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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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.