In the nave of a small conventual church in the Tuscan hill town of Casole d’Elsa, there is a monument that, as they say in French guidebooks, vaut le voyage.” The detour-worthy work of art was commissioned by a relatively obscure knight and magistrate of the Republic of Siena called Bernardino del Porrina not long before his death in 1309. The standing, lifesize, and in the round marble likeness of Porrina looks down from his perch in an elaborate Gothic niche, clearly implying that this is not a tomb but a cenotaph to the man’s living presence (the actual burial is in a nearby crypt). Funerary monuments of the period had endlessly repeated the French format of representing the deceased lying in state (gisant). No less obscure than the sculpture’s patron is the artist: an elusive, itinerant stone carver named Marco Romano, who is presumed to have died sometime after 1318 (the date of his only signed work, a more conventional wall-tomb in the Church of San Simeone Grande in Venice.)

What Marco wrought in Casole d’Elsa was instead an unprecedented and revealing portrait of a man, as he looked and as he wished to be perceived: imposing of girth and foursquare in stance. The symbols of Porrina’s elevated status—the law book held firmly in his left hand and the broadsword hanging at his right side—are carefully described, as are the details of his cassock, ample cloak, and soft beret. The sitter’s pudgy, slightly jowly facial features are rendered with uncanny verisimilitude, and his stern yet benevolent gaze is uncompromisingly directed downward toward the viewer. One might well feel reassured if submitted to this man’s judgment in a court of law. Incredibly, the cenotaph to Porrina was not recognized as a capital work of Romano’s until 1983. Finally, last year, a small but significant local exhibition drew together the sparse strands of this gifted and innovative artist’s stylistic genesis, development and legacy. This much overdue attention to Marco Romano served as a reminder to the art historical community that, on the subject of portraiture, fresh insights are not only possible but often readily at hand.

There is now little doubt that the desire to render human likenesses in specific, rather than generalized or idealized, terms began in Italy in the thirteenth century, well within the late-medieval artistic tradition and almost a century before the Porrina monument. If there were one cause to be cited as the wellspring for this innovation, it would be the birth and whirlwind expansion of the Franciscan movement. The story of the young, spoiled rich boy of Assisi who, in a moment of spiritual awakening, transformed his life is all too well known. Less familiar is the profound effect that Francis’s life, ministry, and writings had on the culture of pre-modern Europe: for the first time since Saint Paul and the Early Church, a man’s intimately personal relationship to God and the world He created became, once again, the central theme of the Christian faith. Salvation was, once again, believed to be won through a man’s individual commitment to a life in imitation of Christ’s—good works and prayer, rather than churchly intercession, were the keys to salvation.

It was a radical message that, while emphasizing humility and sacrifice, empowered and ennobled the human condition. It was Francis—as a man—reliving Christ’s human life, which gave his lesson such power. It is no coincidence that the earliest depictions of the Crucifixion in Italian art, those dating to the early thirteenth century, inevitably depict the subject in kingly attire and very much alive on the cross—quite immune, and above, earthly constraints. As the century progressed and the Franciscan movement gathered momentum, Christ’s divinity was eventually replaced by His human dimension. In Cimabue’s memorable depiction of 1270 (Arezzo), He is shown poignantly and unmistakably expired on that same cross. Similar images, and the pietistic tracts that proliferated in these years, were clearly meant to elicit direct participation in the human drama recounted by the Gospels.

In contrast, the very worldly ambitions of a French monarch, Charles of Anjou (1226–85), and, later, of an Italian pope, Boniface VIII (1230–1303), loomed large against this backdrop of religious zeal and reform. Both tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to redraw the political map of southern Europe and both are remembered in monumental, celebratory portrait marbles by the Tuscan sculptor Tino da Camaino (c. 1240–c. 1300). Although of a more hieratic and schematic cast than the Porrina portrait, the likenesses of the two subjects are rendered with striking individuality. The pope and the king share a further distinction: Dante gave them both bit parts in the DIVINE COMEDY (Boniface in Hell and Charles in Purgatory), which attests to how intimately the human comedy of his contemporaries absorbed the immortal poet’s attention. Dante’s surviving death-mask is proof that the attention was amply repaid, spawning, as it did, endless posthumous portraits through succeeding generations. By the mid-fourteenth century, any Tuscan merchant willing to underwrite the cost of an altarpiece or a church fresco could get himself, and occasionally his wife, included as participants. They would be shown in stylized profile and diminutive scale, kneeling stiffly in prayer, timid precursors to the Renaissance portrait.

It was in Naples, rather than in Tuscany, that the “donor” figure assumed full and equal stature as protagonist in a monumental painting. In 1317, the great Sienese painter Simone Martini was commissioned by Robert of Anjou to portray his investiture as king of Naples symbolically crowned by his brother Louis, Bishop of Toulouse. Louis was Robert’s elder sibling but had renounced his inheritance to profess religious vows as a Franciscan tertiary friar. He died at the age of twenty-three and was canonized shortly thereafeter. Simone Martini’s brief from Robert was, therefore, to produce a powerfully convincing political statement legitimizing his ascension to the throne of Naples that many regarded as usurped. Saint Louis is shown enthroned in gorgeously elaborate bishop’s regalia, quite in contrast to what is known of the young man’s almost ascetic piety. Robert, in knightly robe, appears in profile kneeling at his brother’s feet. There is no discourse between the two figures, but their respective weight in the composition is so carefully balanced, their features and costumes so faithfully recorded, that the illusion of witnessing the solemn ritual in real time is completely convincing.

What might, with good reason, be called the Double Portrait of Louis and Robert of Anjou is noteworthy for its size, startling iconography, exquisite execution, and—very significantly—its early date. The painting is now one of the treasures of the Capodimonte Museum in Naples and serves as apt confirmation of John Pope-Hennessy’s insightful comment: “the portrait in the Renaissance is no more than a watershed between the medieval portrait and the portrait as we know it.” As further proof, Pope-Hennessy cites a commemorative gold coin struck in 890 by King Arnulf of Carinthia and Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s similar medal of 1230, both of clean, classical design and bearing credible likenesses of the two rulers. A curious paradox is that these medieval medals are often more faithful to their antique prototypes than fifteenth-century examples based on similar sources. The endlessly repeated explanation that the Renaissance portrait originated with a reawakening of interest in Roman coins and funerary effigies is, if not generally incorrect, certainly woefully incomplete.

It is to Pope-Hennessy, in fact, that we owe a clearer and deeper understanding of the typological and geographical complexities of Renaissance portraiture. In six memorable lectures given at the National Gallery in 1963 (and published in 1966), the eminent scholar, critic, and curator blocked out the subject’s broad canvas as no one had done before or has attempted since. Each of the discourses constitutes a separate chapter dedicated to the portrait, alternatively as an artistic, cultural, and political artifact. The topics are varied and range from technique and patronage to social and religious mores and literary and historical reference; all are individually examined in chronological perspective; in short, it is art history at its most rewarding.

Identifying the Trinity fresco in Santo Spirito by Masaccio as the headwater of Florentine innovation, Pope-Hennessy gives the story of the Renaissance portrait a very precise beginning. The date was 1425. That initial headwater was to swell rapidly into a broad, rushing river. Money, again as in all things Florentine, played a part. The donors of the fresco, Lorenzo Lenzi and his wife, kneel at the entrance to a grand, barrel-vaulted niche framed by an imposing columned archway. The entire architectural complex is rendered as seen from below in faultless perspective foreshortening. All the figures within the fictive space (the crucified Son, the Father behind and above Him, the mourning figures of Mary and John) as well as the Lenzi spouses are equally proportioned. Nothing new here; Simone Martini had already taken that important step more than a century earlier. What Pope-Hennessy saw as innovative was the donors’ position outside the sacred space of the niche, occupying the actual world of the viewer. In this sense, portraiture was subtly but decidedly severed from the religious realm, becoming an irrevocably secularized genre on its own.

These were all real people whom the artists surely knew and were able to observe in life.

As the fifteenth century advanced, not only were the merchants and bankers of republican Florence eager to be portrayed, but, to the greater glory of their rule, every prince, condottiero,high prelate, and minor potentate in all corners of the peninsula sought immortality by promoting their likenesses. It has been Western culture’s good fortune that scores of supremely gifted artists in every medium were there to fill the demand by creating masterpieces as diverse as the monumental equestrian bronze likeness of GATTAMELATA by Donatello (Padua), the group portrait in fresco of the GONZAGA FAMILY  by Mantegna(the Bridal Chamber, Ducal Palace, Mantua), and the exquisite marble bust of LEONOR OF ARAGON  by Francesco Laurana (Louvre). These were all real people whom the artists surely knew and were able to observe in life. We are fortunate to know their names and some of their personal stories, but scores of others have remained anonymous. Oddly, this lack of identity seems not to have diminished their hold on our imagination. Their status as works of art depends on other factors beyond simple historical recognition.

One form of portraiture that does not pre-date the early Renaissance is self-portraiture. It is only with Masaccio (as an Apostle in the Tribute Money) that the artist reveals himself, albeit modestly. Then just a few years later, the celebrated head peering from a roundel in the Doors of Paradise of the Florence Baptistery is unmistakably Ghiberti’s, one of the Renaissance’s insuperable self-portraits. The ability to look squarely into the artist’s eyes, and to have our gaze returned, is a revolutionary achievement of humanism and the intellectual and spiritual ground from which the Renaissance sprang.

Nearly fifty years after the Pope-Hennessy Mellon lectures, Renaissance portraiture is once again front and center on the art-world stage. A massive joint undertaking between the Berlin Museum and New York’s Metropolitan has brought together a cornucopia of masterpieces, in virtually every medium except fresco, that affords a breathtaking panorama of Renaissance portraiture, from its earliest examples to the early sixteenth century.1 As usual in these collaborations, the two venues will differ somewhat in the selection. The catalogues, on the other hand, share identical scholarly essays and, cumulatively, this undertaking promises to offer the most comprehensive survey of the genre ever attempted.

The Berlin version of the exhibit included, during its first weeks, the supernova of Renaissance portraits, Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine,causing the predictable traffic jams and the expected six-figure income for the Czartorisky Foundation of Kraców that owns it. The portrait deserves every bit of this attention: apart from its impeccable conservation, intriguing iconography (the ermine is rich in heraldic and erotic symbolism), and winsome subject (the still teenage Cecilia Gallerani was briefly the mistress of Milan’s signore Lodovico “Il Moro” Sforza), Leonardo does with the Lady something entirely unprecedented: he has her turning her head to look back over her shoulder. It was a stunning invention for the early 1480s, yet its influence did not become readily discernible until Titian, who, remains beyond the scope of the exhibition, whose curators chose 1500 as its outer limit, suggesting perhaps that the Metropolitan was more precise in its choice of title.

Besides Cecilia Gallerani, another famous lady of the Quattrocento will also miss the trip to New York. She normally resides in Milan’s Poldi Pezzoli Museum and despite the fact that she has remained nameless, her profile likeness is one of the most familiar and beloved of the early Renaissance. The unforgettable cameo-like rendering dates from the early 1460s and may be a collaborative effort by the Florentine goldsmiths, sculptors, and painters Piero and Antonio del Pollaiulo—the controversy over attribution has caused much ink to flow in the past. With the sparest of detailing and subtlest of modeling, the artists have faultlessly captured the young woman’s slightly wan complexion, handsome, erect posture, and forthright gaze. Visitors to the Metropolitan will see that museum’s somewhat weaker rendering of a very similar woman, in identical pose and possibly by the same artists—proof that the pictorial formula for portraiture initiated in Florence earlier in the century by Masaccio and Fra Filippo Lippi, was now well established.

An aspect of the early Renaissance that continues to cause wonder is how rapidly diverse regions mastered the same visual language, albeit with different accents. The exhibition very effectively illustrates the ebb and flow of stylistic currents in the matter of portraiture among Italy’s city-states, each contributing new technical and formal solutions that would then be developed and translated elsewhere. Much of this was due to the seemingly incessant travel by many of the artists themselves, one example being the several important commissions Donatello received far afield from Florence.

The very nature of Renaissance creativity was a powerful stimulus for versatile artists, such as the Pollaiuolo brothers and Andrea del Verrocchio, to create masterworks in various media, thereby initiating a fluid discourse that crossed disciplinary and cultural boundaries. An early and emblematic figure was Pisanello (Antonio di Puccio Pisano, c. 1395–c. 1455), who cast what may be the first bronze portrait medal of the Renaissance in 1438. It portrayed, in profile, John VIII Palaeologus of Byzantium, who visited Italy that year in a failed attempt to heal the ancient rift with Rome and garner support for his tottering thousand-year-old empire. If nothing else, the Emperor’s exotic court retinue of Greek savants generated a sensation among Italian humanists.

The very nature of Renaissance creativity was a powerful stimulus for versatile artists.

Cosimo de’ Medici hosted the ecumenical council in Florence, and he considered the epochal event so important to his family’s prestige that he later commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to commemorate it. The imperial progress was portrayed in the guise the Magi’s journey to Bethlehem. In reality, Gozzoli pictured it as a very secular chronicle of the actual event, replete with vivid portraits of all the principal protagonists, most prominently the two Emperors, John VIII and his Western counterpart, Sigismund of Luxembourg. Cosimo de’ Medici is shown with his son Piero and two grandsons, Lorenzo and Giuliano, together with a smattering of contemporary grandees. The artist, unlike Masaccio-in-disguise, clearly identifies himself via a golden inscription on his beret as he peers out at us from the crowd, while Pope Pius II stands just steps behind him. Not surprisingly, this distinguished humanist pontiff, being Sienese, rated not more than second-tier status in Florence.

The success of Pisanello’s Paleologus medal must have been considerable because within a few years he had struck portrait likenesses of most of northern Italy’s political and intellectual elite—republican Florentines were, for a time, reluctant to indulge in such overt self-promotion. Pisanello was equally in demand as a painter: the artist also executed a striking painted portrait of Emperor John VIII, and, on his own self-portrait medal, described himself as pictor. Most notably, he exercised his varied talents in the service of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, whose court became one of Italy’s most brilliantly cosmopolitan. The Berlin/New York exhibition overflows with Leonello images, the superbly painted profile by Pisanello (in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) being the most renowned.

A selection of precious drawings by the artist is also on view; in one, his careful metal point delicately traced the profile of Borso d’Este, Leonello’s half-brother and successor, and in another rendered a matchless study, in three-quarters, of a sad and seemingly embittered old man. Not one of these portraits can be remotely described as idealized. The sitters are invariably shown as they were seen by their contemporaries, perhaps haughtily strutting their emblems and their armor, but not necessarily ennobled by them; they are before us warts and all. Significantly, the inscription non aliter (not otherwise) appears prominently on a number of paintings and sculptures—a sure indication that the intent was truthful reporting. Stunning in this respect is a beautifully chased medal by Matteo di Andrea de’ Pasti with the profile of Guarino Guarini, a humanist and teacher of Verona. The poor man must have been positively toad-like, yet we are transfixed by his forceful presence and almost anticipate hearing some biting, clever aphorism uttered in a rasping growl; it is portraiture at its most convincing
. . . barely nine centimeters across!

Despite New York’s loss of Leonardo, the ultimate marquee name, a sufficient quantity of spectacular paintings, sculptures, and works of art have travelled here to propel this exhibit to the very top of the Metropolitan’s attendance charts. Possibly the most fetching and alluring visitor is Simonetta Vespucci (1453–76). She was the mythical beauty who died in Florence in her early twenties and may have inspired, if not actually sat for, two remarkable portraits by Botticelli that now reside in Germany (Berlin and Frankfurt). The same woman is shown in profile, though facing in opposite directions, her flowing blond hair coiffed and tressed in phenomenally complex arrangements. If contemporary accounts and the verses of Poliziano are to be believed, her brief reign as the city’s most beautiful woman was fully justified.

Accompanying Simonetta are two very similar Botticelli portraits of Giuliano de’ Medici, her presumed lover. He, too, met an untimely death, but at the hands of the Pazzi conspirators in 1478, two years after Simonetta. Such is the romance and glamor of the two sitters, and the distinction of the painter who portrayed them, that an entire exhibit might well be imagined around just these four paintings. Seeing them together, however, unfortunately reconfirms the long-held conviction that portraiture was not, in fact, Botticelli’s strongest suit. His was an artistic vision that sprang from a sumptuously lyrical and linear conception of form, not ideal for the discipline of observing and recording, so essential to portraying likenesses.

In this respect, Botticelli’s near contemporary Domenico Ghirlandaio possessed a far superior analytical eye. It served him particularly well in the famous frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinita where the episodes of St. Francis’s life are recounted as occurring in contemporary Florence and are punctuated by group portraits of all manner of Sassetti and Medici bystanders. Fortunately, a supreme example of Ghirlandaio’s art is present in the exhibition. It is the Louvre’s Old Man and a Boy. The painting is memorable for being one of the very first portraits of the Renaissance to show the sitter in three-quarter view. The inclusion of a second subsidiary figure within the same pictorial space is equally groundbreaking. Beyond this, the incredibly touching portrayal of the benevolent, aged man, cruelly afflicted with rhinophyma (“Morgan’s nose”), and the cherubic youngster looking lovingly up to him, lifts this unforgettable image from the realm of portraiture to that of poetry.

The book on the Renaissance portrait was written in many media and by many authors. A crucial sequel to the story was how Italian, particularly Florentine, innovation resonated in Northern Europe. One need only cite the Metropolitan’s magnificent Francesco d’Este (Leonello’s illegitimate son) by Rogier van der Weyden as an example of how the influences and ideas flowed both ways: here is a Ferrarese prince, visiting Brussels (in 1460), impeccably decked out in Burgundian fashion, portrayed by a Flemish master. Yet, it is fair to say that the most important chapter in the book belongs to sculpture in the round, a medium with which Italians, as we saw, had felt at ease since medieval times. It was not, therefore, a technical or quantum leap in the early 1450s for the Florentine workshop of Desiderio da Settignano to render in lifesize terracotta the likeness of Niccolò da Uzzano, an important early supporter of the Medici.

Alas, the astonishing polychrome bust is missing in New York, but we can nonetheless become acquainted with two Florentines of even bigger caliber: Piero de’ Medici, and Niccolò Strozzi. Both are marbles by Mino da Fiesole, completed at a slightly later date than the Uzzano bust, but no less impressive or significant. The facial features, expressions, and bearing of these individuals leave no doubt that the subjects’ corporeal presence was precisely as we see it, not yet affected by the celebratory or ideological subtexts that color so much of later Renaissance and Baroque portraiture. The opportunity of seeing these masterworks under the same roof will be truly unprecedented because Piero de’ Medici still resides in Florence (at the Bargello Museum) while Niccolò Strozzi emigrated from his ancestral palace to the Berlin museum in 1877.

While one should certainly be grateful for the opportunity of re-encountering many of these familiar faces, especially gathered together in such a conspicuous number, there are, of necessity, few true surprises: the rare thrill of discovery accompanies the more customary delight of recognition. From a small museum in Genoa comes an arresting, lifesize bronze bust of the Neapolitan humanist Giovanni Pontano. Both the subject and the artist, Adriano Fiorentino, played, at best, secondary roles in early Renaissance Italy, yet by any reckoning this sculpture is a capital work. Impeccably cast and chased, the bust forcefully commands our attention by its uncompromising presence and weight. The man’s Roman tunic, rather than being a temporal or symbolic reference, serves to present his handsome features on their own terms: dignified, austere, and intelligent. A measure of this sculpture’s mastery can be appreciated by the exhibition’s inclusion of two further likenesses of Pontano by the same artist: one bas-relief profile in marble and one in bronze. They are, by comparison, conventional and uninteresting.

Whether confronted with Pontano or with any of his more famous and powerful contemporaries—and there were many women among them—we feel an inescapable sense of inferiority before these noble and self-aware individuals. They seem to exist at a higher level, far removed from the afflictions of mere mortals. Theirs is a human condition of a different, more exalted kind, and it is a privilege to pass even a brief spell in their presence. Moreover, with the recent inauguration of the magnificently reconfigured and reinstalled galleries containing the “Art of the Arab Lands,” a visitor to the Metropolitan is afforded a stunning lesson in comparative cultural history: human presence and human character as it was glorified in Renassaince art and virtually erased in Islamic art.

1 “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini”opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York on December 12, 2011 and remains on view through March 18, 2012.

Gesichter der Renaissance: Meisterwerke Italienischer Portrait-Kunst” was on view at the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, from August 25 through November 20, 2011.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 30 Number 4, on page 27
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