Art, Art History and Design, School of


Date of this Version



Published in Jonietz, F., M. Richter, A.G. Stewart (eds.), Indecent Bodies in Early Modern Visual Culture. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2023

doi 10.5117/9789463725835_intro


Copyright © 2023 Fabian Jonietz, Mandy Richter, Alison G. Stewart


Indecency ‒ the polar opposite of propriety, appropriateness, respectability, decorum ‒ has played a central role in our understanding of Early Modern cultural norms since the beginning of art history as an academic field in the nineteenth century. Accordingly, the concept of indecency was fundamental to historical and contemporary discourses that attempted to balance social limits on indecorous behaviour and images. At the same time, the appeal of such visual imagery, the attraction of graphic depictions of bodies and their actions, resulted in conflicting responses on the part of viewers. Historically, decency and indecency played defining roles in both the idea of the ‘Renaissance’ and its characteristics. The nineteenth-century view of this period ‒ notably shaped by Jacob Burckhardt and his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) ‒ not surprisingly saw the Renaissance as the birthplace of modern individualism, and with it ideas of the idealised, the classical, ‘clean’ beauty, and striving for grace.1 Since the 1950s, the idea of the European Renaissance north and south of the Alps has expanded to include the struggle between decorous and indecorous elements, a fact acknowledged within art history, cultural studies, and philology following Eugenio Battisti’s L’Antirinascimento (‘The Anti-Renaissance’, 1964), the ground-breaking work of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965, English translation 1984), and the general reassessment of sixteenth-century Mannerism.2 The alleged individualism of Renaissance men and women led Stephen Greenblatt (Renaissance Self-Fashioning, 1980) and the large field of studies addressing selffashioning to acknowledge that being socially improper or indecent had become, in fact, equally important to individualism for Early Modern society and courts.