The many pairs of tightly-hosed legs featured in full-length Renaissance portraits are certainly eye-catching. However, European portraiture was more than just showing off a nice pair of gams, it was about asserting your social status, attractiveness, and knowledge of social conventions; an endeavour which still concerns us today. Early Modern kings and courtiers alike were eager to control their public image, as illustrated by the cheat sheet of ideal qualities conveniently included at the back of Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier.

 Our rundown of the Top 5 Early Modern Legs demonstrates what was considered courtly and comely during the 15th-17th centuries as embodied by five famous figures. 


Big and beautiful


5. King Henry VIII (1491-1547)

The Book of the Courtier recommended that courtiers be athletic. Accordingly, this portrait of King Henry VIII, after a sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger, shows his majesty as a fit young king. He faces us squarely with a vast padded torso, calves with cannon-ball muscles, and a huge padded Codpiece

At this point, however, Henry VIII was already middle-aged and nursing the health problems that would cause him to suffer in later life. Which just goes to show, even if you weren’t the ideal virile young monarch, you had to make sure you represented yourself as one.

Holbein’s original sketch is on display at the National Portrait Gallery.



A thorn? Or bulging roots!


Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (1565-1601)

Young Man Amongst Roses by Nicholas Hilliard is believed to represent Robert Devereux, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. The men of Elizabeth I’s court elided the qualities of loyalty and courtly love by entering a pseudo-romantic courtship with their female monarch.

This miniature shows a suitably dedicated melancholy lover: he is tastefully dressed in Elizabeth I’s colours and arranges his long, shapely legs with apparent effortless, romantic grace. This ideal and necessary quality of studied carelessness was, in The Book of the Courtier, called ‘sprezzatura’ (sprightliness). Devereux, however, eventually departed from any courtly ideals by leading an uprising against Elizabeth I, and was executed for treason.

Young Man Amongst Roses is on display at the V&A. 

Images courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery and the V&A


About The Author

History of Art graduate from SOAS (jointly with UCL). I cook, eat, and observe the world. Then I write about it and share it with you. This is a unilateral decision.

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