Metropolitan Museum of Art, 420 pp., $65.00; $45.00 (paper) (distributed by Yale University Press)
The show of Renaissance portraits now on view in New York is of staggering beauty and revelatory importance. Bringing together nearly 150 masterpieces of fifteenth-century Italian art, it is the richest examination ever presented of the portrait during the first stages of its development in Europe following the end of the Middle Ages. It is a landmark exhibition, one that seeks both to affirm and to revise a common belief about the Renaissance: that it was a time of unprecedented ascent in the power, the freedom, and the self-understanding of the individual.
The organizers of “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini” have taken the unusual step of limiting their study to Italy in the fifteenth century. Most earlier books and shows on Renaissance portraiture include art from other countries, especially Flanders and Germany, and from the sixteenth century. That is a natural choice, given the crucial importance of Jan van Eyck, Hans Holbein, Albrecht Dürer, Titian, and many others in the evolution of the portrait. But as the foreword to the show’s catalog states, the curators felt that
the special character of portraiture in this early phase is best understood if examined in the context of its own time…. The fifteenth-century portrait was shaped by ideals and social conventions distinct from those of subsequent centuries and far removed from those of our own.
One major goal of the show is to replace a generalized notion of the Renaissance portrait with a more nuanced, complex, and historically grounded understanding.
By looking in such a concentrated fashion, the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art demonstrates that there was not one type or ideal of the Renaissance portrait, but many. It is a series of mini-exhibitions, each on portraiture from a different region. It opens with four rooms dedicated to the portrait in Florence, continues with two rooms of works made for the princely courts, especially those of Ferrara, Milan, and Naples, and concludes with two rooms of images from Venice and the Veneto. This organization reveals the widely varied character of portraits from these different places. Walking from one section to another, the visitor encounters dramatic shifts in the scale and medium of the works of art; most importantly, the mode of presentation of the men and women changes, so that some images are forbidding and remote, whereas others are of startling immediacy.
The show reaffirms the thesis, first presented in 1860 by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, that one of the dominant characteristics of the epoch was “The Development of the Individual”—to use the title of a section of the book. Burckhardt famously said:
Man [previously] was conscious of himself only as member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air; an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all things of this world became possible. The subjective side at the same time asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such.
Burckhardt’s idea has had the most profound influence on the study of the Renaissance portrait, beginning with his own masterly essay on the subject, published in 1898, and continuing up to the present day. For instance, John Pope-Hennessy’s The Portrait in the Renaissance (1966), a standard reference, opens with a chapter called “The Cult of Personality,” and Nicholas Mann and Luke Syson’s more recent book on the topic is titled The Image of the Individual (1998).
Viewing the show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one cannot help but be struck by the vitality, distinctiveness, and particularity of the men and women portrayed. They gaze at you and beckon to you, clamoring for your attention, like the shades of the dead calling to Odysseus during his visit to Hades, or the figures speaking to Dante in The Divine Comedy. Such urgent declarations of self and calls for recognition are unlike anything that had come before in European visual art, even in the classical era. The soundness of Burckhardt’s insight seems certain.
At the same time, however, the show offers a corrective to this idea. In Burckhardt’s formulation, the individual was seen in distinction from the group. But in the exhibition what we often view are individuals portrayed as the preeminent and exemplary representatives of groups; the men and women are depicted as distinguished members of a virtuous and honored elite. This is perhaps most evident in the room of Florentine male portraits: almost all the men there are shown dressed exactly alike in the distinctive red tunics that identified them as citizens of Florence. The city’s government was a republic, not a democracy, and only a small group of patricians was legally enfranchised. Their costume thus is a badge of honor that marks them as men of learning, wealth, achievement, and consequence.
In the modern era, we sometimes believe portraiture should reveal an inner self of thought and feeling. By contrast, in much of fifteenth-century Italy, portraits chiefly presented a public identity, not a private one. To be sure these paintings and sculptures are images of character. But virtue and character were routinely understood to be familial, social, and political, not lyrical or psychological. At the entrance of the show, the curators announce:
The goal [of portraiture] was to confer a distinct identity on a subject—as a husband or wife, merchant or intellectual, military commander, civic office holder or prince.
Portraiture was a matter of both description and aspiration; it sought to capture the likeness of a particular man or woman and simultaneously to suggest how that person exemplified a type or ideal.
In their concentration on the fifteenth century, the show and catalog say little about the precedents that helped lead to the efflorescence of portraiture in this time. For much of the Middle Ages, only the most highly honored persons, especially Christ, saints, rulers, and popes, were celebrated in art. Portraits of other figures were exceedingly rare. There was also comparatively little concern for capturing the distinctive features of an individual’s face. To be sure, an image of Christ, a saint, or a ruler was meant to be a vera effigies—a true likeness. But while there are some exceptions, such as the sculptures of Ekkehard and Uta in the cathedral of Naumberg from around 1249, most portraits lacked recognizable particularity.
Beginning in the late thirteenth century several changes greatly stimulated the advance of portraiture. One was the ascent of the Franciscan and Dominican orders. The personal charisma of the leaders of these movements was considered crucial for their followers’ sense of mission, and to this end images of Saint Francis, Saint Dominic, and other distinguished members of the orders were created in great numbers. These figures, moreover, were routinely portrayed with much credible detail. For example, the fresco cycle of Albert the Great and other Dominican scholars, painted in Treviso in 1352 by Tommaso of Modena, represents each man in a fully individualized way, while also conveying their shared passion for study and the pursuit of truth. The importance of portraiture in these orders continued throughout the Renaissance; in the exhibition it can be seen in Jacopo Bellini’s portrait of the Franciscan preacher Bernardino of Siena and Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of the Dominican Fra Teodoro of Urbino.
Another major development in the fourteenth century was the great increase in both the building of churches and chapels and the commissioning of altarpieces to decorate them. In these settings, for the first time it was deemed permissible for a convincing likeness of a donor to be shown, even if he was a nonroyal layperson. One extremely important early instance is Giotto’s fresco of Enrico Scrovegni in the Arena Chapel in Padua from about 1305. The popularity of donor portraits grew through the century, and appears to have accelerated following the devastating epidemics of the Black Death in 1348 and again in the 1360s.
From the time of Giotto, furthermore, it became acceptable to include portraits of artists, poets, politicians, soldiers, and other prominent figures in group scenes in narrative frescoes, even of religious subjects. Although these figures were almost never identified by name, their presence added to the image’s credibility. Perhaps the most famous example of this practice was the now lost fresco by Masaccio, made in the 1420s, showing the consecration of the church of Carmine in Florence. According to Vasari, the painter included portraits of Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masolino, and many others among the men in the crowd.
There was one other important form of portraiture in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries: fresco cycles of biblical and classical heroes and other illustrious men. Nearly all these series have been destroyed, and we have few documents or descriptions, but we know that they included many prestigious works, including frescoes by Giotto in the Palazzo Reale in Naples, paintings by one of his followers in the Orsini Palace in Rome, and a late-fourteenth-century cycle in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. One of the few surviving instances is Andrea del Castagno’s frescoes of famous men, which he painted for the Villa Carducci, outside of Florence, around 1450.
So portraits had existed before, but it was only in the fifteenth century that independent images of actual persons other than rulers and religious figures began to be made in large numbers. This new tendency started in Flanders, and then spread to Florence, where it reached unprecedented currency. The Florentine portraits represent the patricians of the city and their families—their wives, sons, and daughters. One room of the show concentrates on portraits of women, and some of these sculptures and paintings, such as Botticelli’s two ravishing images of the celebrated beauty Simonetta Vespucci, shown with her golden hair fluttering around her head as if blown by the wind, are surely poetic fantasies.
Many of these images, however, seem to aim for a large measure of frankness in their presentation. The women are elegantly yet plainly dressed, with little ornament or jewelry, and their expressions convey both modesty and self-esteem. In the Florentine treatises of the time on civil life, the word onestà can have connotations of both honesty and honor, and many of the paintings and sculptures appear to seek this balance of values.
Almost all Florentine portraits were intended for display in a family house. Typically they were meant to celebrate the worthy members of the clan and to inspire the young to live up to the standards set by their ancestors; they also gave proof that a family was one of renown and dignity. We can be certain that portraiture served these uses, because of a remarkable dialogue written in 1440 by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini. On Nobility is, I believe, the first post-classical text to comment at some length on the portrait. One interlocutor in the dialogue states: