EssaysWeekend

Egregious Renaissance Maleness, From the Inside Out

An up-close look at the codpiece.

The codpiece of Don Grazia de Medici (1562) reconstructed by Anne-Marie Norton, with embellishments derived from the codpiece of Cosimo Medici (1574) (image courtesy the artist)

LONDON — In these plaguey days, how eager should we be to examine the remains of a 16th-century codpiece firsthand?

Furthermore, how much full-strength, anti-bacterial hand-wash would we need to slather and squander in the panic-stricken, immediate aftermath of any serious, one-on-one act of visual-cum-tactile scrutiny?

Would there be fetid remnants of some ill-definable ancient pungency still remotely alive in the air? A certain suspiciously greasy slitheriness about the surface of the once costly fabric of the thing, now badly faded?

These questions hang mock-menacingly in the fresh south London air that I am still so fortunate (fingers crossed) to be breathing. Luckily, I have been spared all this potential misery, thanks to a deft seamstress and former ballerina called Anne-Marie Norton…

According to Anne-Marie, the ‘remains’ of a codpiece known to have been worn by Don Grazia de Medici in 1562 are preserved at the Pitti Palace in Florence. She learnt of this while delving into the history of the making of codpieces at my request.

Why ask her in the first place? I hear you snickering, voyeuristically.

Titian, “Emperor Charles V with a Dog” (1533), oil on canvas, 194 x 112.7 cm; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (image courtesy David Zwirner Books)

Last autumn I published Thrust (David Zwirner Books, 2019), a little treatise that attempts to be, as the subtitle states, “A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art.”

The codpiece, a gross object of fleeting allure, went down almost as fast as it came up — living and dying as a thing of high fashion and indispensable male accoutrement in the 16th century — and for only about 50 years of that century, at that.

In the book, I discuss paintings by the likes of Titian, Moroni, Coello, Parmigianino, Giorgione, and others who recorded these great priapic occasions, when men of the church, aristocrats, kings, and emperors galore strapped them on as never before (or since) in a veritable orgy of tremendously eye-catching uprearingness.

What I did not do in that book, however, was to say much about the actual making of the codpiece, its materiality you might say, if were you endeavoring to earn a meager living as a culturally high-toned lecturer in fine art and fashion.

To be perfectly honest, I had not up to that point dandled or fondled a Renaissance codpiece in my very own hands. I had not even considered overmuch its actual fabrication — exactly how it was made and from what, and what it really looked like at the back…

I still have not.

Examined one of that vintage, that is.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, “Portrait of Antonio Navagero” (1565), oil on canvas, 115 x 90 cm; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan (image courtesy David Zwirner Books)

In fact, thanks to dear Anne-Marie, I have gone one better by far. Having done on my behalf the heavy-lifting that careful research always demands, she was able to find useful pointers in a pattern book of our own time, Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c.1560-1620 (Macmillan, 1985), which deals with the exactness of things way back when.

And then, faster even than Jumping Jack Flash himself, she made me one. An exact likeness! And so I now possess my very own faux-authentic Renaissance codpiece, made to the exact pattern of the one worn by that Medici whose name I have just cited (with a few extra bits of decorative embellishment boldly snatched from the codpiece of yet another Medici called Cosimo I, and worn just a little later, in 1574.)

So how did it work exactly?

First, she asked me for my measurements. (She knew that I wanted to show it off at a lecture). I sidestepped that nasty little bolt of unanticipated impertinence by giving her the measurements of my waistband. Was I being obtuse and unhelpful? 

Not at all! Waistband measurements are very useful because you tie the thing on at the waist, where it hangs down (yet always pridefully, as the Honorable Member demands), at the height of every raised expectation.

On a now-distant day before the lockdown, Anne-Marie presented me with this delight of an eye-feast, in a tall and rather elegant black box, on the steps of a dancing academy in Covent Garden called Pineapple, which is three leaps and a single smart lunge away from the Royal Opera House. The codpiece was modestly nestled, nose down, as if it might have gently crash-landed, in white tissue paper.

Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola), “Pietro Maria Rossi, Count of San Secondo” (1535–1538), oil, 133 x 98 cm (image courtesy David Zwirner Books)

When I lifted the lid, to the consternation of the many gathered around (who had been tipped off about the time and place of its imminent appearance), I felt a little like a waggish, thin-mustachioed, pier-end prestidigitator. But a codpiece, even when inert in a box, is a thousand times the cultural superior of a mere rabbit.

And yet, viewed from behind, you notice that there is no point of entry. It is flat-backed, sealed off. No nosing allowed then. The codpiece revealed its function not as a hubristic spectacle, but as mere decoration!

Did the member itself ever cower at the rear, one wonders, fearful that the codpiece may have made a promise that actual anatomy might not deliver? Never! Never! There was always too much at stake.

What was it made from then? Covered in gorgeous red-dyed damask, it was stabilized (like any fresh-primed time bomb of roaring lustfulness) with cotton ticking, and tightly stuffed (you have to pack it as hard as you can because it needs to maintain its solid-looking and -feeling shapeliness for hours, months, years) with an organic fabric called kapok.

Kapok! What an oddly jaunty little word that is. Kapok is the stuff with which children’s toys are stuffed. These materials are not authentic to the time, of course. (This we would have recognized well enough, I have no doubt, as soon as we hear the word “children” uttered. There were no children in the 16th century. There were only miniature adults, and they were always dressed as such.)

Way back when, the codpiece would have been stuffed with horsehair or bombast (a kind of cotton wadding). Its outside might have been made of leather. An animal bone could have been inserted to ensure the maintenance of shapeliness. Needs must.

The point was this: it must never flag in its attentions. Never.

Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art (2019) by Michael Glover is published by David Zwirner Books.

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