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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Presentation of Self


“Painting . . . Makes Absent Men Present”

The fifteenth century saw an explosion in the development of portraiture, part of a larger cultural phenomenon during which the arena for individual accomplishment expanded dramatically. The growth of trade, together with a new emphasis on self-governing in the political units of Italy, resulted in a sizable number of wealthy and powerful individuals who wanted to record their features for their own time and preserve them for posterity. Men of learning played a new and important role by also providing advice on the intricacies of self-fashioning. The range of possibilities was vast. A portrait could function as a way of announcing one’s piety, virtue, learning, and prosperity—or even one’s inner soul. In the early fifteenth century the value of portraiture was already being promoted through influential texts. Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise on painting (c. 1435) strongly endorsed portraiture as a demonstration of the “divine force of painting”:

Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. . . . Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting.1

Pomponius Gauricus, writing in the early sixteenth century, refers to the enormous power that the sense of life in a portrait could convey:

Animation [in a portrait] . . . is capable of great power . . . realized so perfectly by Lysippus that Alexander forbade any other artist to portray him.2

Ippolita, writing to her husband Baldassare Castiglione (Italian courtier, author, and diplomat) speaks of the living—and consoling—presence of his portrait, which Raphael had painted c. 1514–5:

only your portrait, painted by Raphael’s hand, bringing back your features, comes near to relieving my sorrows. I make tender approaches to it, I smile, I joke or speak, just as if it could answer. . . . This is my solace, and thus I cheat the long days.3

Separate portraiture styles developed in different parts of Italy. In Venice, Giovanni Bellini developed a portrait type for upper-class Venetians in which the sitter was depicted bust length, in three-quarter view, dressed in standard patrician dress with a long black toga and beret-like head covering known as the beretto. The standard background for these portraits was a brilliant blue sky streaked with clouds, which suggested an outdoor setting, the sitter, as it were, belonging to the world at large.

This portrait type could be adapted in numerous ways. Painting the head of state, the doge, Bellini imparted a quasi-divine aspect on the ruler of Venice. In the portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, which Bellini created probably soon after Loredan’s accession to ducal office in 1501, Loredan’s gaze is fixed on some distant object, which gives him the appearance of looking far into the future. He wears gleaming white robes brocaded with gold and silver thread, a ducal costume reserved for high feast days of the Christian calendar when associations between Christ and the doge were enacted. The background is now a uniform blue, lending the image a timeless quality.

Florence favored the sculpted portrait bust, with the sitter shown in a variety of costumes. The sculpted portrait of the Florentine banker Francesco Sassetti, attributed to Antonio Rossellino, conveys a forceful presence by incorporating a number of elements drawn from antique Roman portraiture. Sassetti’s features in this work are highly realistic—he has a large nose and a creased and jowly face. His pupils are inset with lead to give sharpness to his gaze, suggesting shrewdness. His hair is close-cropped, defined with incised chisel lines, as seen on busts of Roman Republicans. He is dressed in a way that summons up antiquity—his cloak suggests the toga worn by ancient upper-class Romans or the type of cloak thrown over armor by Roman military commanders. The stippling of the lower face to indicate the stubble of a beard is another aspect that links Sassetti to antique portraiture. An inscription on the underside of the bust, FRANC. SAXETTUS. FLORENT. CIVIS. ANN. XLIIII (Francesco Sassetti, citizen of Florence, in his forty-fourth year), places the portrait at approximately 1464. At this time Sassetti enjoyed great prominence, building a grand country estate outside the city and serving as chief administrator of the Medici bank. The antique persona he assumes in this portrait is that of a man of learning conversant with the style of antiquity, and of an individual with the probity and dignity of the ancient Romans—qualities of Roman Republicanism celebrated in contemporary Florentine texts. This savvy individual, the bust suggests, is the type of Florentine citizen who helps the state flourish.

The institution of marriage took on new emphasis in Renaissance Italy. Advantageous marriages were a way of advancing family fortunes and of ensuring the continuation of the family line. The Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto was inventive in producing marriage portraits that dramatized the significance of the marriage union. In Lotto’s 1523 portrait of a couple from Bergamo in North Italy, Marsilio Cassotti, the son of a wealthy textile merchant, is about to place a ring on the finger of Faustina Assonica, his bride. The high status of bride and groom is indicated by their sumptuous clothing. Draped over the shoulders of the bride is a gold chain made up of many links, which was known as a “bond of love.” Around her neck is a cameo of the Roman empress Faustina the Elder, wife of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius and famed in literature as a devoted wife. Both bride and groom look out directly at the viewer as if to call attention to the importance of the action taking place. The act of linking the pair is transmitted metaphorically by way of a smiling cupid, crowned with laurel and supplied with a well-equipped quiver that holds his bow and a good supply of sharpened arrows. To underscore the message that this union is one of promise and virtue, cupid positions a yoke—symbol of the union of marriage—behind the couple as he places a sprig of laurel—symbol of virtue—on the shoulder of each party.

The Renaissance, for the first time in history, saw a notable increase in portraits of women. Northern Italians excelled in portraits of beautiful women dressed in exquisite and costly clothing. Portraits of this type depicted women of various levels of social standing. Veronese’s portrait of an upper-class Venetian woman, painted c. 1560, most likely would have been intended to decorate one of the public rooms of a family’s palace. Her dress is extraordinary: the velvet gown, of a rich, delicate blue, is adorned with gold ornaments at the shoulders and waist. The sleeves, a separate attachment, are of blue and white brocade. A string of large, perfectly matched pearls drapes around her neck, and more pearls are scattered in her hair and over the gold ornaments of her dress. Whoever this woman was, her wealth and social position are unmistakable. With her right hand placed on her heart, she appears to recommend herself to the viewer, as if to suggest that all the elegance of her person is at the service of the guest to her home.

A more ambiguous category of female portraiture originating in Venice presented women who relate to the viewer in a different way, looking out of the painting with an enticing gaze and catching the eye of the observer with a coquettish glance. Vincenzo Catena’s Portrait of a Woman, c. 1520, falls into the category of female portraits with erotic overtones. In contrast to the averted, somewhat distant expression of the sitter in the Veronese portrait, this sitter tilts her head provocatively to catch the viewer’s eye. She is placed against a darkened background, and the emphasis here is entirely on the figure. Her carefully arranged golden tresses are held at the back in a snood, a rope of pearls crowns her hair, and she wears a camicia—an undergarment of a light, soft fabric that is embroidered at the neckline with gold thread. She holds a gold ornament, perhaps a locket, in her right hand, pressing it against her chest as if it were a treasured gift. An unusual feature is the rich brown fur shawl laid over her shoulders, uncommon in female attire and more frequently worn by men. Catena’s painting belongs to a category of portraiture depicting the famed courtesans—literally, “the ladies of the court”—of Venice, but implying both availability and an elevated level of social graces. Often (although not in this example) the garments are loosened or unfastened at the neckline to reveal part of the body. The courtesans of Venice were famed for being well turned out, wearing elegant clothing, demonstrating talent in playing musical instruments, and living in handsomely appointed apartments.

In contrast to the courtesan portraits were the portraits of women in the guise of religious figures, images in which an individual took on the positive virtues of the saint with whom she was associated. Sebastiano del Piombo’s half-length portrait of a woman, shown simply but luxuriously dressed in an ice-blue satin gown, her sleeves rolled up above the elbow, presents the sitter in the guise of the Wise Virgin. The imagery comes from the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 25:1–13). Speaking to his disciples, Christ uses the example of the ten maidens “who went to meet the bridegroom.” The five wise virgins brought an extra supply of oil in case of need; the five foolish virgins used up the oil in their lamps and had no refill at hand. The message of the parable is to be prepared and prudent if you seek to attend the marriage feast. The figure in the painting carefully holds her lighted oil lamp upright, looking sharply out of the painting and making eye contact with the viewer as if underscoring that the allusion to prudence is deliberate. In his painting of c. 1525 Bernardino Luini presents another version of the female portrait as saint type. Here the woman holds an ointment jar, raising its lid to call attention to the attribute. The ointment jar is the attribute of Mary Magdalen, who salved the wounds of Christ after he had been removed from the cross. The allusion in this portrait is to the religious devotion of the sitter and to the specific Christian virtue of charity.

In some instances several portraits of the same individual have come down to us, often in different media. The features of Filippo Strozzi, wealthy banker and member of a prominent Florentine family, are known from a number of versions. Particularly intriguing are two sculpted busts, both done around 1475 and close in size, one in terracotta, the other in marble. The terracotta bust shows a determined, slightly dour personality, the face marked with lines of worry and the brow knitted in an expression of concern. This expression accords with the personality of Strozzi that emerges from letters and from a biography written by his son. Filippo was an individual whose dominant characteristics were discretion, prudence, and restraint. Details such as the mole at the side of Strozzi’s nose appear to be a close recording of what he actually looked like. The head is turned slightly, giving the impression of a living presence. The creased and careworn features shown here are close to those seen in the medal of Strozzi made by Niccolò Fiorentino (Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli) in the late 1480s, which seems also intended to render Strozzi’s actual appearance. In the marble version of the portrait that Strozzi wanted placed in his funeral chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence (instead, it remained at the family palace until it was sold in the nineteenth century), all vestiges of the sitter’s likeness have been smoothed away. Wrinkles have been erased, the line of the brow has been smoothed, and a composed expression replaces the tense, preoccupied gaze of Strozzi in the terracotta bust. The marble bust has been termed the “official” version of Filippo Strozzi—the image he wanted to project to posterity. A comparison between the two busts reveals that a Renaissance artist routinely transformed the real features of an individual to achieve an elevated statement, indicative, perhaps, of how the sitter wished to be remembered by future generations. Strozzi was intensely aware of the image he would project into the future, as is suggested by a line in one of his letters emphasizing that he wanted to leave behind something “that would be worthy to remember.”

The Roman banker Bindo Altoviti was depicted by Raphael as a young man, with flowing golden locks, an unlined face, and full, sensuous lips, turning to look over his shoulder at the viewer with a self-confident, even provocative gaze. The painting was done c. 1515, when Bindo was in his early twenties, and shows him in the full flush of life. He was heir to a large fortune, manager of the family’s banking business, and already an important patron of the arts. His dress is generalized and somewhat eccentric: he wears a loose overblouse or cape that leaves the upper back bare, a type of casual dress that only a young man would attempt. It has been suggested that the painting was done to celebrate Altoviti’s marriage in 1511 to a young lady of a well-connected Florentine family, Fiammetta Soderini. Many years later, around 1550, when Altoviti was almost sixty years old, he commissioned a portrait bust from the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, who had made his reputation working for rulers and popes.

The bust was placed in Altoviti’s private study, in company with a collection of antique pieces representing Roman emperors. His glance now turns inward. The advanced age of the sitter is indicated by a full beard. Instead of the flowing golden locks of Raphael’s portrait, here Altoviti’s head is covered by a close-fitting mesh cap, a fashion adapted from wealthy German merchants and taken up in the Veneto. The contrast between the two portraits is pointed: one shows the sitter at the height of youth, emphasizing his beauty and sensuous appeal, the other shows the reserve and reflective aspect of an individual who has experienced life’s vicissitudes. The impression left by these two magnificent portraits, in which Altoviti seems to have been an active participant, is one of distinct life stages being laid out, the older man looking back at the image of his younger self and answering with a statement of seasoned life experience.

In the fifteenth century portraiture was considered a vehicle for presenting not simply the features but also the innermost character of an individual. Bartolomeo Facio, writing in the mid-fifteenth century, underscored this point:

And certainly the esteem in which painting has been held has always been great, and not undeserved; for it is an art of great talent and skill . . . it requires the representation not only of the face or countenance and the lineaments of the whole body, but also, and far more, of its interior feelings and emotions.4

A highly idealized portrait bust, sometimes attributed to Donatello and likely created in the early 1450s, includes the depiction of a large cameo hanging around the sitter’s neck and resting against his chest. The image on the cameo is of two horses, one moving forward with deliberate speed, the other rearing back with unbridled energy. In the chariot behind the horses, a winged charioteer—an allegorical representation of the human soul—holds the reins. The horses stand for opposing forces of the human soul. The rearing horse represents irrational desire and the controlled horse represents reason. The charioteer is the intellect that must control these forces. The image is a representation of the human soul as it was presented by Socrates in one of the Platonic dialogues, the Phaedrus, a text well known in the Renaissance. In placing the cameo on the chest of the sitter, the sculptor reveals an interior resolve: the force of will in this individual who strives for equilibrium. The depiction on the cameo spoke to the self-conscious Renaissance individual, and it was copied in various media, as on a bronze plaquette of roughly the 1450s to which one may give the expanded title “Cupid Driving the Chariot of the Human Soul.” In the bust, the appearance of a portrait has been deliberately minimized. The eyes are uncarved and the face is unlined, with no distinguishing marks but for the throbbing vein on the forehead, which suggests deep thought. The message here is not about the personality of a specific individual but about the goal to achieve harmony for all.