Prof. James Grantham Turner, Free Public Lecture @ The University of Melbourne

“Post-Platonism: Rethinking the Relations of Art, Love and Desire, 1500-1767”, Prof. James Grantham Turner (James D. Hart Professor, University of California, Berkeley)

Date: Tuesday 14 March, 2017
Time: 7:00pm – 8:00pm
Venue: Kathleen Fitzpatrick Theatre, Room B01, Arts West Building, The University of Melbourne
Registration: Admission is free. Bookings are required. Seating is limited. To register visit:
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For further information please contact Brenda Jackson or phone 8344 1521

This enquiry starts from three strikingly similar passages denouncing the false shame that devalues physical, sexual love, by Pietro Aretino (1537), Michel de Montaigne (1588) and Lawrence Sterne (1767). In the early modern period such ‘sex-positive’ polemic inevitably targeted neo-Platonism, which fiercely rejected corporeal sexuality and bodily sensation, polarising Eros/Cupid and Venus/Aphrodite into two utterly opposed categories, earthly and celestial. My main topic will therefore be the changing interpretations of Platonic Eros and their implications for the material body and the material practice of art. Drawing on my forthcoming book Eros Visible, I establish a context in the ‘erotic revolution’ that swept through sixteenth-century aesthetic theory and artistic practice, typified by Aretino and the artists and patrons he advised. Parallel to the ‘corporeal turn’ in philosophy – here related to artists and historians who value ‘flesh tones’ most highly (carne in Italian, Inkarnat in German) – I trace important semantic changes in words such as lascivious and libido, suddenly used in a positive sense. Despite massive and obvious differences between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, I will argue that one core idea was reinvented in each period: Platonic anticorporeality is absolutely rejected, but at the same time thinkers retain, and even amplify, the equally Platonic image of a graduated ascent, rising upon a ladder or staircase by a series of ‘steps’ to attain the highest form of Love. In both periods the key concept is erotic ‘sublimity’. Visual evidence will include canonical statues and paintings of Venus, a little-known allegory by Peruzzi, and several images from the LOVE exhibition soon to open at the National Gallery of Victoria. Writings on art and Eros will be selected to bring out surprising points in common between avowed libertines like Aretino and figures conventionally interpreted as idealising and cerebral, notably Leonardo da Vinci. Commentaries on Plato and private love-letters will reveal ‘carnal’ moments in writers notorious for upholding the pure anticorporeal version of Platonism, especially Marsilio Ficino and Pietro Bembo.

James Grantham Turner has taught at the Universities of Oxford, Sussex, Liverpool, Virginia and Michigan, and now holds the James D. Hart Chair at the University of California, Berkeley. He works on the interactions of literature, visual culture, social and intellectual history, in Antiquity, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. He contributed the essay ‘Bodies of Love’ to the National Gallery of Victoria exhibition catalogue LOVE: The Art of Emotion 1400-1800, and among his articles on libertine sexuality and erotic passion are ‘Novel Panic: Picture and Performance in the Reception of Richardson’s Pamela’, ‘Libertinism and Toleration: Milton, Bruno and Aretino’, ‘Profane Love: The Challenge of Sexuality’, ‘Sexual Awakening As Radical Enlightenment: Arousal and Ontogeny in Buffon and La Mettrie’, and ‘Invention and Sexuality in the Raphael Workshop: Before the Modi’. His books include The Politics of Landscape: Rural Scenery and Society in English Poetry, l630-l660 (Harvard l979), One Flesh: Paradisal Marriage and Sexual Relations in the Age of Milton (Oxford 1987), Libertines and Radicals in Early Modern London: Sexuality, Politics and Literary Culture, 1630-1685 (Cambridge 2001), Schooling Sex: Libertine Literature and Erotic Education in Italy, France, and England, 1534-1685 (Oxford 2003) and Eros Visible: Art, Sexuality and Antiquity in Renaissance Italy (about to appear from Yale).