The handsome Italian flight attendant unfolded the cloth napkin and rested it across my lap, with big smiling Caravaggio eyes that toyed with me for the moment. Bob and I had left Verona at 4 a.m. to race through the foggy Northern Italian countryside in our rental car and arrive at Milano’s Malpensa airport just short of two hours ahead of departure, only to find that Alitalia had overbooked our flight and we might not have seats.
Bob was miserable. He had picked up a cold in Verona, or Modena, or possibly even in my favorite Bologna. So driving through the dark and the fog to arrive at an airport that seemed to be accessible only by a series of farm roads with foreign names like “deviazione” and “non accessibile” had been stressful, to say the least, and multiplied when we learned at the ticket counter that we might not get on the plane at all.
But luckily, after waiting and worrying right up to flight time, we were instead, to our relief, issued tickets at the last moment and sent down the boarding tube to the airplane.
I handed my ticket to the beautiful woman at the door, in her elegant Mondrian Nadini uniform, and peered to my right into the overstuffed coach section. It looked like a casting call for the “befores” of a weight-loss informercial. The tightly packed, darkly clad, heavy mass of humanity was startling after the bright, gorgeous, airy piazze of Italy, where the locals seemed to be able to eat gilati all day and still climb in and out of their Ferrari with ease. I wondered if I’d ever find our seats among them, and whether anyone would be able to find me when the flight was over.
“Mi scusi, signore,” the beautiful attendant pointed me to my left instead, “Da questa parte. La prima classe. This way.”
Bob and I glanced to one another, trying to conceal surprise and cautious delight. Neither of us had ever been upgraded to first class before (and for that matter, never again since). Moreover, this was no ordinary first class, this was la prima classe on Alitalia where everything looked to have been engineered by the Swiss, but designed by an Italian: comfortable seats that reclined fully enough to sleep in (which poor sick Bob promptly did, snoring lightly much of the trip home); two large fresh snacks and a full, warm meal of agnolotti, contorni, e fruiti di mare served on a metal tray with silverware, and a glass of Valpolicella Ripasso; between meals my own foldout movie screen with a selection of films at a time before personal movie screens were anywhere; and six male flight attendants, assistenti di volo, each più bello than the next, at my service. Their names must have been Rafaele, Gabriele, Michele and a host of other nomi angelici. I imagined the plane had ascended too high and I was already in heaven. This was how I would spend eternity, six gorgeous Italian men seeing to my every comfort: “Mi scusi, will that be all, signore? Would you like me to place anything else across your lap?”
My imagination (being left on its own while Bob slept) wandered back through the towns of Northern Italy that we had visited. These were the days before one could spend a six-hour flight swiping drowsily through the 50-million digital images in one’s iPhone galleries with a knowing smile. I had also packed all my heavily annotated guidebooks into my luggage in cargo. They had weighed down my backpack throughout the trip, and I decided to travel as lightly as possible for the final leg home. But I didn’t need any of that anyway. Even the most unimaginative techno-drone leaves Italy with a head full of images, smells, tastes and naughty indulgences that can be recalled at will for years to come.
This was only our second trip to Italy, and much the same as the first, it had been for me like a long awaited first date with my earliest crush. My love of all things Italian, particularly Renaissance and Baroque art, had germinated in me from as far back as I can remember.
My Midwest, working-class parents had a son who loved to draw, and did their best to encourage my interest from what little they knew or what little experience they had with art. Much of what I saw was religious art: Bible story books, church missals, and the church calendar that arrived each December with dramatically painted illustrations that followed the readings of the coming church year. Or by special request, they would sometimes pull the only art history volume that our family owned down from off its bookshelf perch next to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and if I sat up and back on the sofa and let the book carefully rest across my legs, as if they had handed me a newborn to hold, I could peruse its pages for as long as I liked, which was often hours.
As I did, pouring over the pages of the Renaissance and Baroque painters and sculptors in particular–Michelangelo, Bernini, da Vinci, Caravaggio–with my little cordovan shoes poking up at the top edge of the book, I was taken by all the elements: massive calves, backs and buttocks in togas and sandals, taming the lions and tearing down temples, artistry that used paint or stone to bring human bodies to life, and stories of struggle and salvation bigger than my small world could imagine. My sisters would explain the stories to me, which I would hear repeated at church, and later in Catholic parochial school. The stories came to life for me personally each time I stared at the images in the books or attempted to draw them for myself. The more nudity there was, the better: the Garden of Eden, David and Goliath, big hairy Sampson, Jesus’ baptism and resurrection. And, interestingly enough, the Renaissance and Baroque painters and sculptors, even the church calendar illustrators, seemed to like these stories best too.
My mother recalled her own shock at a piece of construction paper I once brought to her with a crayon drawing on each side. On the front was a drawing of Adam and Eve, and on the back, a lot of naked people in the fires of Hell. Everyone on both sides of the paper was very clearly anatomically correct. My mother remembered attempting to cloak her shock in questions, one of which was, “Why are there more girls than boys in Hell?”
I am told I replied promptly with a grin, “Because girls are badder.”
At the time, Michelangelo enticed me the most. The Sistine Chapel undulated with naked muscle (even the female characters had the bodies of male bodybuilders), all telling the cacophonous, operatic Judeo-Christian story of human struggle. He didn’t shy away from presenting even the most sacrosanct of characters fully nude: Mary, Peter, Jesus, even God himself, which later popes and painters politely covered back up with loose draping underwear or fig leafs.
Our old art history volume included a black-and-white photograph of Michelangelo’s “Cristo della Minerva” in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Roma. Here he is Jesus the Redeemer, muscular and fully nude without the added gilded Rococo loincloth the sculpture wears today. I remember liking his balls. They were big and rested on his massive thighs. And they were Jesus’ balls. And even then, I knew I shouldn’t tell anyone that I’d looked at them. I was a peeping tom peeking at my God’s grownup genitals. I was looking at him the way I wasn’t supposed to look at any man, much less my God.
And yet, like Michelangelo, and the other artists before me, I learned over time that if it was art and religious in theme, it was more socially acceptable. I could draw or sculpt as many naked men as I desired, and as long as they were St. Sebastian or Adam or Christ resurrected everyone would have a safe context in which to interpret them.
Thus, before I could read, I developed three of my greatest loves, all mingled together, and imbued with the power of each: art, religion, and big naked men. My five-year-old brain did not separate these three loves, but rather saw them as inhabiting one very enticing world, a foreign world to which I had the keys in my Crayon box.
Clearly, my life choices well into adulthood have been repeated attempts to find those keys once again.
So, as Bob and I planned each of our first two trips to Italy, I spent months ahead of time trolling through all of my art history books, listing each of my favorite art pieces and where they were located today: Hercules Fernese in Napoli, the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the David in Firenze, “The Last Supper” in Milano, and each of the many famous Caravaggio’s that hang above shadowed side altars in the churches of Roma, the lights over which you could turn on for five minutes by dropping a few lira into a metal box on the altar railing.
I reminisced over this list of images on the way home in la prima classe, checking off by memory what we had seen or not seen in our two trips. The highlights of the first trip were Roma and Firenze, but after this second trip, I recalled most fondly what I had discovered in Bologna. A busy university town in the middle of Italy’s bucolic North, Bologna presented several surprises to me: the beautiful colonnades that overarch most of the sidewalks in town, the vibrant energy of youth and ancient history mingling like several generations around the same table, the whimsical door handles, the bountiful cuisine, the gay nightlife, and most of all the sensual Fontana del Nettuno across the Piazza Maggiore from the Basilica di San Petronio. In this fountain by the sculptor Giambologna, Neptune is presented as a muscular, thickly bearded hunk, with a sinewy contrapposto curve to his pose that exudes monumental power and sex. If you don’t get the point from Neptune himself, the fountain base is surrounded by four voluptuous nereid who cup their large breast and lactate arching streams of water into the large basin below. The majesty of this god is undoubtedly his power over the tempestuous oceans and all who stand below looking up at his thighs.
What also amazed me in Bologna, as well as most of Italy, was that this sensuous naked male figure stood front and center in the public square. The town folks saw it when they walked to work, visited the court house, met with friends in the piazza, or poured out of Sunday services at the basilica in their chapel veils and shiny suits. Big naked Nettuno and his busty nereids are part of Bolognese life from beginning to end. There are no age ratings or parental controls to crack. I could have ridden my tricycle passed it as often as I liked.
The Basilica di San Petronio faces the fountain from across the Piazza Maggiore, and has its own share of nude figures adorning its façade. As with the Medieval cathedrals of the centuries preceding it, the basilica’s façade tells nearly all the stories of the bible from Eden to Damascus in a series of stone tableaus. But the basilica is clearly an Early Renaissance breakout, with greater realism and more nudity. I had not researched the basilica, or any of the art in Bologna, before our visit, and being totally smitten with the mighty Nettuno, my newest crush across the piazza, I scanned the noisy façade hastily, with an odd sense of past familiarity.
It was then, as I recalled the basilica’s façade on the airplane ride home to New York, that I startled myself up straight in my seat, like the mother in the “Home Alone” movie suddenly realizing she’s left one of her children behind. I remembered why the carvings had seemed so familiar to me, and I panicked.
I could not riffle through my guide books in cargo for an answer. I didn’t bother waking poor sick Bob, as I had been in charge of the art research, and had so worn him out with it all that he refused to go into another church in Europe for two more trips thereafter.
So, I stopped one of the handsome flight attendants. “Mi scusi,” I asked with an urgency that concerned him, “are you familiar with the façade of the basilica in Bologna?”
“Sì, signore. Un pò. A little.”
“Do you know the sculptural relief panels, with the bible stories, on the façade?”
He twisted his smile and bobbed his head with a shrug, as if to say, “Sì e no.”
“Is there one of God standing over a lounging Adam who he’s just created, as if He’s giving Adam a blessing or his first instructions, and Adam is this thick young athlete with big hands and big feet, looking up and listing carefully?”
The handsome flight attendant’s expression melted into charming indifference, and he simply concluded, “I’m sorry, signore. I do not know this.”
But I did. I knew this well.
After we’d landed at JFK and returned to our apartment, the last of the day’s sunlight still glowing a crisp golden orange through our western windows, as if to grace us with a fading souvenir of the day that had started so many hours earlier in Verona, Bob crawled into bed and I pulled Janson’s massive History of Art from the shelf, knowing what I would find there. There on page 311 of the 1971 edition, illustration number 479, was a small black-and-white image of Jacopo della Quercia’s 33½” x 27¼” marble relief of The Creation of Adam from the Main Portal, San Petronio, Bologna, c. 1430.
I had stood just a few meters below one of my earliest crushes and never noticed him.
I ran my hand gently over the page, like one would with the photograph of a lost lover, and recalled my childhood feelings for this figure of Adam. A handsome fireplug, resembling a lightweight boxer or wrestler, he raises a thick-fingered hand toward his Creator, a hand more like a catcher’s mitt than the graceful finger Michelangelo’s Adam raises languidly on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Della Quercia was an early influence on Michelangelo, which is especially apparent in the positions of God and Adam in each of their renditions. Yet, while Michelangelo’s Adam is on the ground similarly to Della Quercia’s Adam, Della Quercia’s sits up energetically, a primed athlete with his broad muscles ready to spring into action.
At five years old, my curiosity and infatuation landed firmly on this beautiful naked man. I had no name for what I felt, but I knew it should remain a secret, unless of course, I drew pictures of him myself.
I still need to get back to Bologna and meet my Adam in person. I’ve imagined us both in the piazza on this previous trip, as if in a tragic movie romance, both just missing one another, glancing opposite directions in turn, until one of us slips away forever, neither of us the wiser. I can even hear the tense, longing soundtrack. Of course, I’m still disappointed in myself, not merely for missing him, but because the extensive art travel research I was so proud of turned out faulty. If I could miss Adam, what else did I miss?
But the experience has taught me about the things that occupy my time and imagination. I realize I’ve spent most of my life researching naked gods and men. Whether in figure drawing and painting classes, or the scriptural illustrations I did as a seminarian, I was not only trying to hone my skills as an artist, I was also exploring and shaping my feelings for men and how much I love their bodies, along with whatever existential theme I wrapped them in. In my art studios over the years, I collected semi-nude photos from magazines and books of athletes, celebrities and statesmen. In the 1960s it had been Jack Kennedy shirtless on his PT 109 vessel or Sean Connery and Robert Conrad on TV. Then it was Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds and James Caan in the ’70s, and later Jim Palmer and Tom Selleck in the ’80s, and JFK, Jr. or Alec Baldwin in the ’90s. In the early years I explained that I was collecting the photos as art anatomy resources. By the ’90s I knew everyone knew better. And of course, with the Internet, this all can be replaced with a very common Google search string that consists of the name of any newly discovered hunk, plus “shirtless” or “nude.”
Most recently, writing intros and essays for publications on male nude photography, especially the “beefcake-era” photographers, I’ve uncovered a world of so many gay 20th Century artists and photographers who found a way to explore their own love of the male figure, sometimes even at the risk of arrest in the McCarthy Era, and among their subjects a surprising number of celebrities, such as full-frontal nudes of actor Yule Brenner by George Platt Lynes and fitness guru Jack LaLanne by Russ Warner. I’ve often been stopped mid search by a celebrity from my past, my head tilted slightly to one side and uttering, “hmm, well, would you look at that. Who knew?”
It’s an arresting experience seeing someone you know or admire fully nude, imperfections and all, nothing shielded—like catching a glimpse of a varsity athlete from behind your junior high locker door, or a neighbor dad in the shower at the public pool, or later and more powerfully, the first time you undressed with someone for whom you were falling in love.
No wonder later popes, much like the sons of Noah, covered the genitals of their God in art. Seeing someone naked is power. It is worship. It’s scary.
Similarly, my understanding of religion and myself have changed. From the very challenging, very deconstructive theology studies I did in Berkeley that ultimately led me away from my childhood beliefs, and the writing I’ve done over the past twenty-some years that has laid my personal experience bare, I’ve learned that what is at first frightening, through candid reflection can become powerful, even delightful, familiar, and beloved.
Poets and preachers often speak of the believer, the penitent, the searcher standing naked before God, and I suppose I experienced something of that analogy in the early years of my spiritual journey. But I have found it even more powerful when my gods have stood naked before me, shared with me the bare truths to which I would otherwise have averted my glance, and allowed me to delight in the refreshing honesty and frank discovery of seeing things without cover ups and subterfuge.
So, I suppose over the years my real world has merged with that enticing, foreign world my five-year-old self sought so earnestly. And I’m grateful to Michelangelo, the church calendars, my parents’ art history book, and subsequent artists and writers, angeli and assistenti di volo, for each time they helped me find the door.
Note: I have since returned to Bologna on a couple occasions and spent a significant amount of time staring up at della Quercia’s Adam on San Petronio’s main portal. We’ve both put my original oversight behind us.