there she has a right to lie, for she is a work of art, and art has its privileges. I saw a young girl stealing furtive glances at her; I saw young men gazing long and absorbedly at her, I saw aged infirm men hang upon her charms with a pathetic interest. How I should like to describe her --just to see what a holy indignation I could stir up in the world...yet the world is willing to let its sons and its daughters and itself look at Titian's beast, but won't stand a description of it in words....There are pictures of nude women which suggest no impure thought -- I am well aware of that. I am not railing at such. What I am trying to emphasize is the fact that Titian's Venus is very far from being one of that sort. Without any question it was painted for a bagnio and it was probably refused because it was a trifle too strong. In truth, it is a trifle too strong for any place but a public art gallery.

Now that you know how Twain felt about this work.  This poem by Browning discusses a similar painting.   It is used by the narrator of the poem as a point of departure to discuss how he feels about his last wife and how he feels women should behave.  As you read it, try to relate the painting above to it. 

"My Last Duchess" - Robert Browning - 1842

  1   That's my last Duchess painted on the wall, 
  2   Looking as if she were alive. I call 
  3   That piece a wonder, now; Frà Pandolf's hands 
  4   Worked busily a day, and there she stands. 
  5   Will't please you sit and look at her? I said 
  6   "Frà Pandolf" by design, for never read 
  7   Strangers like you that pictured countenance, 
  8   The depth and passion of its earnest glance, 
  9   But to myself they turned (since none puts by 
10   The curtain I have drawn for you, but I) 
11   And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst, 
12   How such a glance came there; so, not the first 
13   Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not 
14   Her husband's presence only, called that spot 
15   Of joy into the Duchess' cheek; perhaps 
16   Fra Pandolf chanced to say, "Her mantle laps 
17   Over my lady's wrist too much," or "Paint 
18   Must never hope to reproduce the faint 
19   Half-flush that dies along her throat." Such stuff 
20   Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough 
21   For calling up that spot of joy. She had 
22   A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad, 
23   Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er 
24   She looked on, and her looks went everywhere. 
25   Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast, 
26   The dropping of the daylight in the West, 
27   The bough of cherries some officious fool 
28   Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule 
29   She rode with round the terrace - all and each 
30   Would draw from her alike the approving speech, 
31   Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! but thanked 
32   Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked 
33   My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name 
34   With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame 
35   This sort of trifling? Even had you skill 
36   In speech - which I have not - to make your will 
37   Quite clear to such an one, and say "Just this 
38   Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss, 
39   Or there exceed the mark" - and if she let 
40   Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set 
41   Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse - 
42   E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose 
43   Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt, 
44   Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without 
45   Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands; 
46   Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands 
47   As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet 
48   The company below, then. I repeat, 
49   The Count your master's known munificence 
50   Is ample warrant that no just pretense 
51   Of mine for dowry will be disallowed; 
52   Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed 
53   At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go 
54   Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though, 
55   Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity, 
56   Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me.