I’m used to it now, so I don’t think much of it these days, but when I first started living in Milan, I was transfixed by the massive posters I saw throughout the city. At that time I think they were ads for a certain shoe manufacturer, but they featured nearly nude women in suggestive poses throwing off seductive looks. And then next to these beautiful women lying there looking at you were some athletic shoes…
I was fascinated watching the cars driving by these dramatic posters, thinking that they’d cause an accident by stealing people’s eyes from the road. Later on I saw a commercial for a watch or something on TV and saw a different nearly-naked woman in a provocative pose as usual. I think they just flashed the watch on the screen in the final seconds of the ad…
This is totally backwards! I thought. They’ve flipped the essential and nonessential parts of the ad. When I tried to explain it in my broken Italian to my coworker, they just smiled wryly. I had no idea whether they were smiling at my bad Italian, at me freaking out over a naked woman, or at the validity of my comment.
I realized what was happening later. There are completely nude stone sculptures everywhere in the historical buildings around Italy, as well as in the works of the century’s great painters.
I realized that Italians are surrounded by nudes—meaning that they grow up with them and therefore don’t share my reaction to them. Still—they’re certainly a critical element in getting people’s attention in ads and commercials.
The other day, I discovered a strange nude sculpture that was quite different from typical art pieces of nudes. It was a marble relief carving showing a woman trimming her pubic hair. The piece, which is from the 12th century, was even titled with a phrase that in Milanese dialect means “an indecent woman”. You can see it at Castello Sforzesco (Sforza Castle) in Milan. This strange and slightly amusing nude is in a tucked-away place, so I didn’t even notice it for a long time.
Apparently there are still questions about this relief, as nobody knows for sure why it was made. Shaving the pubic hair was apparently the mark of a prostitute in the 12th century, so maybe people thought that was an interesting thing to make into art back then?
There is another explanation that says that the model for the relief was Beatrice de Bourgogne, the wife of Frederick Barbarossa. Barbarossa was the king of Germany at the time, and the purpose of the piece was to insult and shock him as revenge for having completely destroyed the city of Milan.
So it is possibly a scandalous piece created out of malice—one that, if unfortunately discovered, would have likely been smashed and destroyed. The artist would have also most likely been hanged as well. But the value and meaning of this uncommon nude has changed over the centuries, eventually becoming a treasure and allowing me to discover its history. So the story has a happy ending after all.