We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Fence_ and Renaissance signs · 29 October 05

Dear Miss Vane,

On WomenPosts (a list whose terrain is the discussion of women’s poetry, one which is feminist and discusses women’s art and the politics of women’s lives), someone wrote in to suggest she was appalled at the cover pictures of the most recent issue of Fence, a magazine supposedly intended to discuss and publish fiction by and for young woman1.

It makes visible how women in our culture are continually everywhere in popular culture turned into Come-Hither-Fuck-Me objects. A few weeks ago I was in a mall shop where cell phones were sold and found myself confronted by a life-size cut-out of a very nubile thin and big-breasts woman with huge amounts of blonde hair framing her face, wearing a very low-cut white T-shirt, and jeans so tight you could see the outlines of her vulva. Her legs were wrapped about a high stool so as to emphasize the V. The caption was something about how families love cell phones.

Looking at the Fence cover though, we see what Judy Chicago wanted us to see in her famous Dinner Party, which, the last time I was there, was due to be installed at the Brookyn Museum of Art. There are no clothes to fool us—or pretend to fool us on what’s being sold here. We see a young nubile girl with her squeezed very full breasts thrust at us. I wonder if you know that in Renaissance Europe (particularly towns in northern Italy, e.g., Rome), the way to indicate you were running a brothel was to have a sign somewhere with a girl with one breast exposed. I’ve not come across any explicit description of this custom and am not sure people at the time went so far as to put such a large sign outside the shop (in the many of signs in this period where so many people were illiterate); they may have used these left-over pictures as cheap sheets pinned to the walls2.

The way you can could in classical times (Rome), and again in the Renaissance through later 17th century (when the explicit custom seems to have died out) tell a woman’s status—whether she was a courtesan (high-class prostitute), readily available prostitute or simply someone of of lower status and young and made available—is by pictures of her with one breast exposed. Especially telling is when she offers her breast with one hand, or gestures to it. There is much conflict between scholars of Renaissance women’s poetry about the Renaissance Venetian poet Gaspara Stampa’s status. Stampa’s span was ca. 1523-54; she may have died of a miscarriage (the phrase in the dialect or slang Italian used to explain the cause of death in the one brief document we have means some sickness or something going wrong in her uterus). Those who work on Stampa’s poetry often resort to apparently glamorous and euphemistic terms like hetaira to describe how Stampa supported herself and at the same time try to insinuate she wasn’t a courtesan. Gaspara Stampa was a musician and poet, but she was also clearly a courtesan as her picture shows her delicately but clearly pointing to one of her breasts, both of which are mostly exposed in in an expensive low-cut dress.

My guess is that this custom in Rome descends from classical Roman times.

The closest explicit description of this I’ve ever come across was a scholarly essay in Italian on pasquinades in Renaissance Rome: this was one of these nasty scapegoating customs where you could put notes or graffitti on statues (usually phallic) attacking someone satirically. It did have political uses but was also used personally. Renaissance people wouldn’t have expressed it this way but they knew the personal was political.

The other thought I had was a memory of a passage that startled me. It was a report or description of a dinner party at a bunch of Renaissance French royal personnages were seen. The king at the time was Henry II (1519-1559) and his mistress Diane de Poitiers, or, as she’s sometimes called Madame de Valentinois (1499-1566). She had been the daughter of some flunky at court whose mother had been illegimate and there was no money; married off to somebody or other (for money or land or position or as part of networking as usual, patronage games) at a young age she became Henry II’s father’s mistress, and then though she was 20 years older than Henry II, Henry II’s mistress.

Oedipal vibes here: a couple of months ago now I saw the crude and probably misogynistic movie which focuses on the "damage" a femme fatale does to a pair of men and sex does to her on account of her own voracious appetite for self-abnegation, Damage (in French, Fatal). In this film we watch Jeremy Irons (thin, looking physically frail as well as tortured) continually fucking and physically clawing at Juliette Brioche who is desperately eager to be hurt; Brioche is the partner and bethrothed of Irons’s young son, and one day the son discovers his father and his own mistress at it, aghast backs away, but alas there is a stairway just a few feet from the room, and the son falls down the stairs to his death.

Anyway at dinner Diane de Poitiers aka Madame de Valentois would wear a top that had much gauze and exposed her nipples—or left them bare. It’s not clear from the French description.

Madame de Valentois was powerful at court as long as Henry II lived; but since her power was contingent, once the king died, Henry II’s legitimate wife, Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) rather forcefully requested Diane leave. I remember Diane did have a castle or land of her own by then so she did better than Emma, Lady Hamilton, who after Nelson died ended her life in dire poverty and sickness somewhere in France.

The story of Henry II and Diane (minus the bared nipples scene) is extant and in choice French. You may read it in Marie-Madeleine de la Lafayette’s La Princess de Clèves (1678).

Imagine another dinner scene: John Evelyn, a 17th century diarist (1620-1706) describes Nell Gwynn (1650-1687), self-described "Protestant whore" to Charles II (1630-1685) sat a late night drinking scene where she too exposed her nipples (red rouge as I recall) through a very low cut dress. Evelyn is totally shocked by what then ensues and I’ve always wondered what it was since he doesn’t go on to describe it. Charles II’s youger brother, James, later the Second and deposed (1653-1701), was there and he particpated (says Evelyn). I am happy to report that Nelly didn’t starve. She was left a house and income died too quickly after Charles to run out of the resources left her.

A more recent story and I’ll have done: I read with my Advanced Comp in the Natural Sciences class regularly the two widely-sold autobiographical books by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?. In Surely You’re Joking, Feynman describes how at one point when he was regularly going to a massage parlor and haunting a bar where young women danced without tops, he made a painting of the girls he saw there. He drew one of them messaging a man on a tressle where she had one of her breasts exposed, with the same traditional gesture. In his picture he made her face expressionless and grim. When the women said they didn’t like the picture and were driven to become explicit and protest when the picture was hung on a wall:

"One girl said she didn’t like the expression on the slave girl’s face. ‘She doesn’t look happy,’ she said. ‘’She should be smiling.’

I said to her, ‘Tell me—while you’re massaging a guy, and he’s not looking at you, are you smiling?’

‘Oh no!’ she said, ‘I feel exactly like she looks! But it’s not right to put it in a picture’" (1985 Norton Surely You’re Joking, "But is it art?", p. 273)

The picture on this recent cover of, Fence, unashamedly turns the girl on the front into a the age-old sign of the prostitute. This is what the magazine has for sale. Sex from girls. I tell the middle stories about a Renaissance court and 17th century English royal behavior to show how sexuality is mostly contingent fragile power and its practical source (what is beckoned). Feynman’s story is (as is typical of his many stories), complicated and is about how people don’t want art to reveal to them their true selves or lives.

Miss Sylvia Drake

1 I don’t mention the inserted iron ring in the girl’s lip and pin by her nose. A whole other blog is needed for that.

2 I just catalogued Lynne Lawner’s Lives of the Courtesans, Rizzoli (1987), ISBN 084780738X. This large book published on art paper is filled with pictures of prostitutes holding out one of their breasts or pointing to one or both breasts. The paradigm is a breast on offer. The expressions of most of the women are grim or simply expressionless. They would not be deluded like the young girls who pay the very wealthy conservative man to have their bodies exposed on Suicide Girls.

Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Ellen, I also find the cover offensive. The woman is too submissive and coy to be celebrating female sexuality and does, as you say, evoke the image of a female prostitute.

    But is it really a women’s magazine? The editor-in-chief is a woman, but many others on the masthead are men. And many of the contributors are men: Rick Moody and Chris Offutt are a few whose writing I know.
    Kathy    Oct 29, 11:43am    #
  2. Ellen, I found the movie Damage to be very troubling, but I hadn’t thought of it as misogynistic until you mentioned it. Rather, it was the acting out of uncontrollably destructive passion that frightened me: the father’s oedipal insanity and the Frenchwoman’s need to repeat some(unstated) catastrophe she had been part of earlier. I thought Brioche was deeply compelling and Irons very credible. And, as I say, it scared me—I saw it twice—and made me think about some of my own past craziness.
    Bob    Oct 29, 8:39pm    #
  3. Kathy,

    My older daughter says it is, and like Fran on our WWTTA list, linked the magazine to a "suicide girls" site. It’s not high-brow; rather it’s an "alternative." A "gothic" type magazine for rebellious girls. There is writing there, even if some by men.

    What an alternative! Are we to be gratified a girl is allowed to have a body and not be anorexic if the permission is granted when she offers herself up to all comers?

    Chava    Oct 30, 9:15am    #
  4. Dear Bob,

    Well I can see how it can rivet someone. I’ve had patterns of self-destructive behavior (and yes especially in the area of sex), gone to a psychiatrist, talked about it, understood its roots, sources, and so on, and then gone out and behaved in a modified version of self-destruction.

    Still I felt the woman was presented as sick and to blame. The wife was presented as this breastless hag, repressed. The film seemed to me exploitative and
    like many art films selling itself through graphic depictions of sex.

    It improved for me in the last 20 minutes when the man is seen living by himself and at peace. Had the film begun there and then presented the rest as a flashback and not so exploitatively, I might have "bought" it as a serious film.

    It was certainly memorable, but not in the truly radical way of Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

    Chava    Oct 30, 9:23am    #
  5. Ellen, I see that I followed your lead in identifying Juliet Binoche as "Brioche." A piece of pastry she is not. The funny thing is I don’t remember the sex scenes at all, only their consequences.
    bob    Oct 30, 7:58pm    #
  6. Right, we both mispelt her name. I remember the sex scenes very well.

    I usually like Binoche’s typical roles. She played Hana (the nurse) in The English Patient and Catherine Earnshaw/Catherine Linton in Wuthering Heights; in both these 2 films her male co-star was Ralph Fiennes.

    Chava    Oct 30, 11:53pm    #
  7. It’s been pointed out to me offblog that upper class European women of the 18th century wore lowcut, very lowcut dresses. In the 17th century they are pictured showing their nippless sometimes. But they did not in life take their hands and press their breasts out to put them on offer as this young girl does at the magazine site. They did not have themselves drawn or photographed with a finger pointing to or offering one breast.

    They were not prostitutes or enacting prostitution . These sites

    Chava    Nov 6, 7:26am    #
  8. Catherine C from Trollope-l and WWTTA sent the following:

    Regarding the cover photo of "Fences," I don’t know how anybody can look at this photograph much less write about it. Where will that woman be in 25 years? Women who rely on their sexual power have no idea what fate is in store for them when the men in their lives cast them aside as rubbish. It is said that women are never "so powerful" as when they are in their teens and 20’s. ’ Some young women take the perception of power as an accomplishment, and don’t realize how fleeting this so-called power is. I think that men are visually and sexually driven. It disgusts me – they are little better that animals acting like automatons. If men could urinate on every woman like a dog pees on a fire hydrant they would do it.

    Chava    Nov 6, 11:26am    #

commenting closed for this article