Lives of the Artists

John Haber
in New York City

The Renaissance Portrait in Italy

When most people think of the Renaissance portrait, they may think of one face, the Mona Lisa. I am haunted by so many others. They never quite appear in "The Renaissance Portrait" at the Met, but they haunt it as well. I mean not just the ones that everyone knows.

Of course, some of the best-known quattrocento portraits feature plain people, like the very cover of the exhibition catalog. No one has yet identified Domenico Ghirlandaio's old man with his grandson, despite the bulbous nose. Its sentimentality and honest deformity combine to make it modern. Far more often, though, the Renaissance portrait shows heads of state. It celebrates the end of the Florentine republic, it travels from court to court in Italy, and it rests alongside some of the most fervent Christian narratives in art history. Even at their plainest, though, these are stories of distinction. Andrea Mantegna's Portrait of a Man (Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie, Besançon, c. 1470–1475)

The Renaissance turn to ancient Rome and classical reliefs demands that the everyday aspire to nobility. A plump woman by Gentile Bellini earned the rarity in Venice of a female portrait by wealth and learning. Andrea del Castagno's man with a cape tossed casually over his shoulder adopts the pose of a nobleman. What, then, is the Renaissance portrait and its story—the ascent of the common man or the power of patronage? It helps to start with the multiplicity of other stories. If the Renaissance truly rediscovered the individual, the discovery leads through them.

Portraits without portraiture

They stand or kneel, patiently and reverently, in altarpieces all over Europe. Italy did not run to that use of side panels, but nothing from the north of Europe shook it like the arrival in 1483 of a triptych by Rogier van der Weyden. It captured a shepherd's ecstatic tension at the birth of Jesus and the melancholy of a donor's child. And it did so in oil on canvas, slow in coming south—and especially to Florence. Yet Italy had a flesh-and-blood world of its own, with recognizable faces in the very space of a Biblical scene. They did not even need a saint at their backs to present them.

One of the Medicis, Florence's ruling family, presides in another Adoration, by Sandro Botticelli in 1475. He stands out from the crowd at left with his familiar pride and reserve. He shows it in his knee bent forward and head held slightly back, in the hands brought close to clutch his staff, in his youth, and in the companions who press close to him in a kind of adoration of their own. His brother interrupts the sea of faces at right, turning his own cool, heavy eyes and slightly open lips directly to the viewer. And more like them are everywhere, increasingly without the excuse of patronage and power. In central Italy, as Saint Peter receives the keys to the kingdom, slim unknown men glide across Perugino's public square like a skating rink.

They may be self-portraits, like Botticelli himself in that same Adoration. They may be lost to time, in human models for actors from myth and from the past. That, too, marks a major advance from the late Middle Ages—not so much in setting aside a fixed vocabulary as allowing human and divine to exist side by side or in each other. I am haunted most, though, by one anonymous man, by Paolo Uccello as early as 1445. As men doomed by the Biblical deluge cling to shelter or row with all their might, a ghostly and majestic figure rises, while unknown hands grasp his ankles from the water below. He looks right past Noah in the window of the ark, toward nothing, and his hands lifting his heavy drapery in a gesture of prayer, praise, dignity, or doom.

Look hard enough, and one can find hints of all these at the Met. Maybe not The Mona Lisa, since the survey sticks to the fifteenth century—except for one court portrait by Lorenzo di Costa, from around 1507, to round out his career in Mantua, and a late Giovanni Bellini. Still, Leonardo has a small sketch, in his typical sharp strokes of a pen heavily loaded with ink, and his influence is visible in bland but quite pretty female portraits by Lorenzo di Credi. Rogier turns up, too, but with a nobleman. So once or twice do real-life models for others. A sketch by Ghirlandaio became an attendant in The Birth of the Virgin around 1490, and a gilded reliquary saint by Donatello might well have begun as a portrait.

That saint looks out past the show's entrance, which makes sense, since sculpture set off a new art in the first place, a century after Giotto. The Met exhibited one trigger four years ago, The Gates of Paradise—doors to the Baptistery in Florence, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Donatello soon entered the competition, and his bust from around 1425 marks even more the puzzle of portraiture and sainthood. Rippled hair and drapery pack emotional turmoil, even while Saint Rossore looks down apparently unmoved. The wrinkles of, perhaps, an actual aging man become a third eye. Real portrait sculpture will take another generation, but it comes to painting as early as 1426.

That is the date of a profile by Masaccio, a founding figure if there ever was one. The one work possibly by Uccello more or less copies him. And thereafter the show focuses on portraits as genre rather than theme, mode, or actuality. One can experience it as an odd sidelight in history, albeit one so rich that practically every major artist indulged in or acceded to it. One can experience it, too, as a selective but not unreasonable survey of the early Renaissance in Italy. Maybe moving between the two communicates the Renaissance portrait.

Profiles without Facebook

Masaccio paints a profile, the norm for a good twenty years. He seems to relish the challenge of confronting the picture plane with a third dimension—in little more than the arc of a chest, light shading, firm drawing of facial features, and a huge purple turban. He seems less interested in challenging the impersonality of a profile. Not that he shied away from human vulnerability. In a chapel in Florence, a man awaiting baptism shivers, and the lack of overt emotion in his Trinity only adds to its tragedy. For the portrait, however, the artist's personality matters more than the sitter's.

There already one has the theme of a good survey, and the show delivers. Even in profile, one can see not a simple convention, but plenty of motives and plenty of room to play. Italian portraits start in profile in part because of Classical models—and the very idea of the Renaissance. In no time, though, Masaccio's star pupil, Filippo Lippi, gives a woman at her casement a landscape behind her and a man looking right in, like something between a formal wedding portrait and an illicit tryst. He also anticipates his influence on his pupil, Botticelli, in the diaphanous veil on a woman's hair. Botticelli, in turn, bursts the convention with a woman in a casement but facing almost front, with walls in exaggerated perspective to promise a wider view while trapping the viewer.

Botticelli also puts convention in quotes in a woman with flowing hair—and with a profile cameo on her necklace. When Piero del Pollaiuolo paints a strict profile past 1470, he is not stuck in the past but deliberately retrograde. Elsewhere, he relishes men in combat, but a woman, he seems to say, requires delicacy and restraint. With two rooms, then, the second for female portraits, does one have the entire course of the Renaissance portrait? Pretty much, but two rooms later profiles return again, thanks to Pisanello, who traveled from city to city to deliver on another impetus, courtly medallions—soon an industry for far lesser artists like Antico in Mantua.

Sandro Botticelli's Giuliano de' Medici (National Gallery of Art, Washington, c. 1478)In between, one has more on the Medici, including a death mask and more rounded male portraits. Botticelli uses them for the very same face and composition as in his altarpiece, twice—for tributes to Giuliano de' Medici had a clear demand. One also has drawing, starting in metalpoint. In that very first room, Fra Angelico uses parallel traces to highlight the light under a man's eyes and the softness and shape of his dress. It conveys the artist's signal combination of simplicity, geometry, and the ethereal. With Pisanello, drawing shifts to charcoal, and his intellectuality relishes the comic geometry in profile hats.

The Met stresses the role of the Northern Renaissance in the turn away from profile to a fuller figure. Besides Rogier, it includes Hans Memling with a Memling portrait and more. Art had the peculiar topography of a Europe more and more united by trade and an Italy divided by dictatorial city-states. Still, Rogier and Memling arrive late, and they were in demand because Italian tastes had caught on. The Met also stresses the role of sculpture, but there, too, the direction of influence had shifted. Art had found an audience for courtly and middle-class portraits in the round, and sculpture helped churn them out.

Desiderio da Settignano gives a pert turn to a woman's head, and the smoothness of marble gives her a fashionable gleam. Antonio Rossellino adds a bit more detail and insight, while Benedetto da Maiano smooths things out again, especially in going from clay models to finished product. At best, his literal eye includes such things as folds of skin for their own sake. Meanwhile Pisanello is having a field day, contrasting the profile on one side of a medallion with the court's emblem on the other. They range from eagles to a tamed unicorn to entire cities. Sure, one can expect a leader to boast of his horsemanship, but Pisanello (as in his painting of Saint George in Verona) shows off with at least two horses in perspective, with their butts.

Honesty and sentiment

Make no mistake: medals and death masks do not exactly shine as Renaissance art. Nor does most of the sculpture, although it includes Andrea del Verrocchio, the best sculptor in later decades and, as a painter, Leonardo's teacher. One has to wade through a surprisingly large and balanced show, of well over one hundred works—few the artist's textbook portrait, but far more than good enough. One has to accept that both Pollaiuolo and Ghirlandaio painted alongside their less-talented brothers, the latter an easy catch for scholars because he was left-handed, with a direction of brushstrokes to match. Still, it is worth the patience to experience an entire period and place, instantly memorable even without the Mona Lisa.

One might try the first two or three rooms as a miniature survey for grounding, and then what I shall call a quick slog. Then come back to pick out favorites or simply art for its strangeness. Luca Signorelli could have completed his charcoal drawing anywhere from 1485 to 1500, and it may or may not depict Dante. It exploits the medium's scope all the same, from careful line to shade, for a face laden with skepticism and sadness. Also the draftsman's art but in chalk, Andrea Mantegna is, the Met notes, frank to the point of unflattering—but the resulting sense of life is flattering, too.

For someone as active as Pisanello as both painter and portraitist, only two painted portraits survive. A floral background has the same mysticism as in his saint's vision in London, and matte colors make the sitter resemble nothing so much as an area rug. Full-length portraits are rarer still, despite Federigo da Montefeltro in his study, by Pietro di Spagna. (The artist is usually called Pedro Berruguete, but for once the Met's attributions avoid obvious curatorial bias.) Here profile serves yet another purpose, as in a portrait of him by Piero della Francesca not on display, for the subject lost an eye combat. One can appreciate the love, fear, and respect he commanded in his armor covered by red cloth, the hefty volume in his hand, his son at his feet, and the virtuoso view from below.

Along with the show's other fits and starts, it veers at last to Venice. Besides the chalk, Mantegna gives another reminder of the ideal of the Renaissance, in a cardinal with cropped hair out of ancient Rome. Mantegna's brother-in-law, Giovanni Bellini, has nothing half as rapturous and translucent as his Saint Francis in the Frick. Still, he subtly shows off with a clergyman posed as Saint Dominic before a green floral curtain. One can easily overlook the slight angle of the foreground parapet below the angle of his book. The play of two and three dimensions continues in the inscription on trompe l'oeil crumpled paper.

If one has the energy by then, the finale in Venice amounts to its own survey. It has the disarming smirk on a young man by Antonello da Messina, usually credited with pushing Italy from tempera to oil. Portraits by Giovanni's brother, Gentile, more often reflect the orientalism of his stay in Turkey. Here a self-portrait drawing has a striking currency in its forceful expression, drawn cheeks, and acceptance of age. As for the founder of the clan, Jacopo Bellini gives Saint Bernardino of Siena the dignity of gold on wood, the empathy of open mouth and quiet shading, the lightness of a dappled brown cloak, and the sad humanity of lost teeth and half-closed eyes. As if to round out what began with Donatello's reliquary, it combines sainthood and portraiture, for Bellini knew the saintly preacher at first hand.

Giorgio Vasari left the first survey of Renaissance art, although in print. Of course, he called it Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects—and the title page gave its largest font to Lives. The Met may limit its conception of the Renaissance portrait, but it shows art as centered more and more around lives. Does it seem strange that, amid the signs of middle-class distinction and secularization, those lives so often featured heads of states and preachers? Just the fact that the lives of the artists mattered says something, and their lives shine out through the Renaissance portrait. The power of patronage, with strings attached, has been with art ever since.

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"The Renaissance Portrait: Donatello to Bellini" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through March 18, 2012.


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