Enea Vico, Venus and Mars Embracing as Vulcan Works at His Forge, 1543. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Almost immediately after the introduction of any major technological advancement, humans inevitably end up employing it for porn. “Sometimes the erotic has been a force driving technological innovation,” John Tierney penned in 1994, the early days of the World Wide Web, but “virtually always, from Stone Age sculpture to computer bulletin boards, it has been one of the first uses for a new medium.”
Today, pornography is democratized. No longer confined to the pages of magazines, the internet has allowed anyone the means to upload their amateur videos to Pornhub or use Instagram as a marketing tool to tease their bits. Pornography is also crowdfunded. Instagram models lead you to Patreon pages or cam streams, where—for a low monthly subscription fee, or the occasional generous gift—there’s a glimmer of hope that the viewer could get to know them.
In the West, the first step in bringing pornography to the broader public came unexpectedly, with the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in 1440. The German publisher created the machine to share books—most notably, the vernacular Gutenberg Bible—with the masses. Soon, it was able to disseminate engraved images, too. Gutenberg’s press effectively opened the door for a flow of new images and ideas around Europe.
Soon enough, explicit artworks were made readily accessible, and producing them became a public offense. “It was the transition from the highest rungs of society to a broader public that was the cause for concern among the private elite circles of humanists as well as Church clerics,” Andrea Herrera writes in The Renaissance Nude (2018), a catalogue accompanying a 2018–19 exhibition of the same name.
Around the same time as the print revolution, artists revived the nude in painting as a callback to antiquity and as a way to humanize lofty saints. Prestigious and expensive painting commissions for explicit female nudes flourished in Europe during the Renaissance. Famous artists like Raphael
Raphael exemplifies High Renaissance painting with his grand renderings of the Madonna in landscape settings the figurative scenes with which he decorate…
and Botticelli created illicit works meant only for the eyes of elite men.
Beyond erotic pleasure, such artworks had intellectual conceits. It became a performance for the upper echelon to view provocative, masterfully painted or sculpted nudes. “This ability to admire the skill behind the artwork rather than give in to bodily desire demonstrated the virtue of the viewer,” write Stephen J. Campbell, Jill Burke, and Thomas Kren in the introduction to The Renaissance Nude.
Artists also looked to ancient texts like the Ovidian love stories, which were revived by the printing press and circulated around Europe, for sensual subjects. The Greeks and Romans had imagined their gods as sexual beings, and it became in vogue to do so again in the Renaissance................