A Timeline of Early Modern Censorship

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-25. Image on right shows the fresco after its restoration in the 1980s, which removed the fig leaves that were added in the 17th century. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an art magazine, specifically requesting information on nudity and censorship in the history of art (since I had previously written on this topic). It took me a few hours to compile the necessary information for this group. Unfortunately, I never received any response after sending a detailed email to my contact, so I assume that the information I sent will not be used in the final article or timeline about censorship. Instead, I have decided to publish my research here.

Although the following timeline is not complete by any means, I think that these are some of the most significant and interesting events which surround the issues of censorship and nudity for the Early Modern period in Western art.

Reconstruction of copper “skirt” which allegedly was placed on Michelangelo’s “David”

  • c. 1504: Objections arose regarding the nudity of Michelangelo’s “David” (to the point that people threw stones at the statue). It is reported that a skirt of copper leaves was created to cover the statue at one point, although we don’t have a mention of this skirt by Vasari (see some commentary on this problematic story HERE). If anyone knows of more historical accounts that discuss this skirt, please share in the comments below!
  • Around 1541: Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Ambassador of Mantua) work to have Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” censored, due to the nudity. This undertaking is known as the beginning of the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”
  • 1547: In Spain, the first edition of the Index of Prohibited Books (written in 1547, published in 1551) does not mention nudity specifically, but condemns “all pictures and figures disrespectful to religion” (my emphasis).
  • 1555-1559: Pope Paul IV undertakes censorship of nude works of art, which includes the castration of ancient statues.¹
  • 1563 (December 3-4): 25th session of the Council of Trent (as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation) specifies that art should avoid lasciviousness, “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.”
  • 1565: Daniele da Volterra (later known as “Il Braghettone” or “The Breeches Painter”) was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. These “breeches” by Volterra were the first; other bits of drapery were added to this fresco in the following centuries.
  • 1592 – Clement VII undertakes a personal inspection of Rome to ensure that revealing sculptures, including semi-nude depictions of Christ on the cross, are covered with drapery.
  • 1644 – 1655: Pope Innocent X had phalluses chiseled off of Roman sculptures in the Vatican. Metal fig leaves were placed on the figures instead.
  • About 1680: Fig leaves were added to the bodies of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve figures in the Brancacci Chapel (see image above). These were removed in the 1980s, when the frescoes were cleaned and restored.
  • 1758-1759: Pope Clement XIII covers more sculptures at the Vatican with fig leaves

Spanish stamp from 1930, based off of Goya’s painting “La Maja Desnuda,” c. 1797-1800. Image courtesty Wikipedia

  • About 1797-1800: Goya paints “La Maja Desnuda” (sometimes called “The Naked Maja”) which is among one of the first works of Western art to depict a woman with visible pubic hair. In 1815, Goya was summoned before the Spanish Inquisition to discuss this painting. “La Maja Desnuda” was turned into a stamp in the 1930s by the Spanish government, but the US Postal service would not deliver incoming letters that were marked with this stamp. One source reports that the US Postal service ruling was reversed as late as 1996!
  • About 1803: Goya paints “La Maja Vestida” (“The Clothed Maja”), which is a painting of the same woman who posed for “La Maja Desnuda.” It could be that this painting was created in order to be more acceptable than the previous version.
  • 1846-1878: Pope Pius IX places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 1878-1903: Leo XIII places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 19th century: Modifications were made to Bronzino’s “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” (discussed in detail HERE).

Large fig leaf covering the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • About 1857: Large fig leaf is created for the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” which is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • 1865 – Victor Lagye creates copies of Adam and Eve for the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, with the figures clothed. These copies were placed in the altarpiece.
  • Between 1981-1994: Some (but not all) of the “breeches” of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco are removed during restoration and cleaning of the chapel. Others are not removed because the painting could have been damaged in the process.

Censorship in regards to nudity really begins to end in the late 19th century. The early twentieth century sees a lot of nude sculptures that are also more provocative and sexual in nature.

Can you think of any other significant dates in regards to nudity and censorship? I stuck with the Early Modern period in my timeline, but we could also go back to ancient period (I’m reminded of when Early Christians destroyed nude sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century CE.)

If you are interested in learning more about censorship and nudity, I would recommend watching this documentary: “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.”

1 Art historian Leo Steinberg explained that we don’t know a lot about the specific censorship actions taken by Pope Paul IV. He writes, “But we are not well informed about the chronology of these practices. Montaigne (Essays, III, 5) cites ‘many beautiful and antique statues’  which were being ‘castrated’ in Rome during his youth by order of ‘that good man,’ meaning Pope Paul IV (1555-1559).”  See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) p. 186. This book is a reprint of Steinberg’s original 1983 publication. Citation online HERE.


The Farnese Bull and Messy Art History

Apollonios of Tralleis and Tauriscus, The Farnese Bull, 2nd century BC or 3rd century CE

Although I’m not a specialist in Hellenistic or Roman sculpture, I like to feel like I am pretty savvy regarding the major works of art from these periods. Up until earlier this year, however, I was not familiar with the “Farnese Bull” (shown above). This sculpture, which was excavated in 1545, was soon placed in the Palazzo Farnese as part of the collection of Pope Paul III (formerly Cardinal Alessandro Farnese).

At almost 12 feet (3.7 m) in height, this sculpture has a dominating presence. In fact, the complex composition and large scale made me wonder why I hadn’t seen this work of art in more art history textbooks. Although I have since learned of a few sources which discuss this book (including a great entry in Haskell and Penny’s Taste of the Antique), I still think that this work is underrepresented in art history textbooks geared for college students. And, after doing some research, I think I have figured out why this book isn’t discussed in more: the subject matter, history, and historical reception of this piece are really complex and messy. Taking my cues from Haskell and Penny’s entry, I thought I would outline a few things to prove my point:

  • Subject matter: It is hard to concretely say what is being represented in this piece. The Farnese inventory (of 1568) describes this piece as “the mountain with the Bull, and four statues around it.” Vasari tried to take things further and described this piece as a Labor of Hercules. Others believe that this sculpture represents the story of Dirce, the wife of Licus. Dirce hated her niece Antiope and tried to have her killed. However, Antiope’s sons intervened and tied Dirce to a wild bull as punishment.
  • Ancient history: It is hard to date this piece. Scholars still debate whether this piece, which was excavated at the Baths of Caracalla, is a Roman copy or an original Hellenistic copy. Some scholars argue that this sculpture was specifically made for Caracalla’s baths (as a Roman copy). Scholars also disagree as to whether this was the work of art that was described by Pliny the Elder: the statue doesn’t quite match the descriptions of a statue which was brought to Rome during the time of Augustus.

Anonymous Artist "CL", The Farnesian Bull, 1633. Etching.

  • Renaissance and Baroque history: It is clear that the Farnese Bull underwent some restorations after excavation, and they may have been completed by Michelangelo and his students (similar to the restorations of the “Farnese Hercules”). The “Farnese Bull” became very well-known in the Renaissance and afterward, popularized in part by prints (see etching above). Federico Zuccaro said that this was “the most remarkable and marvelous work of the chisel of the ancients” In fact, the ostentatious Louis XIV tried to acquire the piece in 1665!
  • Criticisms of the work: Despite the original praise for this piece, the “Farnese Bull” began to receive criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries for its lack of quality. Bernini noted that the sculpture was only well-known because it was carved from a single piece of stone and created on a large scale. Other criticisms were more pinpointed. The Richardsons noted, for example, that the rope was of “poor quality.” Edward Wright felt like Dirce’s face was “quite without Passion.” Although Winckelmann was also dismissive of the work, although he did note that the extensive restorations have affected the many opinions regarding the piece.1

So, despite the high praise that this work of art experienced in the Renaissance period, it doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention today from art history textbooks. Is it too difficult for textbooks to introduce “messy” situations to undergraduate students? Perhaps it is tricky at times, but I also think that students are bright enough and capable enough to grasp the complexity of art history. In fact, I think it’s good for them to realize how art history is a compilation of various opinions that have built up over time. (It seems like the omission of this sculpture in art history books is an indication of what is and is not valued today in art history.) I also think that it is a good idea to introduce issues of “quality” to students, so they can think about how the concept of quality is a construct.

Has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” or one of its copies? What was your opinion of the piece? Also, has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” treated at length in a traditional (and relatively recent) art history textbook for college students?2 I’d be interested to see how this sculpture is treated in such a text, if it exists. Haskell and Penny’s catalog is great as a scholarly resource, but I’m not sure if it is very practical as a textbook for a college course.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 165-167. Citation available online HERE.

2 I did find one online academic source which discusses the Farnese Bull at length, but quotes an art history textbook by Gisela M. A. Richter which was written in 1930!


To Hack Off a Leg: Michelangelo’s Florence “Pietà”

Michelangelo, "Pietà," Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, c. 1547-1555

Several months ago I wrote a post on Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (also called the “Bandini Pietà” or “Duomo Pietà”). Back then, I promised to explore in a future post some of the reasons why Michelangelo might have mutilated this sculpture (which originally was intended for the artist’s own tomb). When I promised to write this post, I didn’t realize that I would be opening a big can of worms! I’ve spent several hours combing through a lot of research and ideas – and to tell the truth, I still haven’t completely formed an opinion about what I find the most compelling.

Although I wrote down a lot of information in a lengthier draft of this post, I’ve decided to condense a few thoughts here. (If you want to see more research or a semi-detailed historiography of mutilation research, contact me!)

Our good ol’ friend Vasari gives several contradictory suggestions for why the sculpture was mutilated: 1) the marble contained flaws; 2) the marble was too hard, and sparks would fly from the chisel; and 3) Michelangelo’s standards for the piece were too high, and he was never content with what he had completed. (This last suggestion seems like a musing on Vasari’s part.) Vasari also explains that Michelangelo was pressured to work on the piece: “It was because of the importunity of his servant Urbino who nagged at him daily that he should finish [the Pietá]; and that among other things a piece of the Virgin’s elbow got broken off, and that even before that he had come to hate it, and he had had many mishaps because of a vein in the stone; so that losing patience he broke it, and would have smashed it completely had not his servant Antonio asked that he give it to him just as it was.”1 In the end, Michelangelo lets his pupil, Tiberio Calcagni, restore the group. As we will see, the left leg may or may not have needed restoration before Calcagni got his hands on the sculpture.

Many scholars in the 20th century have interpreted this mutilation to include the removal of Christ’s left leg, which appears to have been created to hang across the thigh of the Virgin. (An eighteenth-century wax model of the sculpture gives in indication for how it may have originally appeared.) Some scholars, such as Henry Thode (1908), feel that the mutilation may have been done for compositional purposes; the sculpture might have appeared to unattractive and cluttered with the left leg.2

In 1968, Leo Steinberg wrote an interesting (and controversial) article about “the missing leg” of the Florence Pietà. Steinberg argues that the left leg originally existed and was slung over the Virgin’s thigh, as a solemn symbol of a sexual union (a motif that is found in later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century art). Such a composition would have emphasized the symbolic and mystic marriage between the Virgin and Christ. However, it could be that the vulgarization of this motif (during the very years of Michelangelo’s work on this piece) and metaphor might have threatened the symbolic significance that Michelangelo sought.3 For that reason, Michelangelo may have become frustrated and attacked that specific part of the statue. Steinberg got much criticism and was misinterpreted on some accounts, which he explores in twenty years later in another essay (see third footnote).

The most recent and seminal writing on the Florence Pietà was published in English in 2003 by Jack Wasserman. This book unfortunately is out-of-print, but I was able to snag a lonely (yet very deserving!) copy at my university library. Wasserman has issues with Steinberg’s argument on a few levels, but basically argues that the placement of Christ sitting or reclining on the Virgin’s lap does not constitute an “aggressive” action.4 Wasserman gives the example of Caroto’s Pietà (c. 1545) as another example of an “unadulterated Pietà, without, that is, the carnal and symbolic accretions Steinberg imposes on it.”

Detail of stump and dowel hole, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

Wasserman also cautiously suggests that Tiberio Calcagni might have actually been the one to remove the left leg of Christ (foot, thigh and calf) as he went about restoring the rest of the statue. Wasserman then finds, in turn, that Calcagni did not succeed in his attempt (or perhaps never attempted) to replace the limb. Calcagni may have created the stump (and the visible drilling hole, see above) with the intention of adding/reattaching a limb, but no traces of binding stucco have been found in the dowel hole. Wasserman even posits that Calcagni might have contrived the story that Michelangelo intended to destroy the Pietà (as reported by Vasari). Instead, “Calvagni desired to benefit from the fact that Michelangelo had broken away several other parts of the Pietà to disguise his own guilt for having demolished Christ’s leg without replacing it, thereby irrevocably disfiguring the great work of art.”5

Virtual image of limbless model and detached limbs, Michelangelo's Florence "Pietà"

The other interesting thing about Wasserman’s book is that he discusses how the several limbs of the sculpture were intentionally severed. Wasserman finds that the outlying limbs were removed in an effort to recarve the marble, not destroy the statue. Wasserman believes that Michelangelo used a point chisel to first remove Christ’s and the Virgin’s left arms, and then the right arm of the Magdalene. Then Michelangelo removed Christ’s right forearm, but left the Mary Magdalene’s head without damage.

With this new, practically limb-less marble, Michelangelo gained access to the reserve marble just left of the Virgin’s leg, in order to “excavate” a new left leg for Christ that would parallel the angle of Christ’s right leg.6 Perhaps, considering this new design, the Florentine Pietà might have more closely resembled Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pietà (1564).

1 Vasari, Lives of the Artists (1568 edition), as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg,” Art Bulletin 50, no. 4 (1968): 347.

2 Steinberg, 347.

3 Henry Thor, Michelangelo und das Ende der Renaissance, as translated in Leo Steinberg, “Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà: The Missing Leg Twenty Years After,” in Art Bulletin 71, no. 3 (Sept, 1989): 503.

4 Jack Wasserman, Michelangelo’s Florence Pietà (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), 84.

5 Ibid., 84.

6 Ibid., 70.


The Prude Nude: Censorship and Cover-Ups in Art

For some reason, over the past several days the topic of nudity and censorship keeps popping up in my work (and on Twitter!). I thought I would share some of the interesting things that I am sharing with my students (and have recently discovered).

First off, I suppose I should admit I think that censorship (or cover-ups) of nudity often are a bit amusing. Drapery, fig leaves, conveniently-placed branches – it’s quite an interesting phenomenon in Western art. I often joke with my students about how a bit of drapery conveniently blew across the battle field, right over David’s torso, just before the shepherd boy killed Goliath. (It must be so, right? Bernini recorded the event as such.)

Michelangelo, Last Judgment, 1537-1541

Next week, my students will be learning about Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco from the Sistine Chapel ceiling (shown above). I imagine that this is probably the most well-known story about censorship from the Renaissance period. Right off the bat, discontent was expressed at the nudity shown in the Last Judgment scene. (Side note: I think this complaint is a little strange, because there are plenty of other “Last Judgment” examples in art in which the damned are naked. Perhaps people really had issue with the fact that both the righteous and damned were fully-exposed?) Vasari records that when the Master of Ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, saw the almost-finished painting and commented that the nudity made this painting more fit for a bath or a tavern than the pope’s chapel.1 Michelangelo, notwithstanding, decided to paint da Cesena’s portrait on a nude figure (see below). Da Cesana appears in Hell as the figure of Minos. Michelangelo even added some donkey ears, for some extra flair (and humiliation). Luckily (or perhaps unluckily) for da Cesena, Michelangelo covered the man’s genitals with a serpent.

Michelangelo, Last Judgment (1537-1541), detail of Da Cesena as Minos

However, the story of the Last Judgment and censorship doesn’t end there. During the meeting Council of Trent in 1563-1564, the indecency of the Last Judgment fresco was a topic of discussion. It was decided to that the painting should be modified so that the genitalia would be covered. (One can only imagine how Michelangelo must have felt if he heard the news; the artist died in February 1564.) Soon after, in 1565, the artist Daniele da Volterra was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures. Unfortunately for Volterra, the commission had a negative effect on his career. Henceforth the artist was known as “Il Braghettone (“breeches painter” or “underclothes painter.”)

Censorship continued through the centuries. I’m particularly reminded of when Masaccio’s Adam and Eve (“Expulsion from the Garden of Eden”) were covered in the 17th century with little <ss>tutus</ss> vines (which were removed when the fresco was restored in the 1980s). And the austere Victorians also liked to cover up their subjects. I think one of the most interesting examples is Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid (c. 1545). In the 19th century, Bronzino’s subjects were “made decent” with the help of a myrtle branch (placed over Cupid-the-Contortionist’s rear) and a clumsily-painted veil over Venus’ torso (see image below). Venus’ left nipple was painted out of Cupid’s grasp, too. Finally, Venus’ tongue was also painted out of the picture, so that her incestuous kiss would Cupid would be a little more, um, chaste. These modifications were removed when the painting was restored to its original state in 1958.

Bronzino, "Allegory of Venus and Cupid" (c. 1545) with 19th century modifications

It seems like there must be a demand or interest in the topic of censorship and art. A few days ago, a tweet alerted me to a relatively new program on BBC4, “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.” You can watch a short introduction to the documentary on YouTube or watch the whole thing online. The film covers the history of the fig leaf in art, explaining when the fig leaf began to be used in Christianity. The show first explains how classical statues were shown in the complete nude, and one scholar explains how the small phalluses shown in Greek statues were seen as a symbol of restraint and control. (I didn’t know that!)

At one point in the documentary, a specialist explains how the fig leaf both covers the genitals but also draws attention to this area of the body (a similar effect, I think, to the Venus pudica pose). I think that’s a very good point. In many respects, one can argue that these “cover-ups” ended up having a reverse effect than what was intended. Even the outcries against nudity just cause people to focus on the naked figures even more.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What are some censored works of art that stand out in your mind? What are your favorite (or not-so-favorite) depictions of fig leaves?

1 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists (translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 461-462.

2 You can read a little bit more about the censorship of the “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” at the short article entitled, ‘A ‘most improper picture.'”


Condivi and Michelangelo’s "Pietà"

Well my friends, I think I may have found another minor error in an art history textbook. The textbook I use for my Renaissance classes, The Changing Status of the Artist, says the following: “Ascanio Condivi recorded that his friend Michelangelo carved himself in the guise of Nicodemus mourning over the dead Christ”1. This seemingly insignificant comment has captured my attention for several months, and consequently I have long wanted to read Condivi’s biography of Michelangelo (first printed 1553). Now that the school quarter is finished, I finally found time to read the biography this past weekend. But when I got to Condivi’s discussion on the Duomo Pietà (c. 1550, see below), I couldn’t find any discussion about a self-portrait! Only in the footnote of biography did I notice this information from the editor: “The figure of Nicodemus, according to a letter from Vasari to Michelangelo’s nephew Leonardo shortly after the artist’s death, is a self-portrait”2

Now, in the great scheme of things, perhaps it isn’t too a big deal that my textbook misattributed this self-portrait information to Condivi instead of Vasari. I understand that. But I also am in favor of historical accuracy, and I thought I would put the record straight here. If any of my past students are reading this, please make a note of the error on page 69 of your textbook!

That being said, this misattribution happily led me to become familiar with Condivi’s book first-hand. Many scholars believe that Condivi’s work is the best account of Michelangelo’s life; this book can practically be considered an autobiography. Condivi wrote that he got his information “with long patience from the living oracle of his [master’s] speech.”3 It appears that Michelangelo wanted this biography to be written for two reasons: 1) to correct omissions and errors about Michelangelo that appeared in Vasari’s first edition of Lives of the Artists and 2) to exonerate Michelangelo from accusations that he deceived the heirs of Julius II and embezzled sums of money (in regards to Michelangelo’s seemingly-endless sculptural project for Pope Julius II’s tomb).

Condivi’s biography is a great resource for any Renaissance scholar, and it’s a rather quick read. And although I didn’t read any new information about Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the Duomo Pietà, I was prompted to consider reasons why Michelangelo included his self-portrait. Condivi wrote that “Michelangelo plans to donate this Pietà to some church and to have himself buried at the foot of the altar where it is placed.”4

So, if this was to be a funerary function in some sense, Michelangelo may have wanted to include his portrait as part of the traditional convention to represent an image of the deceased on funerary monuments. Michelangelo may have also identified with Nicodemus for either spiritual or personal reasons. For example, according to legend, Nicodemus was a sculptor.5

However, this Pietà never was placed next to Michelangelo’s tomb. Vasari, who designed Michelangelo’s tomb, unsuccessfully tried to acquire the Pietà from the family who owned the sculpture at the time. However, I think it’s best that Vasari didn’t get his hands on the Pietà: it appears that Michelangelo changed his mind and didn’t want the sculpture for his tomb after all. In 1555, two years after Condivi wrote his biography, Michelangelo abandoned and mutilated the Pietà. He then sold the sculpture in 1561 to his friend Francesco Bandini, a Florentine banker in Rome. So if Michelangelo sold the sculpture, it’s very likely that he had no intention of using the sculpture on his own tomb. In a way, I’m surprised that Vasari didn’t pick up on that simple concept.

A lot of scholars have discussed and analyzed why Michelangelo mutilated the Duomo Pietà, and I think I will compile some thoughts in a forthcoming post. Stay tuned!

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honor c. 1450-1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist by Emma Barker, Nick Webb and Kim Woods, eds. (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 69.

2 Ascanio Condivi, The Life of Michelangelo, translated by Alice Sedgwick Wohl, edited by Hellmut Wohl, 2nd ed. (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 140 (my emphasis). I realize that the Changing Status textbook could be referring to something else written by Condivi besides his biography (such as a letter), but I highly doubt it. The editor of this Condivi text probably would have mentioned if Condivi had written anything about Michelangelo’s self-portrait, instead of only mentioning this letter by Vasari.

3 Ibid., xvi-xviii.

4 Ibid., 90. Michelangelo wanted to be buried in Santa Maria Maggiore, but was actually interred in the Florentine church Santa Croce. Vasari writes details of the internment (and opening Michelangelo’s casket to reveal a body untouched by decay!) in his second version of Lives of the Artists (1568). See Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Artists, translation by Julia Conway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella (London: Oxford University Press, 1991), 486.

5 King, 69.


Email Subscription

An email notification will be sent whenever a new post appears on this site.
Email *



This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.