A Portrait of the Merchant as an Important Man
"The Renaissance Portrait" reveals a generation starting to think about self-image.
On a warm morning in April of 1478, Guiliano de Medici, the younger brother of the famous Lorenzo de Medici, was murdered in the crowded Duomo in central Florence. At the time, Florence was Europe’s largest city, a walled enclave of writers and artists exploring humanist ideas in aesthetics and politics. It also had a flourishing mercantile and banking class, with rival families competing for expanding wealth.
- "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" Through March 18. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The Florence of money and philosophy that April included a very young Niccoló Machiavelli, barely 9 years old. Leonardo da Vinci had just turned 26 and was beginning his earliest post-apprenticeship artistic works. He was, some have claimed, working for the Medicis at the time. It was also the city of more mature painters such as Sandro Botticelli, who was practicing new forms of frescoes and paintings that moved beyond religious iconography.
Historian Lauro Martines relates the events of that morning in his book April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Medicis:
The signal for the deed came at a moment of High Mass, possible the elevation of the Host, though some said the priest’s communion… Witnesses claimed that the first bloody thrust, backed by the exclamation, “Here, traitor!” was delivered by Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a man from an old banking family allied to the Pazzi. Guiliano de’ Medici staggered back a few paces, his chest punctured, as a second assailant, Francesco de’ Pazzi, went at him with a fury of dagger blows.Known today as the “Pazzi Conspiracy,” the assassination was orchestrated by members of the Pazzi family, a rival to the powerful Medicis, and supported by the Pope, whose own power was questioned by Lorenzo’s influence and wealth. The plot involved hired soldiers, priests, and Vatican secretaries. Originally set to happen in the thick walled Medici Palace just north of the cathedral, the assassination plan was changed at the last moment. Lorenzo escaped with only a flesh wound, but Guiliano suffered 19 stab wounds to the chest. He perished on the stone pavement under the cathedral’s massive dome.
In the following days and weeks, retributions against the conspirators and those associated with the Pazzi family were brutal. Lorenzo had those who plotted the attack hanged by the neck out the windows of the Palazzo del Podestà (now the Bargello Museum), including the Archbishop of Pisa. Their legs dangled above those passing below. Others who supported the conspirators and the Pazzi family were tied and quartered by angry mobs; their body parts were strewn around the city, and their heads were stuck on poles for all to see their mutilated faces.
Portraiture was crucial to this retribution. It both commemorated Guiliano’s death and asserted Lorenzo’s power. Lorenzo commissioned Botticelli to create frescoes of the conspirators on the exterior of the Florence jail, images that portrayed them hanging by their necks. By July, the frescoes were complete and Botticelli earned the sizable sum of “forty large florins,” or what would be nearly $10,000 today.
It is hard to fathom that the painter of the well-known “Birth of Venus,” with its pale colors and classical imagery, crafted such frescoes of executions. Known as pitture infamanti, paintings of criminals on public buildings were not uncommon in Renaissance Florence. They often portrayed men who had fled the city to elude punishment. But Botticelli’s frescoes were the first time that such images were created to remind citizens of the gruesome deaths of Lorenzo’s enemies. The frescoes remained until Lorenzo’s death in 1494, when the Medici empire began to fade.
Displaying nearly 160 paintings and sculptures, “The Renaissance Portrait” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art offers a rich history of the rise and importance of portraits during the era of secular wealth and humanist ideas. As you enter the exhibition, the first wall text explains how so often portraits in the early Renaissance were done as commemoration of those who had died. Indeed, Botticelli also produced a different set of portraits in 1478, those of the murdered Guiliano. These portraits, three of which are on view in this show, present a calmness that elides the bloody history they recall. They are remarkably similar, presenting a bust-like figure of the strong-faced Medici. He is captured in near profile, his long, solid nose and elegant eyebrows conveying a mannered, aristocratic air. His eyes are downcast in all three, suggesting a certain repose that commemorated his status and personage to those enemies of Medici power. The only significant difference among the three is their backgrounds. One is a flat, dark wall. In another, the wall has been cut open to expose the gray-blue sky above, the light reflecting off the window frame. The third and largest portrait situates Guiliano between two windows — one being the frame of the painting, and the other behind him, half open to allow a pale blue light to contrast against his dark thick hair. Unlike so many of these painted portraits, whose backgrounds offer expansive vistas of the city or country, these paintings are quite tightly composed. I had to imagine that what lay beyond that open window were images of the executed.
Commemoration was a common motive for portraiture in the early 15th century. Rendering through image or sculpture the face of a departed loved one was often an act of celebration. These were not usually realistic renderings, but instead were stylized and symbolic. A striking early sculpture “Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore” (c. 1455) by Donatello shifts this focus. It conveys both skill and innovation by capturing in life-like detail the facial features of Rossore, believed to have been a soldier who died in the Crusades centuries earlier. Donatello’s depiction presents the saint in all his human simplicity, more man than martyr.
This humanizing is crucial for the works throughout the show, for what makes this art so significant is how it turns toward the individual, toward the secular as the subject of art, rendering the face with what was considered the “natural” features of the person. In Florence and Milan and Mantua, not only the rulers but also the merchant and banking classes commissioned artists to compose portraits that displayed the sitter’s continence and, more precisely, the subject’s wealth. In his treatise on art from 1435, Leon Battista Alberti declared, “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.” This memorializing of the dead and the living through portraiture redefined the work of art as a powerful tool for rulers and merchants alike.
While a number of works in this show are titled with the names of religious and secular leaders — di Spagna’s famous "Federigo da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo" (c. 1476-77), for example — many subjects exist in anonymity, the identity lost to time. There is something powerfully paradoxical about nameless portraits meant to preserve the image of the subject for generations to come. Perhaps it is this absence of specific names that turns the experience of viewing these portraits from an archival encounter with the important toward a more intimate encounter of individuals as art.
Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo’s series of paintings, all titled “Portrait of a Lady,” present a standard profile of the subject that varied with details of clothing and hair.
The del Pollaiuolo brothers were craftsmen in Florence who catered to the rising class of merchants and bankers. These portraits, with their consistent and oddly trance-like gaze, reflected the era’s idealization of female beauty. This was most clearly demonstrated in a later Botticelli painting entitled “Ideal Portrait of a Lady” (ca 1475-80), whose subject looks strikingly similar to his Venus, with the delicate features and stylized hair.
We can wonder who these ladies might have been, their dress and jewelry offering us clues to the social rank. While the commonality of these compositions so often denies the subjects uniqueness, the portraits project an idealized female who was less ethereal goddess and more elegant lady.
Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Portrait of a Woman and a Man at a Casement” (c. 1440-44) presents the trope of the woman’s profile but intriguingly fixes her gaze toward the man who slips his face just inside the window. Both faces are quite featureless. The painting rests more on the skill in rendering the details of the woman’s clothes and headdress than on capturing those of her face. But what intrigues me is that her gaze has a subject, and that Lippi presents us with a painting not of any particular person, but with two persons staring at each other.
This gesture of gazing at one’s love from a window, which was quite common in poetry at the time, is here composed in a tightly framed image. As I contemplate this small painting, I felt I was intruding on this moment of intimacy, exaggerated by the implausible interior space that seems to be one small room of windows. The painting reminds us that even closeness can hold a certain distance, a certain performance in these early portraits.
As the century progressed, so too did the features and uniqueness of the faces. By the 1460s, the exhibit’s wall text tells us, there was an increasing “correlation between the mercantile class practice of keeping a diary or memoir and the commissioning of portraits.” These patrons commissioned such artists as Andrea Mantegna, Antonello da Messina, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Botticelli, who were compelled by new techniques and compositions in representing their subjects with deeper expression and emotional gestures. As Patricia Rubin notes in her catalogue essay, by the late 15th century there was a “major shift in the rhetoric of the image, from that of description to that of encounter.” The turn from simple and stoic profiles to faces holding expressions and often caught in the moment would become a constant theme in such paintings, capturing not just a face, but a whole character.
Consider Mantegna’s “Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan” (c. 1459-60) with his stern continence and narrow lips pursed tightly closed.
His flesh — flawed and wrinkled, discolored with light and aging — betrays his weakness. He is caught as if in a moment of indecision. There is also Messina’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (1478), whose sad face and large eyes stare out at us as if we encountered him walking along a path. He looks at us with suspicion, and I imagine for a moment that he is considering me as much as I am considering him.
While many of the early portraits are enclosed with the illusion of looking through a window at the subject, the later portraits turn away from this technique, transforming the voyeurism into its own unique encounter. These later portraits present their subjects in their nearness, with details of expansive countrysides behind them. Many young subjects are portrayed in this way. Ghirlandaio’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (1490) captures his subject in intimate closeness, the man’s head slightly turned, his right hand clutching his vivid red jacket to reveal a sliver of its lining. Are we meant to admire this gesture, this fabric? The man’s look contemplates us with a clear sense of aloof disdain.
For some time now I’ve been captivated by art that stares back. This work turns the viewer into its conceivable subject. For much of the art before the late 15th century, only gods or kings were allowed to stare at us. The more interesting portraits in this show are those that appear to acknowledge the viewer, where the sitters experiment with what it means to be regarded as the subject of art. These are often the anonymous portraits of well-tailored men and women, whose faces and gestures call us to admire them. While the wall text explains that these later images depict the artist’s effort to “give voice and personality to the sitter,” such anachronistic descriptions overlook the historical specificity. Personality as a unique quality of a person is something that would have been quite foreign to the motives of artists or sitters in the Renaissance. As historian Warren Susman and others have shown, the “consciousness of the self” is more an invention of Enlightenment thought, developed through the 19th century into our contemporary notions of personality. It is more accurate to talk of the nature and personage that these artists wished to capture with life-like precision.
The show often presents these portraits as a comment on our time. For example, the introductory text asks: “But are not all portraits a fiction?” This seemed a much more modern (or rather postmodern) question than one the citizens of Florence might have pondered. This show is strongest when it illuminates the artistic concerns and historical trends that gave rise to the Renaissance portrait. In the best of these works, in those faces that stare out at us or gaze just beyond us, we find a crucial moment in the history of art.
As much as these works define an aesthetic tradition, they also illuminate how the men and women of this era began to imagine themselves as figures to be admired and feared. The Renaissance portrait identifies the moment when young men and ladies learned to pose and gesture for their own imagined self-presentations. While we can admire the beauty of these faces, these works illuminate a more subtle history that has much to do with the sitter. For in these portraits of young men and ladies captured in life-like encounters, there is also the origin of how to regard oneself as the subject of an image, the subject of another person’s gaze that would last for generations, and the influence that such an image can confer in an increasingly secular world. • 21 February 2012
James Polchin teaches writing at NYU and is the founder and editor of the site Writing in Public.
Images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.