The art world is a fascinating journey through human expressions in their infinite facets. From the classical to the modern, art provides a platform for discussion, reflection and understanding of various aspects of human existence. A particularly nuanced theme that art has explored over the centuries is that of sexual identity and orientation.
Located in the heart of Milan, the Pinacoteca di Brera is a hidden treasure that holds stories of love, passion, tragedy and triumph. With an art collection ranging from the Middle Ages to the contemporary, the Pinacoteca offers a journey into art that goes far beyond mere aesthetics. Among the works on display, some stand out for their relevance within the LGBTQIA+ community.
These works, created by masters such as Dosso Dossi, Daniele Crespi, Amedeo Modigliani and Andrea Appiani, not only provide a fascinating insight into art history, but also offer a unique interpretation of romantic love, desire, identity and sexual orientation.
It is important to note that LGBTQIA+ interpretations of these works are not necessarily intentional on the part of the artists. However, art is subjective and works can be interpreted in different ways depending on the social and cultural context. What matters is the possibility of seeing, in a public and recognised space such as the Brera Art Gallery, stories and representations in which the LGBTQIA+ community is reflected.
In our journey to discover the queer artworks at the Pinacoteca di Brera, we will come across Saint Sebastian, symbol of courage and hope, the moving intimacy of The Last Supper, the profound friendship portrayed in the Portrait of Moisè Kisling and the love beyond the conventional in Appiani’s Olympus.
So, take a seat as we guide you through the rooms of the Brera Art Gallery, revealing the stories behind these extraordinary works and their relevance within the LGBTQIA+ community.
“‘Saint Sebastian’ by Dosso Dossi: an icon of courage and hope
One of the most fascinating works adorning Room XXI of the Brera Art Gallery is ‘Saint Sebastian’, a portrait by Dosso Dossi, pseudonym of “Giovanni Francesco di Niccolò Luter”.
An artist active at the Ferrara court of the Este family in the early 16th century, Dosso Dossi imprinted his work with a powerful and moving interpretation of this saint, creating an indissoluble bond between the figure of Saint Sebastian and the LGBTQ+ community.
Saint Sebastian, a martyr saint from the Roman era, is often depicted in the arts as a young man tied to a tree and pierced by arrows, symbolising his execution for defending his faith. However, in addition to this, St Sebastian has emerged as one of the most important gay icons, so much so that he is referred to by many as the Protector of Homosexuals. This connection between Saint Sebastian and homosexuality dates back to the 20th century and seems to have been originally formulated by the Belgian writer Georges Eeckhoud in 1909.
The iconography of St. Sebastian has become a powerful symbol of resistance, suffering and hope for the LGBTQ+ community. His images have often been used to express both the struggle against persecution and discrimination and the celebration of male beauty and sensuality. This connection has subsequently been taken up and developed by various artists and writers, including the famous Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, and more recently by contemporary photographer David LaChapelle.
Dosso Dossi’s work at Brera brilliantly captures the strength and vulnerability of Saint Sebastian, offering a fascinating portrait that resonates deeply with the LGBTQIA+ community. Saint Sebastian’s courage in remaining true to himself despite persecution offers a message of hope and resilience that remains just as relevant today.
“Portrait of Moisè Kisling” by Amedeo Modigliani: a friendship in art
In the rooms of the renowned Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, you can admire a wide range of works of art, each with its own unique history and innate charm. Among them, Amedeo Modigliani’s ‘Portrait of Moisè Kisling’ stands out for its intense expression of friendship and artistic respect.
Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian artist of Jewish origin, is known for his unique and distinctive interpretation of portraiture and figurative art. In this work, his friendship with Polish artist Moisé Kisling becomes the focus of the work, weaving a web of affection and relationships that goes far beyond the mere painting.
Located in the heart of the bohemian district of Montmartre in Paris, the studio where Modigliani painted Kisling’s portrait was a meeting place for artists of all kinds, including Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Picasso, Salvador Dali and, of course, Modigliani and Kisling. This place, famous for being the centre of the Moulin Rouge and the famous cabaret Le Chat Noir, was also a meeting point for the LGBTQ+ community, with places like the Monocle, one of the most famous lesbian bars in European history.
Although we do not know for sure the sexual orientation of Modigliani or Kisling, their relationship of deep friendship and mutual respect transcends social conventions and offers an open interpretation of their relationship. This portrait gives us a glimpse of the artistic culture of the Montmartre of the time, which often defied social norms and offered a refuge for those who felt different.
The ‘Portrait of Moisé Kisling’ is thus not only a superb example of Modigliani’s artistic talent, but also a symbol of the strength of friendship and mutual respect, transcending the boundaries of art and offering a fascinating window into an era of free self-expression and defiance of convention.
“‘Last Supper’ by Daniele Crespi: a touch of homo-affectivity
The Last Supper, one of the most significant events in the New Testament, has been portrayed by countless artists throughout the centuries. This crucial moment, in which Jesus shares a last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion, has been interpreted in many different ways, but one of the most poignant can be found in Room XXX of the Pinacoteca di Brera, where the interpretation of the Lombard painter Daniele Crespi is on display.
Crespi, a 17th century artist known for his emotional sensitivity and attention to detail, took the traditional depiction of the Last Supper and infused it with homo-affectivity. In his work, we see the disciple John leaning lovingly on Jesus’ shoulder in a gesture that evokes a strong emotional connection, almost as if he were a lover. This depiction of such palpable affection between Jesus and John is one of the most fascinating and discussed interpretations of the Last Supper.
Crespi’s life, lived in the early to mid 17th century, was intense and fruitful, despite his untimely death from the plague. In his works, one perceives an extraordinary attention to the expressiveness and depth of human feelings, qualities that make his Last Supper an extraordinarily vivid and touching work.
Crespi’s depiction of John and Jesus represents an intense bond between the two, offering a reading that goes beyond the common religious interpretation, allowing for a more open and contemporary interpretation. This physical contact, together with the intimate emotional connection it conveys, made this work particularly appreciated by the LGBTQ+ community, who saw in it an implicit celebration of same-sex affection and love.
“‘L’Olimpo” by Andrea Appiani: love beyond borders
In the depths of the rooms of the Pinacoteca di Brera, among the many works of art adorning the walls, you will find Andrea Appiani’s ‘L’Olimpo’, a painting that goes beyond the conventional, narrating an eternal love story that has echoes throughout the centuries.
Andrea Appiani, one of the leading exponents of Italian neoclassical art, expressed in this work his mastery in combining classical form with a deeply evocative and universal message. The painting, housed in Room XXXVII, catches the eye because of its full title: “Olympus (Jupiter crowned with myrtle by the Hours hands Ganymede the tassel to receive the nectar)”.
The work presents a majestic Jupiter surrounded by female divinities, while the young Ganymede kneels before him, handing him a jug containing divine nectar. At first glance, the work appears to be a classic painting of neoclassical art, however, there is much more hidden behind these brushstrokes.
The true essence of the painting lies in the tale of a love, that between Jupiter, the king of the gods, and Ganymede, the most beautiful of mortals. Legend has it that Jupiter, madly in love with the young man, transformed himself into an enormous eagle to take him with him to Olympus and make him a god. This transformation, although a cause of displeasure for Hera, Jupiter’s wife, allowed Ganymede to transcend his mortality and become a star of the constellation Aquarius.
Andrea Appiani’s ‘Olympus’, therefore, goes beyond the simple neoclassical painting, becoming a powerful symbol of love in all its forms. The work represents a fundamental pillar in the exploration of LGBTQ+ representation in art history.
When you stand in front of this work, allow your mind to explore the story behind the painting. Let the love between Jupiter and Ganymede inspire you, remembering that every form of love is precious and worthy of celebration. The value of Appiani’s ‘Olympus’ lies not only in its artistic beauty, but also in the powerful message it conveys, inviting each of us to love freely and without prejudice.
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