The Renaissance Portrait - from Donatello to Bellini

September 3, 2012

Painting possesses a truly divine power in that not only does it make the absent present (as they say of friendship), 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 - Leon Battista Alberti

The exhibition The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from December 21, 2011 to March 18, 2012 was akin to a magnificent gathering of prominent individuals from the fifteenth-century. Viewers were able to interact with the princely leaders of the Italian states, famed as well as anonymous beauties, stern Dominican friars along with the greatest artists of this era. Being inches away from the life-like portrayals of these renowned notables, hovering near works of art that had been graced by the hands of artists such as Donatello, Ghirlandaio, Mantegna or Bellini, left one with the impression of being privy to their world. The variety of media presented ranged from paintings to sculpture to medals, highlighting the influence of each upon the other. In addition, deciphering the iconography, as well as noting the evolution of these portrayals  gave a glimpse into the interplay between artists and patrons.

The exhibition of fifteenth-century Italian portraits which travelled to New York from the Bode-Museum, Berlin was accompanied by a catalog edited by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann. The volume superbly encompasses detailed information about the pieces displayed and the artists who produced them, showcasing the work of prominent scholars from the past and the present.

Format and themes
The catalog contains the contribution of seventeen scholars in the introductory essays and catalog entries, and is illustrated with spectacular photographs of the works on display.  Particularly notable are the images of the portrait medals and paintings with inscriptions or images on their reverse side, which are either not visible or hard to distinguish in the exhibition. The first part of the catalog is devoted to five essays introducing various aspects of portraiture in fifteenth-century Italy categorized according to the distinguishing character of the different courts or states, and the chief concerns in creating a likeness. The catalog listings are classified under the three major art centers of the Italian peninsula in the fifteenth-century: Florence, The Courts of Italy, and Venice and the Veneto. Included in each  entry are the different attributions made over the years. The last part of the book is an extensive archive of notes, a twenty six page bibliography and an index.

The attribution of works is a major theme in this catalog. The entries contain detailed information listing the various scholars who have proposed an attribution. This also includes a record of the comparison pieces used to make these attributions as well as essential bibliography. Addressing the challenge of discovering the identity of the sitters, Patricia Rubin cites Aby Warburg's work identifying the portraits in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Confirmation of the Rule of Saint Francis, (Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence) in establishing the precedent that is still being used today. It is fascinating to note that the catalog entries provide not only a record of attribution history, but in some cases propose new attributions that are different than those listed in the exhibition. 

In her introductory essay Understanding Renaissance Portraiture, Patricia Rubin's writing style reads like a captivating narrative - relating anecdotes taken from documents, letters and literary sources to account for the variety seen in portraiture. She examines the intriguing concept of an artist’s personal style being superimposed on the sitter and the diversity seen in the representations. In outlining the major developments in Florentine portraiture, Rubin brings into focus contemporary circumstances by relating her facts in a sequential rhythm using vivid examples including notes from artist’s handbooks, diaries and inventory lists alongside quotes from Vasari.

In the final section of her essay, The “Discovery of Man” and the Rediscovery of Renaissance Portraiture, Patricia Rubin approaches the rediscovery of Renaissance portraiture in the nineteenth-century, the interpretation of the works by scholars in accordance with contemporary ideals and demands, collecting and attribution of the newly discovered works. The information Rubin includes in regards to nineteenth century experts’ approach to restoration of the Renaissance portraits helps to illuminate the perplexity of attribution scholars face for these works today.

Portraiture at the Courts of Italy, by Beverly Louise Brown, narrates the stories of why and how the princes and mercenary generals of the fifteenth-century Italian peninsula had themselves immortalized by the greatest artists of the era.  Along with the colorful personalities ruling the courts of Italy, the respected humanists that educated the current and future rulers of these courts and the unique artists responsible for progressing the evolution of styles of portraiture are also discussed.

One of the most particular patrons of the quattrocento, Isabella d’Este and her portrait medal is described in great clarity by Brown. This unique case study allows Brown to explore the ideals of the era and the working processes used in the design of a portrait medal. The 1498 medal by Gian Cristoforo Romano is described as singular, not only because it met with the approval of the capricious Marchessa of Mantua, but also because it is the only fifteenth-century gold medal to survive.

Gian Cristoforo Romano. Isabella d'Este. 1498.

Romano depicted Isabella with a graceful, aquiline nose and a distinctive hairstyle that draws attention from her heavy cheeks and double chin.  The reverse bears a complex allegorical image containing Isabella’s astrological sign of Sagittarius placed above a winged figure of Victory taming a serpent, with an inscription alluding to victory through personal merit. In her essay Brown mentions an amusing anecdote about her brother Alfonso d’Este's wedding to Lucrezia Borgia, where women present marvelled at Isabella’s unique hairstyle - leading us to surmise that Isabella may have worn this type of hair style in life.

Eleonora Luciano, the author of the catalog entry for this piece, mentions six surviving letters and a sonnet referring to this portrait medal.  One letter to Isabella from Niccolo da Corregio - a humanist and nobleman - discusses the options for the inscription on the reverse of the medal,  highlighting the role of humanists in the design of medals. Taking into account the evidence of the letters exchanged between the Marchesse of Mantua, Cristoforo and da Corregio, Luciano surmises that “the patroness seems to have established the general message, turning to the medallist first and the humanist later to come up with the visual and literary manifestations of her intention.”

Venetian portraiture
The sombre, psychologically remote nature of Venetian portraits is discussed in Peter Humfrey’s The Portrait in Fifteenth-Century Venice. The abundance of portraits in the homes of prosperous Venetians, mostly thought to be of family members, aside from Vasari is validated by the notebooks of the Venetian patrician and connoisseur, Marcantonio Michiel.  From portrait panels of unidentified youths to ducal representations Humfrey gives succinct descriptions to illuminate the distinctive nature of portraiture in the Venetian state.

Humfrey acknowledges Gentile Bellini along with his father and brother, as the principal painters of Venice. He is also stresses the influence of Netherlandish portraits and especially the Sicilian artist, Antonello Messina, as having revolutionized portrait painting in the last quarter of fifteenth-century.

Left Antonello da Messina. Portrait of a Young Man. 1478. Right Giovanni Bellini. Portrait of a Young Venetian. 1480-90.

It is particularly interesting to compare Portrait of a Young Man, 1478, by Antonello da Messina to Portrait of a Young Venetian, 1480-90, by Giovanni Bellini to appreciate the differences between the two distinct styles.  Although Messina’s customary dark background is substituted for a landscape in Portrait of a Young Man, the only one of its kind, the supposed identity of the sitter makes it worthy of special consideration.  The catalogue entry points out that there is an inscription in the back of the panel identifying the subject as Giovanni Bellini and a story that Bellini sat for the artist disguised as a Venetian nobleman in order to learn Messina’s secrets in oil-painting. There is a stone parapet that separates the viewer’s space from the subject which is a device utilized by Messina in all his portraits and a cartellino bearing the date and the name of the artist. The controversy over attribution of the background is explained in detail with the various scholars arguing till recently it was a later addition in order to make it look more similar to Hans Memling’s portraits.

Portrait of a Young Venetian, 1480-90, is the portrait of an unidentified Venetian senator or council member with no inscriptions or attributes except for his red attire which signifies him as someone holding a political office.  The subject, shown in three-quarter view with a calm, stoic gaze looking out to the left of the picture plane does not engage with the viewer like Messina’s Portrait of a Young Man. While the vibrant flesh tones, the carefully modelled face and the distinctive hair surrounding the face all denote this as an individual likeness, the sitter’s confident, serene expression is associated with an idealized identity. In the catalogue entry it is suggested that the image that comes through of the irreproachable servant of the republic and member of Venice’s patrician class was the sitter’s intention. Unlike their Florentine counterparts, these portraits say nothing of the sitter’s individuality, achievements and ambitions but only reflect his place in the fixed hierarchy of the state.

Reflections on likeness
Some Thoughts on Likeness in Italian Early Renaissance Portraits explores the paradox of trying to capture both a likeness of the outward appearance as well as the inner soul of an individual in portraiture. Citing the remarkable example of Donatello’s reliquary bust of Saint Rossore, Stefan Weppelman clearly explains how the boundaries between liturgical objects and a profane likeness could be blurred. The female profile portrait with its function as the canonical formula for the representation of feminine virtue and beauty are discussed along with a detailed examination of the unique symbols in Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine.

The final essay The face that is known draws the eyes of all spectators…is an investigation ­­­of a brief but crucial text from Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise De Pictura that was written both in Italian and Latin. Rudolf Preimesberger’s in-depth exploration of the different meanings as they pertain to the translation of the text is also compared to the theories introduced in Aristotle’s Poetics which was not yet studied in Alberti’s day.

Final note
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini is a wonderful resource that incorporates the various cultural strands and the confluence of ideas and forces at work in the formation of these mimetic representations. The concepts behind portraiture and the expectation of patrons are pithily expressed and the “absent has been made present” through the work of so many valuable scholars.

I would like to thank the Metropolitan Museum New York, Inbooks Australia and 3PP for the review copy and enabling me to relive a superlative exhibition thorough this summary.

Image Notes
Antonello Messina -  Portrait of a Man via wikipaintings link
Giovanni Bellini  - Young Venetian via Web Gallery of Art link

Sedef Piker is a graduate of F.I.T at New York State University. She has studied the complex forms of Tehzip (Ottoman Illuminated Calligraphy) at the Ministry of Culture’s Traditional Turkish Decorative Arts program in Topkapi Palace, participating in several group exhibitions including one at the National Library in Ankara and one at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul. She describes each experience in her life studying design and learning artistic technique being accompanied by a ''gnawing hunger for more knowledge'' of art and history, which she delights in exploring at Sedef's Corner.


Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this review Sedef. I love the anecdotes related along the way. These glimpses really give a sense of the people and the time, beyond the idealisation often seen in these images.

Stephanie S

Unknown said...

Thanks to Sedef for this great review! As noted by Stephanie, I also found the anecdotes highly intriguing, making those sections of the catalogue instantly memorable.

The little reference to the Lucrezia Borgia wedding to Young Alphonso was also a great thrill, having just recently covered this in The Borgias TV show reviews.

Many thanks to Sedef for completing this review during a very busy time!

Kind Regards

Edward Goldberg said...

Sedef--I am not sure whether I should thank you for this excellent article! I now feel even worse (if possible) at having missed an obviously wonderful "once in a lifetime" show (the scheduling was a perfect miss between my last two visits to New York.) On the positive side, however, you have encouraged me to get over my frustration and read the catalogue, which is indeed very beautiful. Ed G.

Sedef said...

Thank you all for reading and taking the time to comment.

Stephanie, I felt the anecdotes really helped the catalog to go beyond academia and expand its audience to the public.

Dr. Goldberg, I am sorry you missed it... But the catalog does give a good overview and you can revisit most of the artifacts in a trip to Berlin and New York (If that is any consolation)
I so loved it, if I can find the time I am thinking of recreating it as a blogpost.

Hasan,as always, thanks for the opportunity.

Alberti's Window said...

Sounds like a great exhibition (and exhibition catalog)! I'm especially intrigued by how certain types of painting (and even specific painters) became popular in the 19th century. I wonder if this interest in portraiture had to do with post-Enlightenment (perhaps secular?) sentiment. That essay by Patricia Rubin sounds especially interesting to me - I'll have to read it and see what she says!

Thanks for a great post!

Karen Barrett-Wilt said...

The Ghirlandaio portrait on the cover has always been one of my favorites -- makes me smile every time. Love the story about Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini! The differences between Florentine and Venetian portraits caught my attention, too. Portraiture is so fascinating, and this catalog looks like a great addition to the topic. Thanks for a great review, Sedef!

Sedef said...

Alberti's Window - Patricia Rubin's essay is truly fascinating, especially to note how supply and demand influenced and affected the attribution and restoration of these works.

Karen - I agree with you about the Ghirlandaio portrait - it is real.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts.

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