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Art in Strange Places

Venuses on Instagram. Survival of the Figura Serpentinata in the Age of Social Media

Ondřej Váša

Abstracts

This essay contextualizes the phenomenon of selfies depicting women’s bodies as spirally twisted figures. We do so through several interconnected excursions into Renaissance Neoplatonism, Michelangelo’s work, William Hogarth’s theory of beauty, 19th century hygienic discourse, and Baudrillard’s analysis of the inversion of soul-body dualism, in order to finally expose these figures as unique heirs of the Renaissance figura serpentinata.

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Author’s notes

This work has been supported by Charles University Research Centre program No. UNCE/24/SSH/026

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1Despite being reproduced on t-shirts, coasters, cups, travel mugs, blankets, or handbags, Leonardo’s Leda, Botticelli’s three Graces and Giambologna’s bathing Venus could scarcely talk about having followers until they began to sail the seven seas of Instagram. Top ten website stars like Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and Beyoncé, followed by hundreds of thousands of girls and women around the globe, all avidly draw on the Renaissance invention of figura serpentinata, and curve their bodies accordingly in the countless pool, sea, or bathroom selfies; as if the Pygmalion myth or the dream of Honoré de Balzac’s famous The Hidden Masterpiece had been turned on its head, and while “looking for a woman [we stood] before a picture” (paraphrasing Balzac 2004). The question is: what happened to the heritage of the serpentine figure and its energy that the Instagram selfies—albeit unwittingly—keep on exploiting?

2In fact, figura serpentinata represents a perfect example of what Aby Warburg used to call “inversion”: a process of reversing the polarity of the emotionally charged gesture or figure, while the basic setting remains untouched, however mutated or even disguised the gestural offspring may be. As when, for example, a grouping of nymphs and river gods on an ancient Roman relief, personifying a burning anxiety about the powers of nature, is gradually transformed into a most relaxed civilian enjoyment in Édouard Manet’s famous The Luncheon on the Grass (1862-1863), without the depicted group fundamentally changing its posture (Warburg 2014).

3So, if all of those women apparently draw on the figure which has never ceased to snake through the sands of cultural history, the question is: how did they rewire the original lines of bodily tension? And, what has happened to the Renaissance heritage? Because something surely did.

4However, we must add at the outset that even if we interrogate the Instagram Venuses with the vocabulary of several philosophizing traditions, it would be foolish to overload their serpentine spines with too much intellectualization, for what we are dealing with here is a historically justifiable, but still rather fleeting, convergence. This would also be the reason why, out of a complex net of serpentine resonances, we will select and simplify only three moments that are crucial in its development—Neoplatonic metaphysical connotation, Hogarth’s subsequent secularization, and finally the hygienic re-spiritualization—, whose triangulation will help us to capture an ephemeral picture of a spiritual heritage that is as much a mirage as it indicates a real succession without a noble title.

First Moment: Beware of rapid movements

5A certain slyness of figura serpentinata consists in the fact that it passes through history as a phantom, engaging in various, and often contradictory, economic doctrines of body and soul, yet without any fundamental change in her shape or dynamics. Her history can therefore be treated, with some exaggeration, as a history of economic competition over the very nature of human capital (whether it is mental or physical, whether the body is a controlled puppet, a temple, or a burden, etc.), while the figure itself, tellingly headless, emerged from all of these revolutions strikingly intact (after all, we are talking about twisting the body from the feet to the neck, while the head can very well remain in the clouds).

6One of the figure’s early humanist performances is attested by Alberti, one of its Renaissance foster parents, who, in his De pictura (1435), considered it “the most difficult thing of all” to make the painted, and therefore static, limbs seem “all alive and in action” (Alberti 75). This in practice requires the bodies to participate in the dynamics which are most vividly found in hair: “Let it twist around as if to tie itself in a knot, and wave upwards in the air like flames, let it weave beneath other hair, and sometimes lift on one side and another” (87). A similar approach, albeit a more pragmatic and mechanical one, was adopted by Leonardo da Vinci who, among other things, insisted in his notes (written mostly between 1480-1519) that “the members must be slender and well turned,” and “no member in a straight line with any other adjoining member, […] because it is necessary to give [the figures] some motion of life and spirit” (da Vinci 33-34).

  • 1 This is a very loose connection, but if the animation of the body, or the manner and degree of its (...)

7Spirit is the key variable here: if “a body is said to be alive when it performs some movement of its own free will,” then the recommendation to search “in every movement [for] beauty and grace” (Alberti 77) refers not so much to the enlivening of an inanimate body, but to the proper guidance of the intrinsic motivational principle that the painted figures share with the artist’s hand that rendered them (Summers 1977, 340-342).1 In other words, the resuscitation of corpses frozen by the very act of representation should not turn into an unrestrained frenzied drunkenness with life, for such a bodily orgy would contradict the desired elegance associated with “those movements [that] are especially lively and pleasing [when] directed upwards into the air” (Alberti 77).

8And herein lies the ingenious ambivalence that engulfs even the bodies of our Instagram Venuses. Notice that we have not given the enlivened bodies a good cheer yet, and we are already being discreetly admonished by the very logic of Renaissance discourse in question to tame any such possible exuberance by adding a little touch of death, for the air of the sublimated movements is also the pressure chamber where the purified souls happen to be heading. Put another way, if bodies are spiritually invested, in a word inspired, which is the general context of the considerations above, then they are in principle lagging behind the final shedding of skin: while the soul is light and comfortable with immutability, the body is heavy and capricious. Elegance, which in such a raw and volatile nature is usually hard to find, consequently abstracts from the flesh, geometrises it, and forces it—almost paradoxically—into mortifying marbelization, disguised as a beautiful perfection, vaguely associated with eternity. To sum it up in yet other words: a body that has been possessed and pacified by the formative spirit (if only to leave it as a perfected, spiritually “notarized” corpse) does not grow fat, does not sweat, does not get out of shape, and generally does not suffer from all the vagaries that afflict our bodies.

9But let us leave for later the question of how exactly this ambivalence survives into the present, and go straight to Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s influential text Trattato dell’arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura (1584), which turns the hitherto rather intuitive delineations into the letter of the law:

  • 2 For the sake of sharing the experience with William Hogarth, whom we will get to shortly, we are qu (...)

It is reported then that Michael Angelo upon a time gave this observation to the Painter Marcus de Sciena his scholler; that he should make a figure Pyramidall, Serpentlike [figura serpentinata], and multiplied by one two and three. In which precept (in mine opinion) the whole mysterie of the arte consisteth. For the greatest grace and life that a picture can have, is, that it expresse Motion: which the Painters call the spirite of a picture [furia della figura]. Nowe there is no forme so fitte to expresse this motion, as that of the flame of fire. Which according to Aristotle and the other Philosophers, is an elemente most active of all others; because the forme of the flame thereof is most apt for motion: for it hath a Conus or sharpe pointe wherewith it seemeth to divide the aire, that so it may ascende to his proper sphere. So that a picture having this forme will bee most beautifull. (Lomazzo [The First Booke] 17)2

10Something important changes here. Note that the approximate curve of Alberti, which simply “twists around,” turns into a figure with a very precisely defined ratio. Also, it no longer represents a mere means to a certain artistic goal; if Alberti’s recommendations only apply insofar as the painter “wishes his representations of bodies to appear alive” (Alberti 77), this time, the Platonized flame of figura serpentinata (Summers 2017, 149) holds the key to the

whole spirite and life of the Arte; which the Painters call sometimes the Fury, sometimes the Grace, & sometimes the Excellency of the arte. For hereby they expresse an evidēt distinctiō the living and the dead, the fierce and the gentle, the ignorant and the learned, the sad and the merrie; and (in a word) discover all the several passions & gestures which mans bodie is able to performe: which we tearme by the name of motions, for the more significant expressing of the inward affections of the minde, by an outward and bodily Demonstration; that so by this means, mens inward motions and affections, may be aswell, (or rather better) signified; as by their speech: which is wrought by the proper operations of the bodie, performing just as much, as is delivered unto it from the reasonable soule, stirred up either unto good or bad, according to their private apprehensions. (Lomazzo [The Second Booke] 4)

11Let us leave aside the fact that Lomazzo’s remarks on the fury of the figure largely metabolize the influence of Marsilio Ficino and his specific modification of the Platonic μανία; for our pop-cultural purposes, it suffices only to recall that the adoption of the Neoplatonic economy of the soul’s corporeal term deposit enabled the serpentine line to fulfil its latently normative potential. For figura serpentinata no longer represents a mere physical notation; it serves as an isomorphic path of the ascent of the soul too. The relatively loose correlation between lightness, elegance and climbing of the soul, which we have witnessed in Alberti, is now translated into a prescription, and since the soul thrusts its way through the body and at the same time “matures” in the process, figura serpentinata provides the norm both for the spiritual dynamic and for the collateral (re)formation of the body, which is to unfold in the right direction and with the right—i.e., neither too faint nor too wild—intensity.

12Note the causal link between the excitation of the soul with its bodily manifestation, which consequently represents a sensory event of morally based beauty; that is, when everything is going in the right direction “unto good.” Figura serpentinata is first and foremost a formula of epistemic ascent; in this regard, it is no coincidence that when Cristoforo Landino or Giordano Bruno want to delineate the nature of the spiritual path towards perfection, they both refer precisely to the spiral line that marks the uplifting escape trajectory from mundane corporeality to spiritual ideality; or that arises as a result of a compromise between forward progress (which would not go far on its own) and the elevating sublimation of the flesh, as well as between the straightforward “hunger” for utilitarian knowledge (which neutralizes itself by solving the problem) and the ideal circular nature of wisdom (with the “absolute” at the centre as an inexhaustible source of fascination).

13This can be seen perfectly in Michelangelo’s statue of Bacchus, who, despite all of his drunkenness, marvellously stands on his feet and represents the perfect personification of “Neoplatonic noble intoxication” (Moffitt 32). Or even more clearly in Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, whose fading body, instead of falling heavily to the ground, spirals upwards with the most satisfied expression on his face. As has already been indicated above, the sophistication of the Renaissance figura serpentinata lies in the fact that, insofar as it is in the service of the Neoplatonic spiritual economy, it represents a highly normative psycho-geometrical harmonizing apparatus of animation, which, in the literally ideal case (when the ideas are in charge), does not allow any excessive twists of the motivated bodies. It lets the bodies get possessed by the erotic passions indeed, but at the same time regulates this possession in favour of the liberating triumph of the spirit, conforming the bodies to the idea of the beautiful along the way (Birch-Hirschfeld 40). Which also means—remember that the serpentine figure is the ultimate expression of life—that bodies are most alive when they surrender to physical death.

14But along with this anaesthetic abstraction, there remains one big “if” that brings us back to the Instagram Venuses. What if we stoke the fires of erotic fiery passion a little too much, or set up a separate conflagration outside the jurisdiction of Neoplatonic legislation? Or, staying with the economic metaphors, what if figura serpentinata disdained philosophical investment and chose the path of an unbridled painterly potlatch, leaving all the spiritual geometrizing norms and restraint behind?

15We are not just asking around. The fundamentally fluid figure (Carabell 86), driven by passion, is constantly in danger of the excess of its intense kinetic energy, as happened to Michelangelo’s figures once he began to conceive of them too artistically; at least in the view of Giovanni Andrea Gilio and Lodovico Dolce. At such a moment, the line takes on a life of its own, as if “twisted with strange forces” (Gilio quoted in Cole 529), and seizes the bodies with a formal fever that tends to dissolve everything in the vibrations that “should not be continuous and present in all the figures; because men do not always move; nor so fiercely that they seem in desperation” (Dolce quoted in Summers 1972, 283).

16It will be a charming irony of history that the Instagram Venuses—as diligent pupils of figura serpentinata—will stand up to this absorbing continuum too; only this time they will not revolt against lust or desperation, but on the contrary, they will revolve precisely in their name.

Second Moment: Let me see you stripped

17Before that, however, figura serpentinata will have to go through a few more reassignments. One of the most important will be William Hogarth’s remarkable book The Analysis of Beauty (1753), built around the first of Lomazzo’s paragraphs mentioned above.

18Hogarth explicitly took over Lomazzo’s line (Hogarth 1753, v-vi, xvii-xx), which he renamed the “line of beauty”, but once he did, he immediately faced the very same problem as Michelangelo, a problem tellingly connected with hair, as when he warns that,

excess ought to be avoided in intricacy, as well as in every other principle. […] hair, wisp’d, and matted together, would make the most disagreeable figure; because the eye would be perplex’d, and at a fault, and unable to trace such a confused number of uncomposed and entangled lines. (Hogarth 1753, 28)

19This was a problem he just could not work out. Very briefly put, Hogarth stripped figura serpentinata of its metaphysical motivation, and openly opposed both its dogmatization, which would pacify the line through precisely defined ratios, and the equally disciplinary hypertrophied spiritualization, which, in the case of overzealous post-Platonists like Francis Hutcheson or Jonathan Richardson, refused to conceive of beauty as a mundane phenomenon. Against “those who have been prepossessed by dogmatic rules, taken from the performances of art only” (Hogarth 1753, 3), he proclaimed it a contour of the plebeian bodies, for “who but a bigot, even to the antiques, will say that he has not seen faces and necks, hands and arms in living women, that even the Grecian Venus doth but coarsely imitate?” (Hogarth 1753, 66).

20However, Hogarth’s revolution does not end with the dethroning of “Grand Venus [who] has not Beauty enough for the Character of an English Cook Maid” (Hogarth 1737, 385). Because if Hogarth’s main concern is to show “what the principles are in nature, by which we are directed to call the forms of some bodies beautiful, others ugly; some graceful, and others the reverse” (Hogarth 1753, 1), but at the same time, to expose the “language in the works of nature” (105) and its own “grammar-rules” (139), then the question arises as to what such a tongue actually refers to. Can it be learned as a social code that civilizes delicate bodies, as happens in the case of dance (Lindberg 28-33)? Or does it express a much more general regularity, which would ultimately make the line a multiplied “qualisign” (Meltzoff 574), or a temporary “gesture issue[d] into the world” (Podro 49)? A gesture that would democratize the substance of the world, for in terms of beauty, a beautiful woman would be no different from a jellyfish or a bent branch?

21Hogarth seems to be confusedly manoeuvring between different solutions, but in the end he can hardly avoid the pessimistic conclusion arising from the mere fact that after the extraction of all the metaphysical ingredients, the line must necessarily submit to the only economy that Hogarth has left in his time: the Newtonian mechanics of the world centred around the idea of gravity. This almost spontaneous association of figura serpentinata with a line of force, in fact with the whole net of forces that in the contemporary imagination superimposed the physical dimension on the social one (Asfour 699-701), so that both seemed to be governed by the same law, is not good news for the line. As evidenced by Hogarth’s final visual satori, aptly named Bathos, the alliance with the universal matter means that the line of beauty cannot do much else than die together with this world (Ogée 93-95, Váša 470). How could it be otherwise? The world of Newtonian mechanics is inevitably falling apart, and if the gravitational balance of the Newtonian cosmos is regularly corrected by the instruments of divine providence, then Hogarth’s line, completely devoid of transcendental dimension or spiritual essence, has no such intercessor, and is therefore just as fleeting as the constitution of crumbling matter.

22Even at the level of people, the serpentine figure cannot avoid going down with the corporeal flow, as the progress of the line in Plate 2 of The Analysis of Beauty clearly illustrates. The fleeting elegance eventually collapses into a drunken delirium, because by taking over Lomazzo’s figure and liberating it from any metaphysical restrictions, Hogarth left his spontaneous line no other chance than to run wild, to “encourage movement and cause emotions” (Ogée 20) that just do not like to respect closing time, and instead of achieving peace in heaven, they are going to hit rock bottom.

Third Moment: Aseptic Venuses

  • 3 For the impact of the liberated line on modern art, and thought, see for example Gerlach 244, Brede (...)

23Needless to say, the cabaret of the coming centuries, which embraced Hogarth’s line as an unfettered trajectory of thought and creativity having “a walk, moving freely, without goal. A walk for a walk’s sake” (Klee 16), did not even attempt to close and allowed the line to twist as far as it would go.3 Here, however, we are interested in another of its fates: its subsequent employment as a key variable in the economy of the idealized “natural, bio-mechanical bod[ies]” of 19th-century hygienic discourse (Richardson 69).

24To name just a few examples, Thomas Beddoes, in his Hygëia from 1802, declares that, regarding bodies, “we are at this day the disciples of Zeuxis and Praxiteles,” and rhetorically asks if someone “who has meditated upon the sources of good and evil in the world” can ignore “how much the sum of human happiness and virtue would be enlarged, if the standard of health were rendered the standard of beauty also?” This includes another tellingly rhetorical question: “what good may be done with […] the genius of Hogarth [and his] sketches, contrasting our customs with those of savages, in their tendency to disfigure, enfeeble, and demolish the human frame?” (Beddoes 1802, 14 [Essay VI], 120 [Essay VIII]).

25Caleb Ticknor, to follow these arguments through the 19th century, laconically states that “nature uniformly does her work far better than man can do it for her,” blaming the civilized dress for being “a fruitful source of disease in our climate, particularly in the female sex.” And again, he could very well be referring to Hogarth’s plates when he condemns “all the corsets, whalebone, padding, and busks” that “never rendered a form half so symmetrical and beautiful, or so nearly resembling that of the goddess of love and beauty, as thousands of those to be found in our Western wilderness,” adding that “the statue of the Venus de Medicis is, by common consent, regarded as the standard of female beauty,” because “in this is exhibited the most perfect symmetry of the female form” (Ticknor 121-6).

26And while Ticknor only indirectly corresponds with Hogarth, the quite influential Mary Eliza Haweis does so openly:

One of the most important features in a graceful figure—hence one of the most conspicuous and valuable innovations of the “Pre-Raphaelite” school—is the waist. The first aim is to have an “antique” waist, which a vulgar mind would pronounce horribly thick—thick, like the Venus de Medicis—thick, like that far nobler Venus of Milo. And why? Because the proportion of the figure, the grace of action and carriage, depend so much on the waist being of the right size, that it is impossible to preach too strongly against the folly and ugliness of tight lacing. The coarse, abrupt curve which is formed by a small waist and broad hips is very far removed from Hogarth’s “true line of beauty,” which is a curve extremely gradual. What is gained by an ugly angular waist, like a V.? Nothing but a long list of hideous maladies. (Haweis 101-2, cf. Montague 95)

  • 4 This, by the way, is close to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s remarks in the 1750s concerning the “nat (...)

27Joseph Edwards just doubles down on her argument: after praising the “health, both mental and physical”, and the resulting “beauty and perfection of form of the women of Greece” that “has been perpetuated in marble,” he simply condemns corsets as “instruments of torture,” contrary to the “loose dresses” that “were designed so that [they] cover and protect the body without constricting it” (Edwards 319-20, 334).4

28What should be apparent from these quotations is a shared Hogarth-inspired aversion to corsets and, in general, to any supposedly artificial, unnatural or over-civilized—in a word, violent—interference with the natural composition of the body. We shouldn’t miss a certain shift in meaning: classical works of art once again play the role of ideal examples, not because they idealise raw nature, but on the contrary because they bear witness to natural (however imaginary) models, such as Greek women, who, in contrast to European ladies, supposedly enjoyed a healthy freedom of movement. Which freedom, of course, is not to lead to exuberance which would tousle the hair, blur the body into vibrations of cheerful folds, expose its wet nature (all secretions just waiting for their opportunity to desecrate), or find refuge in a tangle of naughty pubes. Hence the certain girlish appearance of the statuesque examples: the economy of health reduces the female body to its contour, while the naturalized figura serpentinata translates corporeal matter into a language of geometric purity, which in principle visually resists any droplet infection, skin eruption, or unruly hair, including pubic hair, which draws bodies back into the polluted waters of fluid sexuality.

29In other words, hygienic discourse rephrased the bodies of its Venuses into objects of purely asexual contemplation, connoting beauty by a peculiar combination of the body’s impenetrability and medical transparency. To quote Johannes Endres’ brilliant essay, the fusion of classicist aesthetic terms with the medico-scientific discourse made the originally erotic Venuses “aseptic models for emulation” (29).

Final triangulation: the new economy of salvation

30The same can then largely be said of our Instagram Venuses; we need only replace the economy of health—sharing the same serpentine curve, endowed with the same restrictive and geometrizing power—with the rhetoric of capitalization: which is only possible because both of these narratives treat the body as a capital that needs to be properly managed in order to exploit its inherent potential.

31In this respect, the serpentine figure is a brilliant tool to get the maximum from a single shot, at least as far as seduction is concerned. Just twist your body in a spiral, and your hips, buttocks, breasts, and youthful elasticity will immediately stand out. In the case of selfies, typically taken in the hygienic environment of bathrooms or gyms, these photos have yet another dimension: the ethos of promise: as if all of these Venuses were doing a final check of their bodies, barely minutes before going out into the Saturday night, somewhere where there will no longer be public cameras, be it the next room or the private digital spaces of OnlyFans. And yet they remain strangely innocent: like the chaste mannequins in lingerie catalogues for whom nudity seems to be no conceivable alternative.

32The snake of figura serpentinata thereby bites its tail as it slithers through history, for the original spiritual normativity of the Renaissance figure, through Hogarthian liberation and hygienic naturalization, has arrived at the stage of a sophisticated and no less rational production of bodies that sculpturally undulate on a spiral leading to the paradise of eternal youth.

33This final, distinctive inversion of the economy of salvation, which forced the soul and the body to exchange roles, is perfectly captured by Baudrillard’s 1970s critique of consumer society, to which we resort if only because it metabolizes —in a slightly different context, but also quite aptly—almost all of the key concepts and insights we have encountered in our cursory journey through the history of the figura serpentinata (e.g. beauty, seduction, moderation, elegance, purity, body…).

34Let us recall that Baudrillard is characteristically critical of the promotion of the body to a fundamental social “capital” and “fetish” whose sole purpose is

to meet “capitalist” objectives […] to produce a yield. The body is not reappropriated for the autonomous ends of the subject, but in terms of a normative principle of enjoyment and hedonistic profitability. In other words, one manages one’s body; one handles it as one might handle an inheritance. (Baudrillard 1998, 131)

35The modern “rediscovery” of the body that goes hand in hand with its “liberation” eventually leads to a new “beauty imperative,” which ultimately develops into “an imperative of turning the body to advantage by way of narcissistic reinvestment” (Baudrillard 1998, 133). This new superposition of beauty and the capitalization of the body, within which hedonism itself is sanitized and sublimated for the benefit of social profit, then leads to

sacralization of the body as exponential value, of the functional body—that is to say, the body which is no longer “flesh” as in the religious conception, or labour power as in industrial logic, but is taken up again in its materiality (or its “visible” ideality) as a narcissistic cult object, or element of social ritual and tactics. (Baudrillard 1998, 132)

36In other words, “the body has today become an object of salvation. It has literally taken over that moral and ideological function from the soul” (Baudrillard 1998, 129), which the productivist system, fundamentally incapable of capitalizing on transcendence, has discredited as an unreliable, and at the same time non-evident navigator, across the “vast sea of being” (Dante 11).

37In this regard, try to ask yourself an intimate question that well illustrates Baudrillard’s observation (in allusion to the Gospel of St. Mark 2:1-11, which forms the distant context of Baudrillard's reasoning): if you were given the choice of being forgiven all the wrongs you have ever done (= spiritually conceived salvation), but at the cost of “ugliness,” would you not rather choose a “perfect” body that would meet all the aesthetic or sexual ideals of the day with the understanding that the wronged will somehow deal with your transgressions on their own (after all, it was nothing, right?)? As much as your head despises such silly normativity, would you not choose the latter?

38Baudrillard would have bet on you going the way of the body, which, in his view, has assumed the role of a privileged player in the game of success and loss, excellence and imperfection, or fulfilment of one’s potential and disappointment. An important Baudrillard observation is that the agenda of the soul was not lost; it was only entirely transferred to the body. With a little exaggeration, if the body used to fight the rigidity of spiritual prescriptions with the carnal emphasis on the immanent “here and now,” then the loss of the legitimacy of the soul—presented as a real or even the only real object—made the riotous guerrilla warfare pointless, however, without losing the need to do something about a somewhat unsatisfactory physical half-life. As paradoxical as it sounds, by eliminating the former agenda of the soul, the body only spontaneously submitted to another form of spontaneous spiritualization.

39This process is, of course, different from that of Michelangelo’s slaves; but it is not unrelated. Baudrillard observes that the new sacralized body “is no longer, strictly speaking, a body, but a shape”—do we not see a clear shadow of figura serpentinata here?—, while the aforementioned utilitarian imperative of beauty automatically places the body in the context of other capitalist fetishes, and leaves it “teeming with products, gadgets, and accessories in an atmosphere of total sophistication” (Baudrillard 1998, 134).

40Even in this respect, we do not depart from the basic logic of figura serpentinata; similar to the Renaissance line which tuned different bodies to a common wavelength of spiritual transformation, and similar to Hogarth’s line that made no distinction between living bodies and inorganic nature, Baudrillardian models, achieving their own ageless immortality (= enduring investment) on the idealized covers of fashion magazines (= now on Instagram), have become distinctive mortified “abstractions” (Baudrillard 1998, 133).

41Think of Michelangelo’s slaves, or Bacchus, whose apparent drunkenness (which was, after all, one of his main jobs) did not prevent him from standing firmly on his feet, as if he did not even fall under the jurisdiction of matter. The body criticized by Baudrillard as capital-fetish undergoes an apparent idealization too, only this time it turns into a remarkable body-idea (which does not age, does not fade, does not excrete), which through hygienic and visual purification “refuses the status of flesh, of sex, of finality of desire, instrumentalizing rather the fragmented parts of the body in a gigantic process of sublimation, of denying the body in its very evocation” (Baudrillard 1998, 133). That is, while remaining—or wanting to remain—erotic.

42Note that this is what figura serpentinata—at least in the context of the engagements that we have considered—did and, in fact, still does on Instagram. This time, too, it defends the body against the ever-threatening excess of corporeality itself, and this time, too, it provides a hygienic tool that

with its fantasies of sterility, asepsis, prophylaxis or, by contrast, of promiscuity, contamination, pollution—tending to conjure away the “organic” body and, in particular, the functions of excretion and secretion—aims at a negative definition of the body, by elimination, as though it were a smooth, faultless, sexless object, cut off from all external aggression, and thereby protected from itself. (Baudrillard 1998, 141)

43But there is yet another aspect, which is related to Baudrillard’s emphasis on the pornographic aspect of sacralized and hygienically sterilized bodies. Let us take a few steps back to Dolce’s critique of Michelangelo and his figures, caught up in a continuous movement in which the rising flame has spiralled out of control to become a consuming fire, as happens in the case of the fighting Centaurs or the damned falling to Hell in the monumental Last Judgment. And note the gradual dissolution of individual bodies into one great orgiastic clump, into a single vibrating mass, without clear shape or boundaries, as if we were witnessing a regression to the primordial soup of life, seasoned with liquid sensual passions. This is not unlike the process colourfully described by Alphonso Lingis:

The voluptuous embrace is necrophilic, bodies collapsing, decomposing, already soaking the sheets and oneself with released inner fluids, teeming with nameless and chaotic tinglings, spasms, fluids, musks, microorganisms. The flames of voluptuous pleasure ignite them as they careen and flare apart, in clothing and the wood of the furniture collecting swampy stains, in the air whose minute spheres of water vapor teem with protozoa, in the soil decomposing into unnameable fungi and bacteria. (Lingis 32-33)

44In this context, figura serpentinata serves as a basal instrument of individuation, separating the living body from the continuum of pulpy, fleshy matter; in all the contexts we have considered, as a matter of fact: only that the Renaissance line employs spiritual animation, while Hogarth hits the cliffs of the mechanized world and the hygienic discourse prefers to optimize the dynamics of corporeal flexibility.

45Now let us ask: would Dolce’s critique, mentioned above, not make sense even if he had not used the term disperati (desperate, but also feverish, frenzied), but pornographic? Naturally, the term pornography must be treated with caution, especially when totalitarian ideologues of all kinds like to use it to condemn anything that privatizes bodies beyond the reach of state propaganda. Here, however, we are not referring to the moral dimension of the term, but to its purely technical meaning as a distinctive écriture, the writing of bodies in which πορνεία (porneía: prostitution, unchastity) meets with γράφειν (gráphein: to write, to depict), so that the pornographer is the one who literally “writes debauchery,” as Roland Barthes put it (Barthes 132). Pornographic writing, then, would be one that transcribes bodies as wholly sexual, that is, as desirous (hence, in a way, desperate), unrestrained, and debauched in precisely the degree to which they resist the sublimating pressure not to be merely corporeal.

46Seen in this light, do the clusters of Michelangelo’s obsessive figures, together with Lingis’ bodies, or all possible orgiastic clumps, from Rubens’ paintings to the footage of swingers’ parties, not work their way to a certain critical limit of erotic touch? A limit beyond which visual individuation collapses back into a vibrating continuum of exuberant turmoil, from which the serpentine figure emerges only as an unstable division line?

47We are especially interested in the consequences of one particular definition of “porn” that is as laconically accurate as it is extremely tricky, for it understands pornography as “the portrayal of sexual subject matter for the exclusive purpose of sexual arousal” (Seltzer). For what does this “exclusive” actually involve, and what distinguishes bodies thus objectified and pornographicized from other things?

48Let us repeat the argument above with a slightly different nuance and emphasis: if the pornographic body is one that is exclusively sexually arousing, then this eliminative “nothing”—in the sense of “nothing but sexual”—is mirrored in the pornographic claim to everything non-sexual. In other words, if pornography is such a writing of carnality that consistently writes off everything that is non-sexual—which in practice proves to be quite difficult, as evidenced by the never-ending disputes about where the borders of porn begin and end—then we can describe as pornographic such writing that performatively manages to expose everything as sexual, i.e. as something fluid, miscible, penetrable, copulateable.

49Not unlike Baudrillard’s bodies “teeming with products” (and not unlike the opinion interpreting pornographic production as a capitalist effectivization of sexuality), which is one of the reasons why Baudrillard generalizes the concept of pornography to “the obscenity of visibility and of the inexorable transparency of everything,” and claims that “the essence of the pornographic has passed into all the technologies of the visual” (Baudrillard 2008, 187). In other words, the general economy of pornography is the result of a tele-visual “end of the secret” (Baudrillard 1990, 31).

50This tendency manifests itself, among other things, in the pornographic fascination with detail or interiority, so that it is often unclear what exactly we are looking at, except for the unwavering certainty that we are facing some infinitesimal but intense sexual extremity, representing the curious intersection of the otherwise contradictory tendency to conceal nothing and—at the same time—to convert the distance of the eyes into the intimacy of touch.

51This again lets us peer through an interpretive keyhole into the world of bedrooms, dressing rooms, bathrooms and gyms of our Instagram Venuses who are “as pure as dictionary words,” to paraphrase another of Barthes’ remarks regarding the language of carnal desire (Barthes 134). It is indeed a marvellous innocence; for if the pornographic performative primarily concerns the interior, and tends towards endless indecent vocabularization of details, and if eroticism makes the mystery emerge in its urgent presence, then the Instagram Venuses, made of the same immanent visual flesh, surprisingly defy both.

52Far from any transcendence, these Venuses present themselves and nothing more, reveal their bodies and nothing more, make beauty profitable and nothing more, utilize carnal capital and nothing more. They emerge from the same digital apeiron as other images—including pornographic ones—but stubbornly refuse to dissolve into the pulsating ocean of intimate detail, against the sexually energized, unbound and formless flesh, against which they define themselves as marble sculptures, abstract, solid, and smooth as the spiral that encircles them like a chastity belt. If these bodies have something to hide—and they have, for they walk the world as dreamy Gradivas promising to lead us to utopias of desire—it will only be revealed somewhere else, some other time, to somebody else. They are nothing but pure sex, but they delay the boiling point of the sexual—the point at which an adjective becomes a substance—to the eternal “later.”

53This, then, is where figura serpentinata has arrived: she has become a noblewoman whom the secular revolutions may have brought to the street, but who is still on formal terms with the masses of the everyday.

54This is by no means the end of the serpentine figure’s run through history, for one of its futures may well belong to “a [digital] collage of contracted and inflated body parts” (Hurley 2022)—as in the case of bodies, perfected by a surgical procedure aptly named plastic, which are de facto collections of phantasms come true—or to “sexy, funny, confident, hot [...] empathetic, nurturing, and understanding [...] bot girlfriends” (Depounti 2023), kneaded from very similar dreams.

55We will not follow figura serpentinata into this future, but let us try to conclude our reflection with a slightly exaggerated comparison that will also sum up our journey: because if all the aforementioned Venuses have something in common, from the Renaissance ones to the hygienic ones to the Instagram ones, it is a certain unreality. Hogarth pursued the natural curves that were to be found in the wilds of London, only to subsequently herd his females into dance classes, outside of which the line of beauty could not survive. Hygienic discourse, for a change, advocated natural curves that it nevertheless attributed to an “extinct” species of ancient maidens. In fact, it could be said that we have been watching a re-polarization of the unreal all along; the only difference being that the Renaissance figure marks a path to what does not yet exist, Hogarth’s line is a prescription for something that cannot exist (not for long anyway), and the hygienic undulation springs from an idealized human condition that no longer exists (in the civilized world).

56How do our Instagram Venuses fit into this line-up? They emerge from the waves of everyday life as something approaching the hallucination of a reality that exists only as mirage, as evidenced by the rampant anxiety of those who, in the face of arranged selfies, do not recognize themselves as authentic beings, as “natural beauties.” However physical and flesh and blood, Instagram Venuses rule these waves as apparitions that are never really there and that once again overturn the paradox of Balzac’s The Hidden Masterpiece, since standing before the women, we / they are looking at / for a picture.

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Notes

1 This is a very loose connection, but if the animation of the body, or the manner and degree of its animation, dictates something like a bodily style, then the same applies to the artist’s style: a similar restraint or wildness, in short, guides the artist’s hand. It is therefore not entirely coincidental that when, much later, Camillo Baldi refers to hair as a painterly element that is difficult to copy, since “these features in a painting are like strokes and flourishes in handwriting, which require the master’s boldness and resolution” (Camillo Baldi, quoted in Ginzburg 1989, 110), it will be the very same hair which Alberti mentions as the most receptive part of the body in terms of the dynamics of the moving force. In other words, hair—which stands for the general bodily capacity to be animated—is the best absorber of movement and it best captures the painterly style as well, representing a signature of the artist’s spiritual characteristics.

2 For the sake of sharing the experience with William Hogarth, whom we will get to shortly, we are quoting from the original English translation which was available to him.

3 For the impact of the liberated line on modern art, and thought, see for example Gerlach 244, Bredekamp 205, Bryson 28.

4 This, by the way, is close to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s remarks in the 1750s concerning the “natural” preconditions for the ideality of Greek beauty, given, among other things, by a healthy climate and “because of the temperate seasons found there” (Winckelmann 2013, 31). The 19th-century hygienic ideas presented here are generally consistent with this ecology of beauty: it is the poor environment of cities and modern civilization that manifests itself in unhealthy bodies, whose poor condition also manifests itself in a deficit of beauty.

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References

Electronic reference

Ondřej Váša, Venuses on Instagram. Survival of the Figura Serpentinata in the Age of Social MediaMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 18 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/58162; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.58162

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About the author

Ondřej Váša

Assistant Professor
Faculty of Humanities, Charles University in Prague
ondrej.vasa@fhs.cuni.cz

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