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Artists' Nude Models Strike in Italy

Doing nothing for a living is not as easy as it looks. That was the militant message on Thursday in Italy, where artists’ nude models climbed back into their clothes and went on strike for better pay and conditions.

The protesters — male and female — said that they wanted "professional recognition" and full-time contracts. Only 50 of about 300 models at Italian art schools are on fixed annual contracts, with the rest hired by the hour.

Antonella Migliorini, 42, said that it was "a tough, cold job" posing in the nude, often for eight hours a day.

However, there will always be people willing to do it, despite the poor pay. "It can be rewarding to be immortalized as great art," said Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times’ chief art critic, who modeled for Eduardo Paolozzi and Euan Uglow.

"But it can also be extremely physically demanding. Rodin used to twist his models into painful positions and make them stay like that for hours. Lucian Freud demands that you turn up punctually day after day. It can take years and you can’t walk out halfway through."

The professional life model emerged with the rise of formal art schools and photography in the 19th and 20th centuries. The hiring of artists’ models has a long tradition in Rome, where it caught the eye of Charles Dickens in his travel book "Pictures From Italy." It took a nude protest in the 1970s to secure full-time contracts.

On Thursday the models kept their clothes on for a protest at a ceremony inaugurating the academic year at La Sapienza, Rome’s main university. The main speaker at the ceremony was supposed to be the Pope, but the Vatican canceled his visit because of alarm over student protests against his conservative views on science and ethics. About 30 models posed at the university entrance in imitation of famous art works, including Botticelli’s "Venus," Degas’ "Ballerinas" and Rodin’s "The Thinker."

Rossella Lamina, a spokeswoman for the trades union backing the protest, said that more than 60 art teachers in Rome, Florence, Venice, Carrara, Turin and Reggio Calabria had signed the life models’ appeal.

Ivo Bomba, a professor at the Rome Academy of Fine Arts, said that although art schools had recently been given university status they lacked the "financial clout" of universities and sometimes had to choose between hiring life models and paying for equipment and supplies.

Migliorini, from Florence, said that being a life model required "imagination and physical resistance." But art schools "do not show us much consideration — our privacy is violated. Once a group of about 30 Japanese tourists turned up and started taking photographs. I had to cover myself up quickly." She said: "You have to be examined by a commission of teachers who are supposed to judge what sort of person you are. In the end though they usually pick the pretty ones."

Asked if there was an age limit, she said that "most models are fairly young — but that’s a big mistake, since students have to learn how to draw the elderly human body as well as Venuses." Migliorini said that she was taking a degree in the history of theater as a fallback.

Nando Dalla Chiesa, an education ministry official, said he had agreed to meet the protesters. "We need to get to the bottom of this," he said.

Sketchy pasts

— The writer Quentin Crisp spent the war years as an artist’s model at Derby School of Art. He described the job in his 1968 autobiography as "like being a civil servant, except that you are naked."

— Cherie Blair sat for the painter Euan Uglow while she was a trainee barrister in her mid-20s. When she and her husband moved into public life, Uglow judiciously decided to avoid exhibiting "Striding Nude, Blue Dress" and it reappeared only in 2006, six years after the artist’s death. Her profile is distinguishable but the painting remains unfinished because Blair cut the sittings short to visit the United States.

— Kate Moss was depicted reclining naked on a bed in Lucien Freud’s "Naked Portrait 2002," painted while she was pregnant. The sitting was arranged after the model revealed in an interview that posing for Freud was one of her few remaining ambitions

— A retired art teacher was shocked in 2003 when she found a sketch she had made decades earlier and realized it was Sean Connery, aged 22 and in a loincloth. "When he modeled there were always lots of girls in the classes," she said.