In Europe 500 years ago, statues were throwing off their clothes. The naked human body was honoured in a revolutionary way. After more than a millennium of Christian veiling, the flesh was suddenly shown off. Michelangelo carved his statue of David, putting a colossal male nude at the public heart of the Florentine republic. Giorgione emulated him by putting nude paintings of women outdoors in Venice. In Orvieto, the wiry nudes of Luca Signorelli gathered for the Last Judgment.
Traditionally this rebirth of the nude, which shaped a new sense of human beauty and helped create modern culture, is explained by the Renaissance rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman nude sculpture. But there was another cause – and it has been revealed by the restorer who discovered long-lost images of Americans hidden in a fresco by Pinturicchio.
The painting in the Vatican shows American Indians dancing naked: a penis is clearly visible in this frank portrayal of life in the New World.
Columbus first sailed to the Americas in 1492: in that year Europe "discovered" America. The newly found scene was painted just two years later. It records one of the most dramatic stories the explorers told about America's indigenous peoples: they are naked, nudo, wrote the adventurer Amerigo Vespucci, who followed soon after Columbus.
Woodcuts in books by Columbus and Vespucci, like this newly found painting, show America as a continent of nudes. Vespucci's writings were circulating in Florence when Michelangelo worked on David. The nude figure Michelangelo carved is a noble savage: an American, naked and innocent. The discovery of pure, uncorrupted, naked people on the far side of the world helped to inspire the idea that nudity is the noblest way for a human being to be.
America was a Garden of Earthly Delights, Europeans thought, as they set out to pillage Eden.