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."

Yet Raphael shows that the man who goaded Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo into remaking Rome into what Jacob Burckhardt called "the Classical City of the World .  .  . and the Papacy [into] the pioneer of civilization" was not incapable of introspection. With his downcast gaze and air of being at once a million miles away and imprisoned in his pontifical setting, Julius does indeed seem, as the curators describe him, "a man too preoccupied to perform for the artist for whom he is sitting." No pontiff had ever been shown in so human a light.

An equally revealing portrait is that of Queen Mary of England (1554), the daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, by the Netherlandish painter Antonis Mor, which was commissioned by Mary's Spanish husband Philip II in the year of their ill-fated marriage. When still a young woman, Mary refused to swear the Oath of Supremacy, rejecting her father's claim to be head of the English Church, an act of extra-ordinary courage, considering that such defiance cost Thomas More and many others their lives. Withstanding years of court intrigue, she ascended the throne in 1553, after the death of Edward VI, reconciled England to Roman Catholicism in 1555, and died three years later at the age of 42.

The curators point out how, "when Philip would not return to England, [Mary] vented her rages on his portraits. On one occasion she was reported to have kicked a portrait of Philip from her privy chamber, on another, to have scratched at his portraits in her chamber." In the portrait here, the look of cold impatient contempt that she turns to painter and viewer alike is arresting. (Could she have been annoyed by the painter's reformed religion?) Her regal glower confirms the impression left by a Venetian ambassador that her "eyes are so piercing as to command not only respect but awe from those on whom she casts them." Equally arresting is the fact that she scarcely sits on her red and gold upholstered throne, which is shown at a precarious diagonal. Instead, her tense, menacing figure seems merely to shadow it. And to the left of her, beyond the immediate setting, a brooding darkness awaits.

Altogether, the portrait is a study in unease and uncertainty, made all the more poignant by the fact that when Mary sat for the painting she was convinced (delusively) that she was pregnant. Of course, she produced no heir; and yet at the very center of the portrait Mor pointedly positions a reliquary set with a Jerusalem cross of diamonds, hanging from Mary's girdle, surrounded by figures of the four Evangelists. For Mary, alone on a throne that she could hardly hold, the only stable thing in her otherwise unstable life was her faith. Philip, for his part, detested the painting. As the curators point out, the English portraits of the queen are much more flattering. Yet in refusing to idealize his subject, Mor got at something deeply true about Mary and her predicament.

These are portraits of well-known figures. But just as engaging are portraits of unknowns. For example, there is Ghirlandaio's Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1490), which shows a young woman before a walled city in an idyllic countryside complete with winding roads, a river, cypress trees, and blue mountains. As the curators note, everything about the young woman seems to exemplify the "grave demeanour and self-restraint" that Leon Battista Alberti, the great Renaissance architect, painter, poet, musician, and philosopher, commended in respectable brides; and yet at the bottom left of the painting the subject's fingers are shown carelessly holding, or perhaps letting go, an orange blossom, symbol of chastity. This sweet-faced, blonde, Botticellian woman looks beyond the viewer, intent on keeping her own counsel, but those fingers have a mind of their own.

In stark contrast, there is a joint portrait by Jan Gossaert called An Elderly Couple (1520), showing an old man and his wife, looking respectively exasperated and resigned--a Flemish Darby and Joan. The young woman in Ghirlandaio's painting would never begin to fathom the regrets that exercise these two venerable souls.
Gossaert concedes as much by showing two sprightly nudes in a badge the old man wears in his cap, proof of the immeasurable divide between youth and age. If one purpose of portraits was to commemorate the living, another was to disillusion the dying.

Still another was to moralize. In -Portrait of a Collector (1523) Parmigiano, the great Mannerist, shows an acquisitive, hard-nosed connoisseur grasping a jewel-encased Book of Hours (still extant in the Biblioteca Civia Berio, Genova) while before him a statuette of Ceres, goddess of fertility, lies grotesquely on its back and behind him a marble relief of Mars and Venus shows the God of War taking Venus in his arms for what promises to be a passionate kiss. The moral here is unmistakable: The art the collector accumulates has more life in it than he does, which makes a travesty of the productivity enjoined by Ceres; we must not confuse the amassing of fine things with living. Yet if Renaissance collectors had taken Parmigiano's apologue entirely to heart, we would never have had the hoard of antique art that made the Renaissance possible.

Renaissance Faces includes good essays on the history of Renaissance portraiture by, among others, Luke Syson, curator of Italian paintings at the National Gallery ("Witnessing Faces, Remembering Souls"), and Jennifer Fletcher, formerly senior lecturer at the Courtauld Institute ("The Renaissance Portrait: Functions, Uses and Display"). Syson observes how the genre developed as a result of the rediscovery of antique portraiture--which can be seen at its best in the busts of such imperial monsters as Caligula and Caracalla--and the Renaissance study of physiognomy. Dante, Dürer, Holbein, and Erasmus all followed Pomponius Gauricus in seeing physiognomy "as a way of observing by which we deduce the qualities of souls from the features of bodies." The Milanese art theorist Gian Paolo Lomazzo recognized that it was the peculiar charge of portrait painters to identify the passioni dell' animo (the "passions of the mind") in the features of the face. Fletcher makes an even more fundamental point when she says, "In the context of expanding collecting and connoisseurship, portraits were often valued not for a sitter's identity, which might be unknown, but rather for their technique, rarity, good looks and execution."

The people of the Renaissance, in other words, liked these portraits for the same reason that viewers today like them: They make for wonderful art.

Edward Short is finishing a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries which will be published by Continuum.