The Italian Almanac

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birth of Venus

Italian Art - November 11

This is a very erotic body, don't you think?" Ornella Casazza, the petite and refined director of the Museo degli Argenti in Florence, asked a visitor to the museum's new exhibition. The body was a nude and luxuriant Venus, painted around 1680, tended at her toilette in the clouds by a fleshy huddle of nymphs and cherubs. It is one work among more than 200 at the museum, in a major exhibit on mythology and erotica, ranging from chastely smooching cupids, to hermaphrodites and Olympian rape scenes, to a four-foot stone penis girded spectacularly with lion's legs.

"Art can never exist without Naked Beauty display'd," William Blake wrote as part of an etching of the Laoco÷n - the Greek statue unearthed in Rome that inspired Michelangelo's heroic depiction of the naked body, inspiring in turn the rebirth of the nude in Western art. Now, the naked, and the near-naked, beauty is the subject of several exhibits in Italy that expose what most adults already know well: how what we all have manages to be both profound and sort of dull.

For tourists here, the classical nude can seem like wallpaper, one particularly abundant commodity in the full Italian experience, to be chased then checked off somewhere between Chianti and Santa Croce. But Dr. Graziella Magherini, a top psychiatrist in Florence, urges caution all the same. The nude, she warns, can be dangerous to one's mental health. "The nude, the nude body, masculine and feminine, above all those done by the great artists," she said, "is very provocative on the mind of a person."

She is Italy's expert on strong reactions to art: 30 years ago, she began studying what she later called the "Stendhal syndrome," named after the French writer who collapsed, as he wrote after a visit to Florence in 1817, from "a pitch of excitement wherein the celestial sensations of the fine arts meet the passions." There have been no unusual reactions recorded at the new exhibit on mythology and erotica, though in theory there is time: the show runs through May 15.

The exhibit of art from the first century B.C. to the 18th century fills six grand rooms, and while most is tame and tasteful, there are some surprisingly explicit works: semipornographic etchings along with the stone phallus with lion's legs that was a favorite of a Medici cardinal. In all, the exhibit seems a reminder of how much artists used to get away with, when the subject was Greek and Roman myth, most definitely not chaste.