Heroic nudity or ideal nudity is a concept in classical scholarship to describe the un-realist use of nudity in classical sculpture to show figures who may be heros, deities, or semi-divine beings. This convention began in Archaic and Classical Greece and continued in Hellenistic and Roman sculpture. The existence or place of the convention is the subject of scholarly argument.
In ancient Greek art warriors on reliefs and painted vases were often shown as nude in combat, which was not in fact the Greek custom, and in other contexts. Idealized young men (but not women) were carved in kouros figures, and cult images in the temples of some male deities were nude. Later, portrait statues of the rich, including Roman imperial families, were given idealized nude bodies; by now this included women. The bodies were always young and athletic; old bodies are never seen. Pliny the Elder noted the introduction of the Greek style to Rome.
Agnolo Bronzino's painted Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune (c. 1530) was a rare Renaissance example, but the convention, which was identified by the theorist of Neoclassicism, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, was sometimes revived in Neoclassical art. Canova's statue of Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker is an example.
Nudity was often thought to be an important aspect of Greek civilization and was frequent in places such as gymnasiums and when competing in games. This concept operated for women as well as for men, with females being portrayed through Venus and other goddesses.
Particularly in Roman examples like the Tivoli General or Delos "Pseudo-Athlete", this could lead to an odd juxtaposition of a hyper-realistic portrait bust in the Roman style (warts-and-all for the men, or with an elaborate hairstyle for the women) with an idealized god-like body in the Greek style. Male genitalia explicitly were not depicted as overly well-endowed to separate a noble and modest facade from the connotation in Greek culture that larger endowments belonged to more primal and barbaric characteristics.
As a concept, it has been modified since its inception, with other types of nudity now recognized in classical sculpture—e.g., the pathetic nudity of brave but defeated barbarian enemies like the Dying Gaul. Tonio Hölscher has even rejected the concept entirely for Greek art of the 4th century BC and earlier.
Heroic nudity allowed Greek sculptors to show a subject's character more accurately, without the disguise or added context of clothing.
Roman statue with the head of Marcellus (1st century CE, after a 5th-century BC Greek prototype)
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