Most everyone agrees that the female body is more aesthetically pleasing than the male, and women are much more commonly portrayed as reifications of beauty than are men. (Perhaps the most famous exception is Michelangelo’s David, above.) Men aren’t generally depicted for their beauty, but perhaps we can learn a bit about the historical “ideal male body” by examining some artwork of men who were at the top of the social hierarchy for another reason: martial prowess.
Redditor PartyMoses writes about depictions of men in 15th century fencing manuals.
I’m going to take some time to talk about a man named Paulus Kal. Kal was a fencing master who wrote a treatise on the knightly arts, and had a long career as a knight in various capacities, served some civic functions for Nuremberg, and was sworn in service to a couple of dukes. In the 1480s (probably), he wrote his treatise, which contained a fair amount of art.
We think Kal depicted himself in the middle here, wearing the red/pink suit. He’s helping a knight (right) prepare for a duel. Take a look at Kal and a look at the anonymous knight for a moment. Kal doesn’t look the way we think of as “fit” today. He has a noticable belly, no definition of arm muscles, stout legs. He looks very similar in other images, even from (possibly) different artists. Now take a look at the arming knight: again, no muscle definition, the man in fact looks quite thin. It’s the same in most of the images throughout the treatise.
Aside from these fencers, PartyMoses also points to “Kal’s Birdman”:
I have eyes like a hawk, so you do not deceive me.
I have a heart like a lion, so I strive forward.
I have feet like a hind, so I can spring to and fro.
Obviously the ideal man is not an exquisite corpse or a nightmarish fusing of animal with human, but we are supposed to understand the animal-like features of the ideal fencer. Eyes that can’t be deceived, courage that won’t falter, quick feet. But look at the body of this ideal man. No muscle tone, nearly anywhere. An exaggerated waist even with a bit of a gut, thin arms, tapering legs.
(Follow the link above for commentary and many more pictures.)
Did 15th-century women swoon over these emaciated birdmen? Unfortunately I couldn’t find any depictions of men created by women of that era… maybe someone more proficient with art history would know the answer.
Women: are you familiar with any artwork that portrays an attractive male figure? Leave a comment and let us know.