Leonardo da Vinci’s Female Genitalia and the Limits of Representation

Speaker: Dr Jill Burke - University of Edinburgh

The advent of observational, naturalistic representation around the turn of the fifteenth century caused issues about what can and cannot be represented for decades to come. How long should Christ’s fingernails be? Should they be dirty or clean? Is it more important to be accurate or to be decorous? When the nude form became widely adopted, these discussions became still more urgent. This talk focuses on the representation of the female genitalia, which I suggest acted as a synecdoche for the perils of this new type of art. Taking Leonardo da Vinci’s image of the external female genitalia of c. 1508 as a case study, the talk lays bare the contemporary cultural relationship between sight, sexuality and the taboo. When did the bald, featureless “v” become conventional for the portrayal of genitalia in the female nude? How is visual representation related to the practice of cosmetic genital surgery as discussed in sixteenth-century medical texts? How did images of genitalia create and underpin the “truth” of a biological basis for gender stereotypes?

Jill Burke is a Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. Her most recent book, The Italian Renaissance Nude, was published with Yale University Press in 2018 and she is one of the curators of the Renaissance Nude exhibition that was at the Getty Museum, Los Angeles from to January 2019, and which opens at the Royal Academy on 3rd March 2019.

Organised by Dr Scott Nethersole (The Courtauld). 

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5:00pm, 27 Feb 2019

Wednesday 27th February 2019

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London