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 is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.