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To See Ourselves

The Renaissance portrait as a mirror of society.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By JAMES GARDNER
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Leon Battista Alberti was the James Franco of the Quattrocento. Believing that no province of human achievement was beyond his powers, he tried his hand at everything from painting and architecture to literature, mathematics, cryptography, and even athletics. When his contemporaries spoke of the uomo universale, the universal or Renaissance Man, they were speaking of him.

Photo of Alberti’s medallion

Alberti’s medallion

Though the jury is still out on Mr. Franco, we can certainly say of Alberti that, despite his occasionally falling short, he achieved admirable success in at least two disciplines, architecture and literature. But few of those achievements are more emblematic of the man than the bronze self-portrait medallion that he made around 1433. This diminutive object appears with nearly 200 other bronzes, marbles, paintings, and
drawings in this show at the Metropolitan Museum, mounted in collaboration with Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, and includes almost every important Italian portraitist of the 15th century.

Alberti’s medallion is astounding in many ways: It is almost unparalleled as a work of art created—before modern times—by someone who did not define himself as an artist by profession. It may well be the first portrait medallion, and one of the first sculptural self-portraits, created in Europe since the fall of Rome. And despite the depreciative assessment of some art historians, it exhibits a skill in modeling and detailing that more than compensates for its imperfect mastery of so demanding a medium.

The motive behind this bronze was Alberti’s obsession with fame, a word that (in his day) meant the widespread recognition that follows upon the achievement of something nobly important. At the conclusion of his seminal treatise, De Pictura, Alberti asked painters “as a reward for my labors to paint my portrait .  .  . and thereby proclaim to posterity that I was a student of this art.”

With those words, mutatis mutandis, Alberti expressed the ambition of every owner of every face that appears in this exhibition: the extension of one’s renown far beyond the narrow limits of one’s physical and temporal existence. Ever since 1860, when the Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt published his groundbreaking Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy and spoke of “the discovery of the individual,” it has been a commonplace that the sort of portraits on view at the Met represented a revolution in human consciousness. As the luminous certainty of a better life beyond the grave (which had sustained the medieval world) began to recede, it was partially replaced with the compensatory hope of achieving some measure of glory in the here and now and of ensuring its perpetuity into a future age. But such aspirations were not the province of the common man or woman of the 15th century. For most of that period, commissioning a portrait, in whatever medium, remained the exclusive domain of popes and princes, their spouses, and those courtiers and poets who flattered them.

That is why the present exhibition is slanted toward the rich and powerful in Pisanello’s portrait of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, Bonifacio Bembo’s depiction of Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, and Gentile Bellini’s iconic rendering of Pasquale Malipiero, Doge of Venice. This is no less true of the fair women who rise up in bejeweled profile in the works of the brothers Pollaiuolo, or of Botticelli’s portrait of the poet Michele Marullo, or the three sculptural works by Adriano Fiorentino that depict Giovanni Pontano, the Neapolitan man of letters.

It requires a leap of the historical imagination to understand just how strange and startling these portraits must have seemed nearly six centuries ago, these faces, recognizable faces, that rise up in isolation against some neutral ground or meandering landscape and yet—miraculously—are infused with the breath of life. To have fashioned them in the first place must have seemed like a usurpation of the prerogative of God.

At the same time, one cannot overstate the rarity of these images in the general run of the 15th century. Influenced by what could be called an art historical view of the world—a view greatly abetted by photography’s ability to disseminate images across the planet—we tend to see the 15th century as an age whose most essential manifestation was the courtly splendor of the Medici, Gonzagas, and Estes, with perhaps some lingering medievalism around the edges. In fact, these courts were oases of revolutionary initiative in a vast region, stretching from the Urals to the Hebrides, that would remain medieval in thought and appearance well into the next century. It is very likely that the man in the street would never have seen any of these portraits.

Before 1400, portraiture was almost unheard of: An eminent exception is Giotto’s depiction of his friend Dante Alighieri in the Bargello, from the first quarter of the 14th century. Beyond that, for the next hundred years, you would be hard put to find a single work of art that faithfully registered the specific data of a given human face. Only in the second quarter of the Quattrocento did things begin to change. Whereas the sculptors of this period were guided in some measure by the ancient examples that were starting to be dug up from the earth, painters were forced to invent the entire genre of portraiture out of nothing more than their own imaginations and improvised skills—as well as a rumor or two that survived in the writings of the elder Pliny.

Compared with the portraits of a later age, those on view here at the Met tend to be fairly small and portable works on wood panel. For the first half of the period covered in this show, the sitter is depicted in profile, a choice that emphasizes line and so tends to abstract the sitter and stress status over personality. One of the earliest of these portraits, Pisanello’s depiction of Leonello d’Este, is marked by fussy floral adornments that surround him as in a medieval tapestry. A similar composition, though in a far different key, informs Piero and Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s depictions of fair women rising up in profile against a peerless blue sky. Not only are these images more naturalistic: They feel more open and rational and there is a physicality to them that is very new in Western art.

Toward the end of the century, Domenico Ghirlandaio endows his sitters, in profile, with an exquisite precision of detail that has never been surpassed. Surely he is a famous painter, but this exhibition proves that he deserves to be more highly esteemed than he has been in recent years. An unsurpassed example of his skill is the deeply felt and deeply moving depiction of an old man and his grandson from the Louvre. While the child appears in profile, reaching his hand up to the old man, the latter is posed in three-quarter view to reveal a nose swollen and disfigured by rhinophyma.

There is a sense of human warmth in this painting that, it must be said, is at variance with the general ambitions of Ghirlandaio, elsewhere in his oeuvre, or with those of other great painters included in this exhibition, among them Andrea Mantegna, Cosmè Tura, and Jacopo Bellini, all of whom united some measure of verisimilitude with an almost abstracted love of visual effect for its own sake. Only toward the end of the century, in Ghirlandaio’s portrait of the old man and his grandson, and in Raphael’s fully frontal “Portrait of a Man” from about 1504, does the sitter’s personality begin to assert itself over the claims of status or the demands of artifice.

In the 16th century, though the aristocracy continued to immortalize itself through portraits, the option of commissioning one of them had come within reach of the merchants and lesser magistrates who constituted the primordial middle class. As for the portraits of the humbler segments of society, with some notable exceptions by Rembrandt and Frans Hals, they would have to wait until the Impressionists of the 19th century and Alice Neel, within living memory.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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