The Magazine

It Takes a Visage

The rebirth of learning in the art of portraiture.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Renaissance Faces

Van Eyck to Titian

by the National Gallery, Lorne Campell, Luke Syson, Miguel Falomir, and Jennifer Fletcher

Yale, 304 pp., $70

Towards the end of the first act of Macbeth, Duncan asks after the traitor Cawdor and is told that he died confessing his treachery, to which the too-trusting king replies:

There's no art

To find the mind's construction in the face.

He was a gentleman on whom I built

An absolute trust

And then Macbeth strides into the royal presence, whereupon Duncan exclaims: "More is thy due than more than all can pay." It is a moment of supreme irony. And yet we can be grateful that the artists featured in Renaissance Faces did not agree with Duncan. Van Eyck, Pisanello, Giovanni Bellini, Baldovinetti, Hans Memling, Hans Holbein, Lorenzo Lotto, Ghirlandaio, Raphael, Pontormo, and Titian would all have insisted that there is "an art to find the mind's construction in the face," and their portraits prove it.

Curators of London's National Gallery arranged the portraits of Renaissance Faces topically under "Remembering," "Identity, Attributes, Allegory," "Courtship and Friendship," "Family," "Love and Beauty," "Drawing Portraits," and "Portraits of Rulers." Yale has outdone itself in the book's production, and the catalogue commentary brims with curatorial insight. If nothing fascinated the Renaissance more than the human in all its abundance, nothing exhibits this fascination better than the Renaissance portrait. Taken together, the book constitutes a kind of illustrated history of that fascination, which nicely complements more full-dress histories.

On exhibit here is Giovanni Bellini's portrait of Leonardo Loredan (1501-2), which captures the Venetian doge six years before the League of Cambrai went to war against Venice "to extinguish, like a great fire," as Pope Julius put it, "the insatiable rapacity of the Venetians." Once war was joined, Loredan used the customary state banquet held on the Feast of St. Mark to urge his compatriots to forget their differences and unite to save the Republic; he even donated his private plate to the Treasury and gave back more than half his salary. As it happened, Venice lost the war, and a good deal of its Italian empire, but Loredan managed to recoup some of his personal losses by extracting 500,000 ducats from Pope Julius--a huge sum in those days.

In Bellini's portrait we can see not only the subtlety but the serenity of the man about whom Lord Norwich wrote: "Unlike so many of his predecessors, he could boast no glittering record as admiral or diplomat .  .  . he had spent virtually all his active life in Venice." There, he learned the intricate protocols of a state that was notoriously insistent on keeping its rulers in their place. For all the sumptuousness of his horned hat and white and gold silk mantle, Loredan resembles nothing so much as a ship's figurehead--a witty pun on the Venetian ship of state's real figurehead. But in all the years he spent in that magnificent sea-girt cage, Loredan also acquired a certain world-weary sense of humor. And in Bellini's portrait it is just palpable in the smile that plays along his subject's otherwise impassive lips, a smile that must have flashed into a triumphant grin when Julius forked over.

Raphael's great Portrait of Pope Julius II (1511) is also included here, showing the imperious patron looking uncharacteristically vulnerable, though Vasari attests that when the portrait was first shown, "it was so lifelike and real that it made the onlooker shrink from it in fear, as if the pope were truly alive." Julius, for all of his enduring achievements, was hardly a popular pope. He was known as il terrible--which might be translated as "holy terror." There was little that was pious about him. For Julius, the papacy was a power to be extended and enriched and he saw himself, above all, as charged with its worldly aggrandizement. That he was, on the whole, an able administrator did not spare him from criticism. In her lively history of the building of St. Peter's, over so much of which Julius presided, R.A. Scotti observes, "Few popes provoked more vitriol in their lifetimes. Anti-Julius fury was pitiless. Scurrilous plays, cartoons, pasquinades and diatribes of every sort condemned the della Rovere pope for his bellicosity, his wily politics, and his duplicitous power grabs."