The decision by the Royal Academy (RA) to impose gender quotas on the Renaissance nudes it shows next year can be understood in various ways.
You can see it as a sympathetic #MeToo gesture aimed at restoring the imbalance between the sexes. Or you can see it as a cheap publicity stunt. In art historical terms, what it most clearly is, is an attack on Michelangelo.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling in Rome is widely considered to be the greatest painting ever made. Unfortunately, even if its loan could somehow be miraculously arranged for the RA next year, it could not be shown because it catastrophically fails the new gender quotas.
Although the Sistine Ceiling is packed with nudes, Eve at the centre is just about the only naked female on view. The vast majority of the displaying figures, including the famous ignudi who are said to have changed the course of art, are male. To restore a gender balance to the Sistine Ceiling you would need to chisel out hundreds of nude males, including the famous Adam whose finger almost touches the finger of God, and leave behind the most representative Eve.
The extraordinary thing is, these kinds of drastic efforts at social engineering in art have previously been attempted. When the puritanical Dutch pope, Adrian VI, arrived in Rome in 1522, he described the Sistine Chapel as a stufa — a bathhouse. After Michelangelo’s death, Pius IV hired a painter called Daniele da Volterra to cover up the nudes in the Last Judgment with fig leaves and loincloths. Most of them are still there, earning Volterra the inglorious nickname of Il Braghettone — “the breeches painter”.
And Michelangelo’s trials with the nude didn’t end there. His Risen Christ in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome is a full-length naked figure. The Bible states clearly that when Jesus rose from the dead, he left his loincloth behind in the sepulchre. So that’s how Michelangelo sculpted him.
But later generations of churchmen, appalled by Christ’s nudity, had a special bronze loincloth made to hide the offending divine bits. This loincloth goes on and off depending on the religious mood prevailing at the Vatican. During the reign of the liberal Pope John XXIII, it came off. Under the dour Polish Pope John Paul II, it went back on.
For the Royal Academy, the resort to social engineering creates a particular problem with Michelangelo. The only Michelangelo sculpture in Britain, the renowned Taddei Tondo, happens to be owned by the RA. Artistically and commercially, its value is incalculable. But the two nudes it contains — the infants Jesus and John the Baptist — are both male.
To achieve a gender balance in the Taddei Tondo, the Academy would need to chip off John the Baptist, leave Christ as he is, remove the robes from the Virgin Mary, and resculpt her as a nude.
It’s a drastic step, but drastic times require drastic solutions.