The Italian Renaissance Nude investigates the nude as a means of asserting the superiority of men to women and of naturalising power differentials by entrenching them in a fixed set of ideas about the body and its representation. In this post, author Jill Burke focuses on the issue of female life models who posed for Renaissance artists by looking at the example of Imperia Cognati, a Roman courtesan and the mistress of Raphael’s patron Agostino Chigi.
Imperia Cognati: Courtesan, Life Model and Raphael’s Muse?
In the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, there is a drawing by Raphael of a woman, completely naked aside from her hair wrap. Looking slightly down, she covers her breasts and genitalia with her hands in a pose that mimics that of the famous classical sculptural type the Venus Pudica. It seems unlikely though, given the hair covering and the plump softness of the body here that this is after a sculpture. Could this be a life drawing? If so, it is one of the earliest drawings after a nude female model in existence. In a society that strongly condemned the nakedness of women, what were the circumstances that prompted this model to allow Raphael to gaze at her naked body?
Life drawing – a naked man or woman standing in front of one or more artists as they observe the form of their body and record it on paper – is potentially profoundly awkward. After all, there are very few occasions in everyday life where we have visual access to a stranger’s naked body, let alone being invited to really stare at it. My new book, The Italian Renaissance Nude, considers how this process started in the Florentine workshops of the later fifteenth century, when male models would pose naked or near naked to be drawn in a variety of poses. Male models were more common in workshops partly because of the belief that the male body was more perfect than the female, but also because it was much less socially problematic for men to be seen naked than women.
This has led to the assumption that Renaissance artists only used male life models but this is not the case. There is the occasional existing drawing after a female model in the fifteenth century, though very few. It’s only in the early sixteenth century that we see artists drawing after female models consistently – and even then there were anxieties about what the relationship between model and artist might have been. As the writer Lodovico Domenichi claimed in 1549: ‘if I had a beautiful and graceful woman in my house, I would do anything else than let her be pray to a saucy and foolhardy artist, most likely young and lusty; God knows if she would return intact and inviolate!’
So who were these female models? Some of them, as the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini’s biography suggests, were domestic servants; some of them were, as a letter by the painter Titian explains, ‘whores’. Women would pose naked for payment – as shown in the account books of another Venetian painter, Lorenzo Lotto. Much information has been irrevocably lost to us but I wonder in the case of the Raphael drawing here if there is a correlation between this model and the birth of courtesan culture in Renaissance Rome.
The term ‘cortegiana’ – the Italian equivalent to the English ‘courtesan’ – was coined in Roman elite circles in the 1490s. It was used to describe those women who were the consorts of the (necessarily unmarried) clerics of the papal court. One of the first renowned courtesans was Imperia Cognati, documented from around 1506 to her death in 1512, probably from suicide. She was the mistress of Raphael’s important Roman patron, the wealthy Sienese merchant Agostino Chigi, and was something of a Renaissance celebrity. The poet Matteo Bandello, who visited her in 1508 was later to describe the furnishing of her house in great detail – ‘any foreigner who went in would think that a princess lived there’.
The house that Bandello visited was on the Borgo San Pietro, a new street opened by Pope Alexander VI that leads up to the Vatican. This was near Raphael’s Roman residence and perhaps had on its façade a fresco of a naked Venus, now lost, but attributed to Raphael in early sources. Most of the evidence about Imperia – as with other courtesans – is gleaned from romanticising poetry, and can be difficult to verify, or link to biographical information. What is certainly true is that she was the focus of much attention from the male literary elite in Rome, receiving poems of praise (and sometimes satire) from various humanists; this reached a peak shortly after her death, with three short books published in her honour that both celebrated her beauty and made moral points about its fleeting nature. One epigram by a poet in Chigi’s circle, Marcantonio Casanova, suggests that Raphael (characterised as Apelles here) depicted Imperia naked:
Whilst Vulcan saw the naked Imperia by Apelles,
He examined the nude and affirmed ‘Venus is here’.
Can we relate our Budapest drawing to this poem? Could it be Imperia standing naked in the guise of Venus? Certainly, whoever this woman is, she was taking part in social circles where social and moral conventions were pushed to one side in favour of recapturing a classical past that had very different ideas about the morality of female nakedness. It’s a symptom of the attitudes to women in this period, that Imperia exists to us now largely as a fragment of the imagination of male painters and poets. Even if she is not the woman in our drawing, I hope the research in Chapter Four of my book will help to restore real women to the history of the Italian Renaissance nude.
Jill Burke is a prize-winning researcher in Italian Renaissance art history, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and associate editor of Renaissance Studies.