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ROME: Passion in the Eternal City
ROME: Passion in the Eternal City
by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN Contributing Writer

ROME, Italy - The vaguest thought of the city evokes ancient ruins, chanting priests, delicious food, and, of course, some of the most awe-inspiring art in the world. The words "sensual" and "homoeroticism" aren't usually associated with Rome, but they definitely have a place there - at least in the artwork. Paintings and statuary from such masters as Titian, Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Bernini seem to drip with sinful delights almost as if they were meant as a private joke on those religious sorts who commissioned them.

Spending time in the "Eternal City," I was amazed at just how much eroticism was exposed within the boundaries of these great masters. For either gender or personal orientation, sensuality can be found easily in what's considered to be one of the holiest places on earth. Differing from nudity, they imply a certain subtle arousal without blatant sexual acts. It can be found in a pose or a gesture, something that titillates and teases us with a warm sensation running through our bodies and a whisper of promised pleasure.

In the works of Gian Lorenzo Bernini - perhaps the master of breathing life into stone - passion is the first word that comes to mind. The force in which Pluto abducts Proserpine (circa 1622) is shown as his fingers press into her marbled flesh and we see the imprints on her thigh. The positioning of both figures shows no genitals, but a seductiveness of implication. Proserpine's body is turned in struggle and her feminine beauty flares outward. Pluto's strength is shown in the tension of his arms as he holds tightly onto his Queen-to-be. His stance has his legs apart, curving his back and buttocks, as he pulls the young goddess to his hip. The hint of pubic hair escapes from the carved cloth that flows between them. Even in the force of attack, Bernini has found a way to tease us with both human and god-like physical delights.

As Apollo chases Daphne (c. 1624), sensuality blossoms as the nymph's fingers transform to laurel branches. Her back is arched in her escape from the youthful god. Her leg is exposed, profiling her body as she curves upward. Her chest is displayed and her hair flies in the face of her pursuer. Apollo's robe falls off him as he runs after his amore, showing the body of a young athlete. We witness their chase and hold a collective breath in the hopes - and despair - that Daphne will be caught; and feel a private blush of envy at her position.

Michelangelo's lesser-known statue, The Risen Christ (c. 1521) is found in Santa Maria sopra Minerva and caused great controversy due to its tantalizing appeal. Boldly naked and leaning on a cross, this man is NOT crippled and broken by death, but strong and full of life with resurrection. His arms are those of a carpenter's defined by his craft. Although originally naked, it is not the focus of the work. (The golden girdle hiding his genitals were put on by a later, more puritan pope, drawing more attention than if left in the original form.) This figure is rarely associated with any form of sexuality and yet this statue radiates the implied meaning: Jesus was a man complete with desires and capable of evoking passion.

In the Sistine Chapel's The Last Judgment (c. 1541) by Michelangelo, the 72 foot-high painting shows Jesus raising the just and condemning the damned. The figure is not at the center of the painting but is the most riveting, with a youthful and beautiful Jesus sitting in judgment. Again, Michelangelo presents us with a handsome man wielding the power of the universe. Although our eyes can't help but explore all the details of this masterpiece, we are drawn to this naked (except for the later-painted draping) Jesus. It is not for the nudity that we are brought back, but his gentle strength and beauty calls us.

Caravaggio took a darker perspective with both instrument and subject. Using light and dark in bold contrast, he painted with gritty realism. Narcissus (c. 1599) leans over the water, beautiful and unable to look away from his own reflection. Neither can the viewer. It's purely voyeuristic, watching two men of extraordinary beauty gazing lovingly at each other. The lips are slightly parted, daring for a kiss, as the sexual bond builds between them. Both men are afraid of breaking the tension. One is challenged not to disturb the surface, and the other teases to escape from his watery confinement. The darkness blackens the background except for the powerful seductiveness between subject and reflection.

Even when it comes to more spiritual matters, Caravaggio brings human sexuality to his paintings. In Saint John the Baptist (c.1610), his trademark of light and dark plays within a sexual boundary. Neither hermit nor old man, this is youth eternal. His profile shows the careful indentation of his upper thigh and his back curves, placing him in a seductive pose. His arm flexes, curling around a ram's horn, both subtle symbols of masculine prowess. The face turns, half in shadow, with darkened eyes gazing back towards us; he allows us to catch him in a not-so-guilty moment. Rumors that Caravaggio used his a lover as a model only helped to promote this piece as scandalous.

"Women view sensuality differently from men," my Lesbian companion Gemma suggested; a teasing glint in her brown eyes twinkles knowingly. "For me, sensuality is in the subtlest of places opposed to the blatant exposure of flesh. It's found [in women] with a gentle curve of the hip, the bending of a knee, the light touch between them and the hidden knowledge found in their eyes."

Raphael's La Fornarina shows the artist's alleged lover, sitting bare-breasted. One hand rests between her legs while the other hovers between her breasts. Neither gesture is meant to cover her body with shame. It's meant as a wicked invitation. The look in her eyes, staring off-center, and the beginnings of a playful smile show her thoughts. She enjoys us looking.

Sacred and profane love is not a new subject. Most of the Renaissance masters represented the contrast one way or another. Titian's painting - Amor Sacro e Amor Profano - demonstrates true beauty. Two women sit on opposite edges of a well. Eros has his hand proverbially stirring the waters between them. The women on the left sits dressed in layers, her eyes staring sternly ahead. Her hands are covered, but her bodice is seen and the presence of her full bosom is hinted. Another women sits on the right side of the well. She is nude except for a subtle draping across her lap and a bold red scarf cascading off her left arm. Her eyes are fixed on the object of her desire and she ignores us completely. She leans inward on her arm and bends at the waist to show her curves.

"Notice," Gemma says. "Both women are curvaceous. There is a 'peasant weight' that shows their health. This is the beauty of real women." She points to the temptress in the picture. "She looks like she's about to say, 'Hey, don't look at them. Look at what you are missing over here.' And she's right."

In the painting Danae (1531 ca.) by Correggio, Danae leans back against several pillows with her breasts bared. Eros gently tugs at the draping across her opening legs. His eyes and hand are turned upward, offering the beauty to Zeus and to us. Danae's smile is proud and sexual. She stares downward, daring us to watch the sheet slowly being pulled away.

Bernini's classic statue The Ecstasy of St. Theresa (c. 1652 in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria) shows a woman in the very throws of orgasm. The masterpiece shows St. Theresa's face, eyes closed in bliss and her mouth opened for a sharp gasp of breath. The heavenly sensations she is experiencing are so great that she has levitated upward. The only flesh of hers that shows is a single hand and foot, and the bold expression on her face. They are enough for us to share in her joy.

The cherub standing over her lifts her habit and gazes underneath. He holds an arrow of divinity responsible for her painful pleasure; his smile twisted with blissful desires. The carving on their faces is so lifelike, it's difficult not to know their intimacy and we forget that they are stone.

Sexuality and sensuality have always played a part in the worlds of artistic expression. There are so many different representations and sensuality, like beauty and art itself, it remains in the eyes of the beholder. Whether your tastes include oil paintings or statuary, ruins or frescoes, the city of Rome presents it with the glory of the ancient and modern worlds combined. The art can be found in galleries and churches alike, and passion can be summoned by the most unexpected of sources. Be it with the proud statues of the ancient gods or the subtler works of the more modern masters, there will be something to tantalize and tease you in Rome.

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