Renaissance Portraits on Museum Monday

“Speak. Speak. I command you to speak.” The sculptor Donatello, said to have shouted this at one of his works, trying to will dead stone into animate flesh.

The Renaissance Portrait
Metropolitan Museum, New York

Sandro Botticelli, Ideal Portrait of a Lady, Simonetta Vespucci 1475-80

The first great age of portraits in Europe took place in the 15th century. Portraiture is the medium used historically to record the features of a family member for future generations, celebrate a prince or warrior, extol the beauty of a woman, or the exchange of a likeness among friends. Celebrating the Italian contribution to this individual art, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Approximately 160 works by artists such as Donatello, Filippi Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Pisanello, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Antonello da Messina, displayed in media ranging from painting and manuscript illumination to marble sculpture and bronze medals, all pieces of the new vogue use of portraiture.

Gentile Bellini, Catarina Cornaro

 During the early Renaissance, artists working in Florence, Venice and the courts of Italy created magnificent portrayals of the people around them – from heads of state and church to patrons, scholars, poets and artists – concentrating for the first time on producing recognizable likenesses and expressions of personality. The rapid development of portraiture closely linked Renaissance society and politics with ideals of the individual, and concepts of beauty. The object may have been to commemorate a significant event – a marriage, death, the accession to a position of power – or may have been to record the features of an esteemed member of the family for future generations.

Maestro delle Storie del Pane, Portrait of a Young Man

Giovanni Bellini, Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic, 1515

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, 1490

Beginning in Florence, where independent portraits first appeared in abundance, the exhibit moves to the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna, Milan, Urbino, Naples and papal Rome, ending in Venice, where a tradition of portraiture asserted itself in the late century. In Florence, the striking innovations occurred first in sculpture eventually taken up in painting. In court life, thanks in to the genius of Pisanello, the medal became the preferred means of recording a likeness. Medals were durable, produced in multiple casts, and easily exchanged among the social elite. In Venice the painted portrait held sway in society, thanks to the achievements of Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings resolutely abandoned the dominant Italian convention for the profile to present the sitter turned three-quarter, his or her distant gaze and delicately modeled features expressing hints of an interior life.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man, 1478

“Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present, but it also represents the dead to the living many centuries later so that they are recognized by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist,” declared Leon Battista Alberti in his treatise on painting, composed in 1435.

Donatello, Saint Rossore, 1425

This now anonymous image reflects a life roundly and raptly lived; his face at one glance thoughtful then perturbed with a furrowed brow, gaze downcast and lips squeezed into a slim frown. Donatello’s imagining of Saint Rossore from 1425 commands the entrance to the exhibition, the vivid fictional creation of a saint over a millennium dead when the artist imagined his expression in this sculpture.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement, 1440-44

Filippi Lippi produced portraits that flattered the subject’s vanity and pleased a highly placed clientele. The woman’s wrinkle-free, plucked forehead, blond hair, arched eyebrows and tiny, jewel-like mouth all embody the paradigm of feminine beauty. The artist’s other works can be harsher, but in portraits of the upper class, a finely tuned sense of hierarchy won out over the raw truth. The realism that dictates fidelity to detail, but in the end, paying homage to the client was the best way to receive payment.

Pietro di Spagna, Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, 1475

The portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro, the great mercenary also known as the Duke of Urbino, is portrayed around 1475 with his son Guidobaldo by the artist Pietro di Spagna; showing the Duke at ease in his quarters, reading in Latin, however in full armor.

Pisanello, Leonello d'Este, 1444

The 1444 portrait medal of Leonello d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, by the Italian innovator known as Pisanello; invented for the Ferrarese court, this commemorative coin with no value as currency was highly prized among members of the court.

Francesco Francia, Portrait of Federigo il Gonzaga, future Duke of Mantua, 1510

Francesco Francia’s 1510 portrait of Federigo Il Gonzaga, the future Duke of Mantua at the age of 10. Documentation tell us that the boy was involved in an elaborate diplomatic exchange that left him the hostage (or guest) of Pope Julius II in Rome, and that his mother, the Duchess, commissioned this portrait to remind her of the absent boy.

The Renaissance marked a turning point in the history of portraiture. Partly out of interest in the natural world and partly from the interest of the classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. Portraits – either painted or sculpted – assumed an important role in Renaissance society and valued as objects of earthly success and status. Painting in general reached a new level of balance, harmony and insight, with the greatest artists considered geniuses, rising far above the tradesman status to valued servants of the court and church.

I hope you enjoyed this Museum Monday from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring their new exhibition The Renaissance Portrait.

Cheers!
Mary Jo

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Renaissance Portraits on Museum Monday

  1. “…paying homage to the client was the best way to receive payment” — very nicely phrased. We all need to be nice to our customers.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 1-14 | Gene Lempp's Blog

  3. Wow, Mary Jo… I feel like I visited a museum in my pajamas! 😉 Thanks for the fantastic post. I look forward to following your work!

  4. Thanks for visiting August! I try to bring the museum experience to everyone, some of us are not able to travel as much as we would like, but the internet provides enough of a glimpse for some incredible virtual tours.

  5. What do you think of the evaluation of Federigo da Montefeltro by Pietro di Spagna
    in today’s New York times? I usually like the writers work but here I think he misses the mark.
    Thanks for this web article.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/25/arts/25iht-melikian25.html?pagewanted=2&ref=arts

  6. I feel that the evaluation misses the mark. Federico da Montefeltro’s portrait tells the viewer so much more about the man than just his physical appearance. The painting shows an established ruler, capable of all things required of an enlightened mind; a representative of the church to his people, a scholar; and someone who has given forethought to the continuation of his ideals through lineage by including his son, Guidobaldo, in the portrait. The suit of armour and accompanying accoutrements communicate that this ruler is a warrior at his core and has no problem picking up his sword when necessary. In this later stage of life, Montefeltro was probably not at the physical prime of his warrior youth, but that is not the image he wanted to project to the viewer. The author stating his personal view of the painting in this article, the descriptive of apish buffoon, is enough to invite the reader to click on the painting, thus increasing the clicks and page views of the article. The placement of the picture on the first page of the article, while describing it at the end of the article on the following page, supports this valuation. I enjoy the art reviews in the New York Times, but sometimes feel the writer is being held to a measureable metric, which diminishes the development of an objective review.

    Thank you for your comment, Paul, it gave me a chance to exercise my mind this morning.
    Cheers!
    Mary Jo

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