sexual harassment of men: beautiful breasts in Pontano’s Baiae

In classical Arabic literature, men admire women’s buttocks — the bigger the better. Classical Greek literature celebrates the rose-like beauty of women’s vaginas. In the Baiae, Giovanni Pontano’s fifteenth-century Latin poems about times in a pleasure resort, women’s eyes and the female gaze sexually harass men. But most of all in the Baiae, women’s beautiful breasts attract men’s attention, divert men from drudgery, and arouse men’s sexual imaginations.

Bartolomeo Veneto's portrait of Lucrezia Borgia with a naked breast

One poem in Pontano’s Baiae playfully explores the focus of the man poet’s attention. Consider:

Luna shined with new elegance,
and radiance streamed from her naked breasts;
from out of the blessed one’s dewy hollow
exhaled a breeze of rosy liquor,
from whose tender lips flowed down
Ambrosian essence dropwise liquefied.

{ Effulsitque novo decore Luna
ac nudis iubar extulit papillis,
cuius roridulo e sinu beatae
spirabant rosei liquoris aurae,
cuius de teneris fluens labellis
stillatim ambrosiae liquebat humor } [1]

Luna is a young woman lying on a bed beside a pool in the cool shade. The first focus is Luna’s naked breasts. Since it’s associated with a rose metaphor, the dewy hollow most likely is Luna’s vagina. A straight-forward reading of the third couplet shifts attention upwards, over Luna’s breasts, to her mouth. The second two couplets bodily bracket the radiance streaming from her naked breasts. Ovid long ago knew the rest:

she plays in the way of Venus in the wrestling arena,
and then sleeps with you, quietly and peacefully.

{ ludit Idaliae iocos palaestrae
et tecum placida cubat quiete. }

One might complain that the metaphor of wrestling brutalizes men’s sexuality. But at least their intercourse ends peacefully.

Sexual harassment, in contrast, can create a hostile environment for men. Under current U.S. sexual harassment law, intentions don’t matter. Only persons’ experienced feelings are relevant. The man poet spoke out about the discomfort he felt in encountering a topless woman:

I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts,
desist from stirring the insanity of lovers.
I’m congealed already by cold, old age;
you’re improperly and wrongly heating me up. Hence
I’m telling you to clothe those shining breasts
and veil your bosom with a decent bikini-top.
For why do you your milky chest, and your very
breasts, in front of you carry, unclothed?
Do you wish to say, “Kiss these breasts,
and caress this glowing bosom”?
Thus are you saying, “Touch, touch, stroke them”?
Do you go out with naked breasts?
Do you expose your bosom to stroll around?

{ Praedico, tege candidas papillas
nec quaeras rabiem ciere amantum.
Me, quem frigida congelat senecta,
irritas male calfacisque: quare,
praedico, tege candidas papillas,
et pectus strophio tegente vela.
Nam quid lacteolos sinus et ipsas
prae te fers sine linteo papillas?
An vis dicere: “Basia papillas
et pectus nitidum suaviare?”
Vis num dicere: “Tange, tange, tracta?”
Tene incedere nudulis papillis?
Nudo pectore tene deambulare? } [2]

The young woman perpetrating sexual harassment with her naked breasts was none other than Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen of Troy. With her bodily beauty, Helen of Troy had prompted the deaths of many men in the Trojan War. Helen’s daughter Hermione apparently learned nothing from her mother about the effects of young, beautiful women on men. Women’s sexual harassment of men should be taken seriously. Too often it isn’t.

Mary Magdalene with naked breasts

In Pontano’s Baiae, breasts seem to be the most powerful attribute with which women sexually harass men. Nearly every poem admiring a woman praises her breasts. Among the poetic lines in which breasts appear are these:

  1. “from your sweet bosom {sinuque blando}” exhale Arabian fragrances
  2.  helplessly “he is fixated on her breasts {haeret in papillis}”
  3. you “recline on her tender bosom {in sinu recumbis}”
  4. upon that “milky bosom {lacteolo sinu}” you sleep languidly
  5. you see her “delicate breasts {vesculas papillas}”
  6. don’t blush to stroke with your hand those “milky breasts {lacteolas papillas}”
  7. jealous of he who presses with his hand those “tender breasts {teneras papillas}”
  8. what “blissful man licks a saliva-moistened chest {beatus udo quis de pectore rettulit salivam}”
  9. I saw that “beautiful chest, those jeweled breasts {pulcro e pectore, gemmeis papillis}”
  10. she bears the day on her “glittering bosom {sinu corsco}”
  11. she with her “bright-white chest {pectore candicante}” outshines the sun
  12. girls thrust “tender bosom {teneros sinus}” toward you
  13. you recline on her “tender bosom {tenero sinu}”
  14. fragrant odors waft upon you “from her tender breasts {de teneris papillis}”
  15. she pours a calming potion on you “from her milky bosom {in lacteolo sinu}”
  16. this soft air breathes “from the bosom of tender young women {de tenerae sinu puellae}”
  17. “the brightness from her snowy breasts {de niveis nitor papillis}” leads him to devotion [3]

Almost all men typically love nearly all women. The man poet Giovanni Pontano writing in late-fifteenth-century Italy particularly loved young women’s breasts. Despite frequently describing naked women and sex with women, he only rarely and vaguely alludes to women’s vaginas. Perhaps he regarded women’s vaginas as too awesome to describe. The poet also never mentioned women’s buttocks. Perhaps that was a matter of aesthetic preference. Not all men suffer sexual harassment by women in exactly the same way.[4]

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[1] Giovanni Gioviano Pontano, “To Chariteus {Ad Chariteum},” Hendecasyllaborum sive Baiarum Libri Duo {Two Books of Hendecasyllables, or Baiae} 1.30, ll. 34-9, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Dennis (2006) pp. 86-7. The subsequent quote is similarly from id. In addition to being the young woman’s name, luna is Latin for “moon.” The poem is to the Catalan poet Benet Gareth, who acquired the Italian name Benedetto Chariteo. Id. p. 213.

The Baiae commonly uses sinus in its meaning “bosom.” But sinus also means “hollow” or “cavity.” Here that could refer to Luna’s mouth, but vagina seems to me a better interpretation.

[2] Pontano, Baiae “To Hermione, to Cover Her Breasts {Ad Hermionen, ut papillas contegat},” Latin text from Dennis (2006) p. 12, my English translation, benefiting considerably from that of id. In Baiae 2.7, “To Focilla, to Restrain her Eyes {Ad Focillam de cohibendis ocellis},” the poet protests Focilla sexually harassing him with the female gaze. But in the Baiae, the female gaze sexually harasses men much less frequently than does a young woman’s breasts.

[3] In the Baiae (cited by citation number, poem number, Latin page in Dennis (2006)): 1, 1.13, p. 38; 2,1.14, p. 44; 3, 1.16, p. 48; 4, 1.16, p. 50; 5, 1.16, p. 50; 6, 1.18, p. 56; 7, 1.21, p. 64; 8, 1.21, p. 64; 9, 1.23, p. 68; 10, 1.23, p. 68; 11, 1.23, p. 68; 12, 1.24, p. 70; 13, 1.27, p. 76; 14, 2.9, p. 112; 15, 2.18, p. 132; 16, 2.28, p. 164; 17, 2.30, p. 168. Descriptions of breasts already quoted above are among those not cited.

In the above list I consistently translate papilla, sinus, and pectus as breast, bosom, and chest, respectively. Dennis translated those terms with similar sense, but not with strict, formal consistency.

In the Baiae and in medieval Europe generally, bigger breasts didn’t make a woman more attractive to men. In praising a woman’s appearance, a twelfth-century Ovidian cento declared:

The shape of her nipple were nowhere apparent,
either because they were too small or they were bound.
Young women often compress their breasts with girdles,
for breasts that are too full are displeasing to men.
But this young woman isn’t among those such women:
her breast were without doubt sufficiently small.

{ Forma papillarum nusquam parebat in illa,
vel quod parva nimis vel quod stricta foret.
Ubera saepe suis zonis strinxere puellae,
turgida namque nimis displicuere viris;
sed non inter eas est haec referenda puella,
ubera nempe satis parva fuere sibi. }

About three girls {De tribus puellis} vv. 45-50, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Hexter, Pfuntner & Haynes (2020), pp. 374-5. On the literary context of De tribus puellis, Kretschmer (2013).

[4] Of course men’s interests aren’t necessarily limited to one part of a woman. A poem from the Carmina Burana (early thirteenth century) highlights breasts and lips:

When I caught sight of her breasts,
I longed to slip my hands in,
to play with her flawless mammas.
So thinking I felt sexually aroused.
Sitting on her lips
was the rose of modesty.
I was pulsing with love
to kiss her mouth,
ah kiss, ah kiss, ah kiss,
sensuously sealing her lips with mine.

{ Ubera cum animadverterem,
optavi manus, ut involverem,
simplicibus mammis ut alluderem.
Sic cogitando sensi Venerem.
Sedit in ore
rosa cum pudore.
Pulsatus amore
quod os lamberem,
hei lamberem, hei lamberem, hei lamberem
luxuriando per characterem. }

Carmina Burana 117, “I take solace for my fate in singing {Sic mea fata canendo solor},” stanza 3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Some editions regrettably excise this stanza as spurious. Here are alternate, more interpretive translations by Carol Anne Perry Lagemann.

Men, even at the same time and place, find many different attributes of women beautiful. Like most men, Greeks in the time of Homer admired the full range of a woman’s physical being: from a woman with beautiful hair {καλλίκομος, Iliad 9.449} to a woman with beautiful ankles {καλλίσφυρος, Iliad 9.557}. What men admire in women depends partly on what men see and what men experience. Comparative literary study of men admiring women’s beauty is much less developed than scholarly work scrutinizing literature for the purpose of charging long-dead men authors with misogyny.

[images] (1) Portrait of courtesan Flora of literary imagination; person attributed to be Lucrezia Borgia. Painting made by Bartolomeo Veneto in Italy in c. 1520. Preserved under accession number 1077 in Städel Museum (Frankfurt, Germany). Via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Mary Magdalene with naked breasts. Painting made in the Lombard School in northern Italy, c. 1515. Contested attribution between Giampetrino and Leonardo da Vinci. Preserved in private collection in Switzerland. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Dennis, Rodney G., ed. and trans. 2006. Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Baiae. I Tatti Renaissance Library, vol. 22. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hexter, Ralph J., Laura Pfuntner, and Justin Haynes, ed. and trans. 2020. Appendix Ovidiana: Latin poems ascribed to Ovid in the Middle Ages. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 62. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kretschmer, Marek Thue. 2013. “The Elegiac Love Poems Versus Eporedienses and De Tribus Puellis and the Ovidian Backdrop.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 23: 35-47.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.