If Bronzino’s Allegory, thus, offers both Venus and Cupid to the viewer as sexual objects, it is worth pointing out that Bronzino later produced another portrait of Venus and Cupid in which this ‘bisexual’ eroticism was even more explicit. Venus and Cupid and a Satyr was completed sometime around 1553–54 and is now on display in one of the galleries of the Palazzo Colonna in Rome (Figure 10.2). In this painting, the nude bodies of Venus and Cupid are again portrayed as potential sources of pleasure for the viewer, but this time there are no allegorical elements included in the composition, so the erotic nature of the image is more evident. Moreover, Venus and Cupid both lie in suggestive positions, and they lie parallel to one another as if to indicate that they are two parallel roads to pleasure. Crucially, this version of the painting also includes a satyr who stands in for the voyeuristic viewer and who gazes lustfully at the central pair. The satyr’s lechery is clearly signaled by his wagging tongue, his leering eyes, and his grasping hand, but significantly, it is impossible to tell who the satyr is looking at: his gaze cuts diagonally across both figures from Cupid’s bottom to Venus’ lap, and then, appropriately enough, to the tip of the arrow that Venus holds.
If we want to better understand the eroticism of Bronzino’s paintings, we need to put it in its proper historical context. In this case, I believe that an important part of that context is the debates from the period about whether women or boys provide more sexual pleasure. This type of ‘debate’ appears to have been popular in early modern Italy. The genre can, however, be traced back to classical antiquity. The best-known classical example is Plutarch’s Eroticus (sometimes also called the Erotikon), which takes the form of a dialogue between two male characters: one is an advocate of the love of women, and the other an advocate of the love of boys. A second well-known classical example is the Erotes, which was previously attributed to Lucian, but is now thought to have been written by an imitator sometime in the fourth century CE. This text is actually a romance-like narrative, but at one point in the middle of the story, two of the characters – Charícles and Callicratídas – engage in a debate where they discuss the pleasures to be had with women and boys.
This type of debate continued to be popular throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The most extensive early modern example is found in Antonio Rocco’s L’Alcibiade fancuillo a scola (c. 1652). Rocco was a friar who taught philosophy at a convent in Venice, and his book is structured as a pseudo-philosophical dialogue between Alcibiades and his teacher Filotimo. At one point, the pupil asks his teacher, ‘tell me, I pray you, whether one receives greater pleasure with boys than with women, and if so why?’ Filotimo’s response to this question runs on for several pages. He begins by laying out some of the reasons why ‘many ... say that the greatest delights are to be taken with women,’ but Filotimo does not spend much time discussing these delights. He spends much more time extolling the pleasures to be had with boys. He rhapsodizes, for instance, about ‘these round cushions, fresh and velvet-smooth, which frolic against your thigh ... [and] heighten your pleasure.’ ‘Isn’t that alone,’ he asks, ‘worth all the pleasure, real as well as imaginary, that one can taste with women?’ Thus, Rocco’s L’Alcibiade is somewhat different from the earlier texts in this genre, in that it is not truly balanced or dialogic in its format. Nevertheless, it clearly situates itself within this tradition, and the rhetoric and arguments that Filotimo uses are often drawn directly from earlier texts.
Rocco’s L’Alcibiade also includes several odes in an appendix to the text that again compare women and boys. One of them, for instance, begins with the question:
Sentite o voi, poeti peccoroni,
Che non avé ceval né fantasia,
Mi saperesti dir se meglio sia
Frotter sotto vestura o né calzoni?
[Oh cheating poets, tell us true;
Which is the finer thing to do;
Under a frock to take your chance.
Or in some pretty schoolboy’s pants?]
Later, the speaker insists that although some of the ‘cheating poets’ will undoubtedly say that they prefer women, they are lying and he himself does not hesitate to admit that he prefers boys:
Ben io lo so, ch’alcun de’miei coglioni
Di potta mai provaron li suoi guazzi,
Ma sol del culiseo li fei patroni.
[But as for me, I am not able
To speak a lie, nor tell a fable.
No cunt my balls will ever see;
Against a lovely bum they’ll be.]
Here, the speaker’s attitude toward the ‘debate’ is ultimately quite similar to that of Filotimo. He poses a question about whether the poets get more pleasure ‘under a frock’ or in a ‘schoolboy’s pants,’ and, therefore, it appears as if there are two possible routes to pleasure and two possible answers to this question, but by the end of the poem, it becomes evident that there is really only one ‘honest’ answer.
If Rocco’s L’Alcibiade is, therefore, less dialogic than the earlier texts in this genre, there are other sources from the Renaissance that are more in line with the classical tradition. Take, as an example, the dueling poems by Francesco Berni and Francesco Molza of Modena that were included in sixteenth-century collections of Italian burlesque verse. These poems ostensibly compare the pleasures to be gotten from eating different types of fruit, but they are in fact thinly veiled comparisons of different types of erotic pleasure. First, in 1522, Berni wrote a ‘Capitolo delle pesche’ (Encomium to peaches) in which he celebrates peaches, which were associated with boys’ bottoms. Then, in response, Molza wrote his own ‘Capitolo de fichi’ (Encomium to figs) in praise of the vagina, which I will discuss below. Still later, Annibale Caro produced an elaborate mock-commentary on Molza’s poem.
Berni’s ‘Capitolo delle Pesche’ begins with an acknowledgement that there are many different types of fruits and that they are all pleasing:
Tutte le frutte, in tutte le stagioni,
come dire mele ...
pere, susine, ci[l]iegie e poponi,
son bone, a chi le piacen, secche e fresche;
ma, s’i’avessi ad esser giudice io,
le non hanno da far[e] nulla con la pesche.
[All the fruits, in all the seasons,
such as apples ...
pears, plums, cherries and melons,
Are good for those that like them, dried and fresh;
but if I were to be a judge,
they fall short of peaches.]
The fruits that Berni mentions here were all associated with eroticized body parts: apples with buttocks, pears with penises, plums with vaginas, cherries with the anus and melons with the bottom. Moreover, the line explaining that these fruits could be enjoyed either ‘dry or fresh’ was meant to be a playful allusion to different types of intercourse: anal (dry) and vaginal (fresh/wet). But if Berni’s poem, thus, begins with an acknowledgement of the variety of erotic ‘tastes’ that people had during this period, the speaker eventually announces his own decided preference for peaches. He contends, moreover, that other people are coming to appreciate this fruit more and more. As he puts it,
Le pesche eran già cibo da prelati,
ma, perché ad ognum piace i bon bocconi,
voglion oggi le pesche insin ai frati,
che fanno l’astinenzie e l’orazioni.
[Peaches were for a long time food for prelates,
but since everyone likes a good meal,
even friars, who fast and pray,
crave for peaches today.]