Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Luxuria
  • Creator: Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano), painter
  • Description:

    Although this drawing is titled Luxuria, the woman featured in the image is not an allegory of luxury but rather of lust . Her body is gaunt and muscular; her hip bone is angular and prominent, she is not buxom; her arms, stomach, and legs are taut; her hair is a halo of tight curls. She reclines on a thick cloak of hair and a hare sniffs around her feet. None of these features conform to either Gothic or Renaissance ideals of beauty. Therefore, it is highly possible that Pisanello drew this model from life.

    Jill Burke has proposed that Luxuria is the image of an African slave girl brought to Italy. African slave girls were seen as sexually available to their masters, and this may be one reason for the title of the work. She declares that naked African people and animality were connected in the Italian Renaissance mind. The animality of Luxuria is stressed by the hare at her feet, as well as the fur cloak underneath her. She is presented like an exotic cheetah, laid out for the curiosity of a courtly audience that would have been especially interested at that time in a visual exploration of the boundaries of the human.

    It has been proposed by Catherine Kovesi that this image of Luxuria represents a profane type of Aphrodite. Greek Aphrodite was the goddess of love and fertility, and she possessed two genealogies. The first, in Homer’s Iliad (V. 363), states that she is the child of Zeus and the sea nymph Dione. In this case, she represents profane love and is called Aphrodite Pandemos.

    The second story about her birth is elaborated upon by Hesiod in the Theogony (II. 176-206). According to this work, Aphrodite was born from the blood of a castrated Uranus (god of the heavens) that dripped into the sea, and she personifies divine love. Often times, this type of Aphrodite is depicted on a scallop shell with dolphins; her shell or chariot is drawn by swans or doves; Cupid hovers nearby; she often wears a magical girdle which gives her the ability to conjure feelings of love in others.

    However, Pisanello’s Luxuria does not possess any of these attributes typically attributed to divine Aphrodite, nor is she represented in her traditional pose. Before the sixteenth-century, Aphrodite was most commonly depicted in an attempt to hide her nakedness, her arms covering her breasts and pubic area in a show of modesty.

    Pisanello’s Luxuria does not express any such modesty. Rather, she is stretched out in an uncomfortable pose and calmly displays her anatomy. Quite unlike the Aphrodite who attempts to cover her genitals, Luxuria raises her upper leg so both legs are parted. Her body is clearly suggestive of sex, but not fertility or health, images of which abound in paintings that depict the quality of life under the influence of divine Aphrodite.

    Kovesi also argues that Pisanello’s depiction of lust is ambivalently gendered and on the verge of hermaphroditic metamorphosis. One of the details that supports this proposal is the hare located at Luxuria’s feet. Pliny and Archelaus state that the hare is hermaphroditic, and Aelian elaborates upon this point. In On Animals, he claims that the male hare is capable of bearing fetuses, and that it possesses the sexual characteristics of both males and females. The hare at the feet of Luxuria suggests an unsettling metamorphosis of this female figure and calls her gender into question.

    The hairy cloak on which Luxuria lies is another feature that implies the ambivalence of her gender. Her cloak is probably made of goat hair, a claim that is supported by images of Voluptas riding goats, goats pulling the chariot of Cupid, and the account of a Greek traveller who recorded having seen a statue of Aphrodite Pendemos riding a he-goat. The association of Luxuria with goats is important for the sake of Kovesi’s argument, as the goat’s horn is used as a phallic symbol to represent the cornucopia; both male and female goats have horns; goat hair links Luxuria with Aphrodite Pandemos and Voluptas, but also Dionysius, the goat-god and father of both Cupid and the well-endowed Priapus. All of these associations suggest that Pisanello’s Luxuria is neither male, nor female, but both simultaneously.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): African Women Blacks Gender Goat, Image of Hair Hare, Image of Hermaphrodites Lust Luxuria Nude Phallus Sexuality Venus (Mythological Figure)
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: 1425- 1439
  • Related Work:
  • Current Location: Vienna, Albertina Museum, Graphische Sammlung, 24018r
  • Original Location: Northern Italy
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Drawings;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Pen; Brown ink;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 129/152/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bull, Malcolm. The Mirror of the Gods. Oxford University Press, 2005. Pgs. 188-189;
    Burke, Jill. "Nakedness and Other Peoples: Rethinking the Italian Renaissance Nude." Art History, Vol. 36, No. 4 (2013): 715-739;
    Kovesi, Catherine. "Engendering Lust in Early-Modern Italy: Pisanello's Luxuria." in Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe edited by Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock. Brepols, 2008. Pgs. 137-150;
    Migiel, Marilyn. "The Dignity of Man: A Feminist Prespective." in Re-Figuring Woman: Perspectives on Gender and the Italian Renaissance edited by Marilyn Migiel and Juliana Schiesari. Cornell University Press, 1991. Pgs. 211-232.