Privates on parade: the brief wondrous life of the codpiece

A detail from Parmigianino's portrait of Pedro Maria Rossi, count of San Segundo 1535-38
Peekaboo!: A detail from Parmigianino's portrait of Pedro Maria Rossi, count of San Segundo 1535-38 Credit: MUSEO NACIONAL DEL PRADO

From coy to curly-wurly, for a fleeting moment the codpiece was inescapable, in life and in art

The codpiece was invented in the Middle Ages as a rather visually un-arousing object of utility meant to deal with an embarrassing absence close to the midpoint of that poor, forked creature: man. A mere limp triangular flap of linen at first, it was intended to cover the draughty and revealing gap between the two separate pieces of men’s stockings.

Little by little, the codpiece expanded in size, snarl, and just-look-at-me ambition. By the 16th century, it had become a statement of high fashion, easily individualised and accessorised, often made of the finest of decorated fabrics, complete with ribbons and bibbons and other bits of nonsense. In the middle of that century, Cosimo de’ Medici, duke of Tuscany, and his entire army of hand-picked German mercenaries – the lanzichenecchi – could be seen strutting around the Piazza della Signoria in Florence in codpieces that were more noticeable in size and colourfulness. What had started as a gesture of modesty, a means of concealing the male genitals, had grown into a garment that drew attention to, mimicked, and even aggrandised them to a ridiculous degree.

What was it used for, then, other than to exaggerate and adorn the mighty male organ? Well, it could be used to hang things from, as the poet and dramatist Thomas Lodge observed in 1596: “His spectacles hang beating over his codpiece like the flag in the top of the maypole.” Or as a pocket: money could be deposited in the codpiece – you never quite knew how soon you might have to pay off an eager admirer. Even a kerchief could be tucked in there to facilitate some hasty mopping-up operation. And, oh yes, the codpiece sometimes served as a pin cushion, because men’s attire in the 16th century was often so complicated, with its folds and tuckings and overlappings, that pins might come in handy.

Why so big, though? There is one quite simple explanation. As stockings, driven by the cruel dictates of men’s fashion, got tighter and tighter, the codpiece, roomy by comparison, gave some welcome relief.

Sadly for its admirers, the codpiece was fashionable for a mere half century or so, starting around 1540. Later, male braggadocio would go on to assume other forms, all equally ridiculous: the powdered wig, the Cuban heel, the “nude” trouser look. Indeed, men have tried it on in so many different ways throughout the sad and inglorious history of their untiring self-puffery.

A codpiece in the wild: Giorgione, The Tempest, 1505 Credit:  Didier Descouens

And yet, in our own day, the codpiece has experienced something of a comeback. In the 16th century, it embellished the formal portraiture of kings, nobles, and eminent men of the church. This time around, it serves to enhance the virile appeal of other kinds of eye-catching men, all equally glitzy in their own fields: such crooners and thrusters as David Bowie and Alice Cooper; the pint-size actor Malcolm McDowell and, bringing up the rear, Darth Vader and the stormtroopers in the Star Wars films. It seems that you just can’t keep a good codpiece down.

Cultural codpieces

Emperor Charles V with a Dog, 1533, Titian

Credit: Bridgeman Art Library

Charles V was the Holy Roman Emperor when Titian painted this portrait, and he is posed in the company of a long-snouted dog with an evident fascination for the emperor’s codpiece. There is something about the way in which Titian has brought the dog so sniffing-close to the emperor’s firm, crisp, jaunty codpiece that inclines us to puzzle over the codpiece itself, and all that it may or may not contain. The dog’s questing muzzle is, without doubt, an allusion to the emperor’s virility: his member is forever cocksure, on the sniff-about, like any keen hunting dog.

Pietro Maria Rossi, Count of San Secondo 1535-38, Parmigianino

Few codpieces possess as much coolly ruthless martial swagger as this one. It also seems to confirm that the count’s ancestral line will long continue, and woe betide you should you happen to disagree. No one disagreed. He had nine children by Camilla Gonzaga before he died at the tender age of forty-three.

Portrait of Antonio Navagero, 1565, Giovanni Battista Moroni

Credit: Pinacoteca di BRERA

Navagero was the podesta, or chief magistrate, of Bergamo in northern Italy, and almost everything about his depiction speaks of serious-mindedness. The letter indicates to the viewer that he is in this world to do grave business. The heavy luxuriousness of his clothes adds weight to his eminence. He could be any diplomat, any bishop, any successful politician, were 
it not for this, well, almost clownishly extravagant 
curly-wurly, whooping-it-up red codpiece, which turns him into the very devil of heavy-breathing carnality. This level of ostentation for such a grave older man is side-splittingly bizarre. How could a man choose to make himself look so ridiculous? Can men be self-deluded to this degree? Oh yes.

Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art by Michael Glover is published by David Zwirner at £8.95