Lecture highlights fashion and masculinity in Renaissance art

On Thurs., March 28, students, fac­ulty and members of the Wheaton Friends of Arts came to Ellison Lecture for the fifth annual Mary L. Heu­ser lecture. The topic of the evening was Professor Timothy McCall’s presentation “Brilliant Male Bodies on Display: Italian Renaissance Fashion, Ornamentation and Splendor.”

Assistant Professor of Art History at Vil­lanova University in Philadelphia, McCall’s research interests lie in “investigating gen­der, power and visual culture” during Me­dieval and Renaissance periods, particularly in Italy. The lecture he gave came out of his upcoming publication, Brilliant Bodies: Men at Court in Early Renaissance Italy.

An ongoing project for the last several years, McCall says his research took new directions towards masculinity, clothing and adornment during his time in Italy as a fel­low for Harvard’s Center for Renaissance Studies, the Villa I Tatti, in 2010. “I realized that all of these images of mistresses that I was writing about actually told us more about the men who were sometimes paying for the images (and also looking at them) than it did about the women who were be­ing represented,” he explained.

During his lecture, McCall encouraged the audience to think beyond the visual and imagine the men in his presentation as in motion, their ornate splendor clinking as they walked in pub­lic. Using frescoes and documents of prominent public figures as evidence, McCall illustrated how power and status was broadcast in the 15th century through clothing and orna­mentation.

In one example, an exchange of let­ters revealed that the women writing took more interest in the gems the men wore than the actual men themselves. Well aware that they were objects to be looked at and that “looking beautiful was an ideologi­cal requirement,” Italian male aris­tocrats often held deep insecurities, as pointed out by McCall.

Although Mc­Call’s discussion drew on visual and written evi­dence from the 15th century, As­sistant Professor of Art History Touba Ghadessi noted that his research is applicable to modern society in different manifestations. Not only did Mc­Call’s presentation challenge the notions of masculinity and male fashion held in Re­naissance times, certain correlations could be made to the 21st century. In one humor­ous example, McCall related a document that decreed men caught wearing too short a doublet (a close fitting buttoned jacket) would be subject to a fine, a situation not too different from exposing too much skin in to­day’s society.Through issues regarding the body and ideologies of sexuality, his work relates not only to Art History but offers op­portunities for interdisciplinary study.

Funded by the Wheaton Friends of Arts, McCall’s lectures was part of a series that honors former Art History professor Mary Heuser, who helped revive the organization in 1981. This year’s event was organized by Professor Ghadessi, who invited McCall and introduced his presentation. According to Professor Tripp Evans, who is the Mary L. Heuser Chair in the Arts, Heuser’s spe­cialty was Medieval and Renaissance art, so she may have been particularly pleased with this year’s topic.