My Florence (4): The Flags of Our Fathers

The second episode of My Florence is dedicated to The Flags of Our Fathers. Curiously indeed, most of Roman and Greek statues of men must undeniably show the wealth of flesh their models possess. However, there are four problems I am struggling with.

The first problem regards the fact that all the penises I could photo are flaccid, not a single one being erect. Of course, this is not necessarily true for all Italy, since in the ninth picture below you will see a postcard named ‘Piselii Italici’ where at least in four instances the penises are erect; however, I could find no such example in Florence.  I would be very interested to know why: were the statues with erect penises destroyed under the Catholic Church’s orders, or simply Roman and Greek sculptors were just not interested in creating works with erect penises? If the latter, why?

Of course, colours and dimensions are different according to the model, the carver and his intention:

The second problem is that, as you can see in the fourth and fifth pictures, some penises are depicted in a very non-realistic, rather mythical manner: they are not only pierced, but their upper bodies are cut and resemble the body of an octopus… Both pictures are taken in the  Piazza della Signoria, and the penises belong to two statues (satyrs?) from the Fountain of Neptune  in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.

Interestingly enough, the pubic hair has also a remarkable variety of forms and dimensions:

Below, the first and fourth image belong to newer statues, made by contemporary artists; however, they are not that different from the original ones:

Below, the difference is not only in the specific, quite different form, but also in the artists’ choice of colour:

The colour and the material (stone, bronze, metal) are continuously changing. However, it is also interesting that the weight of the body introduces a very amusing stance (see the last/fourth picture below):

And of course, after a last example of an ancient work of art, we can pay attention to more contemporary items like postcards or pants – quite expensive and, to tell you the truth, not very… sexy!

The third problem is rather least interesting, but it says something about the way sexuality has been regarded and depicted over the centuries: very close to one of the bridges (Ponte allla Carraia), there is the statue of a person (probably Amerigo Vespucci from the 14th-15th centuries, but I’m not sure). Strangely enough, even when the depiction of penises was prohibited, the practice still remained, although in more hidden manners: the penis of the statue can be seen very well under the pants (last picture of this post)

Finally, the last problem is related to the depiction of women’s vulvae: I was not able to find any such representation in Florence’s statues. Since the breasts are of course very well represented, it is strange that at the imaginary level they are more important than the vulvae. If for the Roman and Greek imaginary man’s sexuality was represented by his penis, woman’s sexuality was represented by breasts but not by the vulva. I would really like to know why (the woman’s sexuality will be the subject of a special post, on Monday).

Point & shoot camera (Nikon Coolpix L100) & photos worked in Gimp.


2 thoughts on “My Florence (4): The Flags of Our Fathers

  1. I stumbled upon your post quite by accident, and was intrigued. Having studied the culture and art from the ancient Romans through Medieval Age and the Renaissance, I have some ideas…

    Generally speaking, depiction of a penis was rarely seen as sexual. In ancient times, phallic symbols adorned homes and businesses as a good-luck charm, as well as a charm to ensure regeneration (of crops, food sources, etc.).

    During Medieval times (400 CE through the 15th century), penises on statuary and in other art were simply part of the overall physique of the subject being depicted. In nearly any natural pose, a penis is visible on a male. Likewise, an erection is an anomaly, a condition which, in art, would occur only when the subject was sexually aroused. If any eroticism was meant, it was the overall image, the musculature, the pose, the visage; not simply the depiction of an erect penis. So the penis wasn’t minimized because of it’s sexual connotations; rather it didn’t really have any sexual connotations in the fine art of the times. Sexuality was expressed through the entire image, not an erect penis. Minimizing the penis resulted in focusing any eroticism, if it was indeed intended, on the whole image or statue.

    For an excellent example of this, do a search for an image of the Barberini Faun or copy and paste this URL:

    While some of the more modest critics prefer to believe that this sculpture depicts a faun awaking from a night of drunken revelry, most others disagree. The more general consensus is that drunk or not, the artist clearly meant to depict the faun as having just fulfilled his sexual appetite and he’s enjoying the afterglow. The pose is blatantly sexual, with knees open and relaxed to overtly expose his manhood. The body is slack and even the faun’s tail lays limply on the seat suggesting the achievement of complete orgasmic ecstasy. The penis is flaccid, yet the overall depiction is sexually and erotically charged.

    As for a lack of vulvae… In any natural pose, a woman’s vulva is hidden by her labia. Any attempt at a deliberate intimate depiction of her vulva would require an unnatural pose, deliberately spreading the legs to overtly expose her sex. It would have been considered base and vulgar, and the artist would have undoubtedly been held in contempt. Indeed, it could have easily resulted in ending a promising career.

    Keep in mind that in Medieval culture, the idealized woman held chastity above nearly any other virtue. And it is this ideal that most Medieval art depicts. This virtue became even more idealized with the advent of Chivalry in the 12th century. The Chivalric Code didn’t inspire chastity; rather, it simply continued to elevate that particular virtue even higher. And since it was already pretty much at the top of the list with regards to women, it’s focus came to be aimed especially toward men. A virgin knight was the ideal to which men could aspire, though in reality, it was seldom achieved. (As a side note, one interesting theory holds this moral value as an explanation for numerous suggestions of homosexual liaisons among knights as it was viewed as maintaining one’s virginity while still satisfying basic urges.) The dichotomy of virgin men and women as the ideal, coupled with the knight’s goal of conquering the fairer sex was pretty much mitigated by the idea that as long as the knight was a virgin when he deflowered the fair maiden, it was acceptable.

    In Medieval times, a woman’s breasts were considered less sexual than they were marks of her womanhood and beauty, much as a man’s musculature constituted his maleness. Breasts represented her essence, her nature of cultivating and nurturing mankind. Her breasts, like her body, are round and soft, with gentle curves and supple, inviting lines. Likewise, the protection and providing of mankind as the essence of males, is represented in art by angular chiseled features, firm flesh and strong, brawny muscles. The labia of a woman, and the penis on a man are indeed displayed in their natural state, as a non-erotic part of the body. Depicting an erect penis or a vulva would be completely out of place, not unlike adding reading glasses to the Mona Lisa.

    Sorry for the length… hope it helps!

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