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Love and Sexuality in Early Modern Italy

Instructor: Paolo Alei [see profile]
Disciplines: Art History, Women's & Gender Studies

This course explores love and sexuality in Italian culture from circa 1350 to 1650. From the verses of Petrarch, to the writings of Ficino, Leone Ebreo, Aretino, and poems by Marino, love and sexuality were theorized and represented in the treatises, poetry, painting, and sculpture of this period. Mainly on-site in the churches, palaces, and museums of Rome, this course will take in consideration the poetic, social and visual aspects of the topic in an interdisciplinary study that considers both word and image. 

It begins with Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling and its reflection on the fall of Adam and Eve with their subsequent awareness of their sexuality. Following Leo Steinberg’s theory about the sexuality of Christ, we will explore the theology of nudity in Christian art as well as the amor dei (love for God) or mystic marriage through Baroque sculptures such as Bernini’s saints in ecstasy. The second part of the course will focus on the more secular, sensuous, and even lascivious aspects by considering the revival of ancient classical culture. Central to this evolution will be the Metamorphoses by Ovid and the themes deriving from the many commentaries on it such as, for example, unrequited love through Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, rape though Bernini’s Abduction of Persephone, and love for the self through Caravaggio’s Narcissus. The course concludes with exploring socio-historical, gendered topics such as marriage, courtesans, male virility, female chastity, homosexuality, androgyny and hermaphroditism through a variety of art objects.


  • a midterm exam
  • an oral presentation
  • a paper (8-10 pages)
  • a final exam