Renaissance Portrait Exhibit Presented at The Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid

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Renaissance Portrait Exhibit Presented at The Museo Nacional Del Prado in Madrid
Portrait of a Woman Inspired by Lucrecia, made by Lorenzo Lotto is one of the 125 works of art included in the exhibit The Renaisance Portrait at The Museo del Prado in Madrid. Photo: EFE / Kote Rodrigo.

MADRID.- The broad time span covered by this exhibition (1400-1600) and its Europe-wide approach make it the first to provide an overview of Renaissance portraiture. It explores portraiture as a genre in its own right, focusing principally on painting but including medals, sculptures, drawings and engravings while leaving aside the donor portrait.

When did the autonomous portrait emerge? Around 1335 Simone Martini painted Petrarch’s beloved Laura, and the poet devoted the following sonnet to the portrait, describing the characteristics of the modern portrait: a likeness that is substitutive (evokes the absent person), moving (arouses emotions) and movable (transportable). It includes a reference to the mythical artist, Pygmalion, who made a sculpture that came to live.

“When Simon at my wish the proud design
Conceived, which in his hand the pencil placed,
Had he, while loveliness his picture graced,
But added speech and mind to charms divine;

What sighs he then had spared this breast of mine:
That bliss had given to higher bliss distaste:
For, when such meekness in her look was traced,
'Twould seem she soon to kindness might incline.

But, urging converse with the portray'd fair,
Methinks she deigns attention to my prayer,
Though wanting to reply the power of voice.

What praise thyself, Pygmalion, hast thou gain'd;
Forming that image, whence thou hast obtain'd
A thousand times what, once obtain'd, would me rejoice.”

The exhibition reveals two constant features in the evolution of the Renaissance portrait. The first is its “democratisation”, as although portraiture was initially reserved for the privileged classes, it eventually embraced the whole social spectrum. The second is an increase in size as a result of portraits becoming incorporated into the decoration of interiors. The earliest examples were designed to be viewed and stored away in chests, not to be hung on walls.

In demand from very heterogeneous sectors of society, portraits served diverse purposes and acquired a social, symbolic and even documentary dimension that gave rise to an extraordinary variety of types. The exhibition includes portraits of individuals proclaiming their intellectual pursuits, social aspirations and religious devotion; portraits designed to seduce, attack or convince; portraits as impressive images of power; and portraits that illusionistically project the sitter beyond the picture plane or distort the image.

The aim of the exhibition is to show that the Renaissance marked not only the beginning and maturation of portraiture but also a period of sophistication in which many of its formal and conceptual possibilities were explored and in some cases even exhausted.

Between the Netherlands and Italy. Origins and development of portraiture

The emergence of independent portraits is indissolubly linked to thirteenth-century developments in painting. It is therefore not surprising that Giotto (c. 1267-1337)—who, to use Giorgio Vasari’s well-known expression, “resuscitated” painting after centuries of decadence —is the first painter mentioned as executing independent portraits; or that the earliest known definition of portraiture originated from his circle, when Pietro d’Abano stated around 1310 that portraits should reflect both the appearance and the psychology of the sitter. Portraiture received decisive impetus at the French court of the Valois between 1360 and 1380, and the earliest surviving examples are from this period. The earliest portraits in the exhibition date from around 1400.

The exhibition begins by examining the factors that contributed to the emergence of modern portraiture: on the one hand, medieval tradition, represented by dynastic series, devotional images and the naturalism of Gothic art; and on the other, the rediscovery of Antiquity, illustrated by Roman sculptures and coins. We should not underestimate the importance of medals, which were a complement but also a substitute for painted portraits and led to profile portraits being held in high esteem in Quattrocento Italy.

The chosen works illustrate the typological and conceptual differences between the two main centres of portraiture of the time—Italy and the Netherlands—and the progressive influence Flemish models enjoyed in Southern Europe. During the fifteenth century Netherlandish portraits surpassed their Italian counterparts in prestige, a fact which explains their early presence in Italian collections and Italian and Spanish rulers’ practice of sending their painters to train in Flanders. It was not until the sixteenth century that a change of trend was witnessed as a result of the compositional and conceptual complexity attained by Italian portraiture, which was capable of exploring practically untrodden ground such as representing states of mind and developing sophisticated visual strategies to enhance the interaction between portrait and viewer.

Love, family, memory
“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 recognised with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter.”
Leon Bautista Alberti,De pictura, 1435, Book II. 25.

This statement by Alberti, one of the most frequently quoted tenets of the humanist theory of the arts, sums up perfectly the second section of the exhibition, as it stresses above the many purposes that Renaissance portraiture served its essential ability to make the absent present and elicit a variety of reactions from the viewer. Of all the genres of Renaissance painting, portraiture conveys the impression of a more reiterated, lively communication with the spectator, and the literature and documentation of the period refer to many situations in which portraits are objects of the affection of the love-smitten, a rejected lover’s spite, a friend’s consolation and a rival’s hatred. Precisely this empathic quality was mentioned by Leonardo to justify the superiority of painting over poetry: “If the poet says he that can inflame men with love, which is the central aim in all animal species, the painter has the power to do the same, and to an even greater degree, in that he can place in front of the lover the true likeness of that which is beloved, often making him kiss and speak to it. This would never happen with the same beauties put before him by the writer.” (Treatise on Painting, 28).

Alberti’s initial statement recalls the portrait’s ability to make a loved one or a friend present, but also the deceased. The memorial nature of portraiture dates back to its origins, and the ancient Roman custom of keeping images of ancestors in homes was frequently invoked and imitated during the Renaissance. Together with portraits of a deceased father or spouse, in royal and aristocratic environments these family likenesses gave rise to dynastic galleries that reconciled modern portraiture’s requirements of trueness to life with the notion of continuity and belonging to a group that were characteristic of Late Medieval iconic series, resulting in deliberately homogenous sets executed in accordance with the prevailing trends in portraiture at the time.

“Your medal hangs on the right wall of my bedroom and your portrait on the left. Whether I am writing or walking around, I always have Willibald [Pirckheimer] in sight, so much so that I could not forget you even if I wished to”.
Letter from Erasmus to Willibald Pirckheimer, 5 February 1525

The Renaissance gave rise to a cult of friendship that was deeply influenced by the classical writings, mainly Cicero and his De amicitia (1st century BC). The Roman politician and writer stated that the memory of friendship makes the absent present and brings the dead to life—ideas taken up by Leon Battista Alberti when writing on painting in 1435—and although he did not specifically mention portraiture in this connection, Renaissance humanists soon became aware of its evocative powers. Portraiture allowed friendship to overcome distance and, in many cases, made it possible to visualise the physical appearance of those who were friends only through correspondence, as was the case with Erasmus and Pirckheimer, who never met personally.

Interests, occupations, devotions, status
“First of all it is necessary to consider the quality of those whose portrait is to be made, and accordingly show them with the attribute that identifies them, such as a laurel wreath in the case of an emperor [...]”
Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura, et architettura, 1585

In addition to capturing the sitters’ physical features and arousing the empathy of the viewer, portraits also revealed their intellectual pursuits and social aspirations and proclaimed the models of moral or religious conduct they aspired to imitate. Portraits thus transcended their mimetic function and took on a symbolic dimension, surrounding the sitter with a wealth of sacred and profane iconography that became increasingly codified; Lomazzo himself, who is quoted at the beginning of this section, expanded at length on the most suitable attributes for each case. We thus find portraits of humanists who pose before remains of Antiquity, and portraits of women that proclaim their status as exemplary wives by depicting them in the guise of classical heroines such as Lucretia, who placed family honour before her own life, or by resorting to subtle biblical allusions that associate their virtue with spinning. Similarly, although the exhibition deliberately excludes donor portraiture, it does include portraits “a lo divino” in which the sitter is portrayed unmistakeably in the manner of the holy person who is the object of their particular devotion, whether Saint Jerome or the Virgin Mary herself. As a “living image” of the individual, the portrait was furthermore an ideal vehicle for reflecting on the fleetingness of time and the inevitability of death, often becoming a melancholic, eloquent vanitas.

Lastly, portraits possessed an important social dimension as they conveyed the person’s position in society. To show the sitter’s status, painters resorted to representative elements ranging from a coat of arms to particular clothing, or depicted him exercising his profession. A magnificent example of such a portrait is Moroni’s celebrated Tailor, which attests to the irresistible democratisation of the genre during the sixteenth century—a process that was not well regarded by everyone, as evidenced by Pietro Aretino in July 1554, when he complained that one of the great misfortunes of his day was that even tailors and butchers had their portraits painted.

“One paints with the brain, not with the hands”
Michelangelo, Letter, October 1542

“This morning I have made a portrait of my face in the mirror, which is not convex”
Giorgio Vasari, Letter to Vincenzo Borghini, 20 September 1566

Portraiture provided painters with an ideal vehicle for communication: the self-portrait. No other work of art enabled the artist to convey his social aspirations and intellectual concerns with greater sincerity, express his artistic ambition or reflect his deepest feelings. Therefore, few pictures are more honest or experimental than some of the self-portraits included in the exhibition.

The invention of the self-portrait at the beginning of the Renaissance was linked to questions of status. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries a person’s social position depended on his birth or occupation. An occupation was ranked socially in accordance with its closeness to, or distance from, physical labour. All learnable skills were classified as “liberal” (intellectual) or “mechanical” (manual or physical), the visual arts being among the latter. Renaissance artists strove to demonstrate that theirs was a liberal and not a mechanical activity and was worthy of the social recognition that was reserved for intellectual disciplines such as poetry and rhetoric. This explains their reluctance to depict themselves painting or surrounded by the tools of their trade and, on the contrary, their emphasis on portraying themselves in a dress and pose that denoted the nobility of their occupation and, circumstances permitting, the prosperity it brought them. Not until the end of the sixteenth century were artists confident enough in their social position to acknowledge that easel, palette and paintbrush were attributes of which to be proud.

Without mirrors there are no self-portraits, but artists rarely used them solely to see their reflected image. Mirrors enabled painters to speculate about the very essence of portraiture—its ability to capture reality—providing them with a host of formal and expressive possibilities ranging from distortion of the image to brilliant illusionistic tricks that demanded the viewer’s complicity. Indeed, Vasari stated of a self-portrait by Parmigianino using a convex mirror that it was made “to explore the subtleties of art”.

Making portraits
“I consider that the valiant draughtsman […] after being contented and at ease […] should sit on a chair facing the prince or illustrious person to be portrayed; and with his table or board in the middle, and soft lighting from the window and music, and his gaze where it should be (with the room free of people) and apply the first lines and strokes of his work with graver or charcoal.”
Francisco de Holanda,Do tirar polo natural, 1548.

Portraitists were the first specialist painters. Not all painters were qualified to paint portraits; indeed, outside Germany, Italy and the Netherlands portraitists were in extremely short supply and in countries like France, England and Spain they were recurrently imported during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, chiefly from the Netherlands.

This section traces the process of making a portrait: the artist’s relationship with the sitter; the recommended environmental conditions—mainly lighting—and even state of mind for posing; techniques for helping capture his physical features; and the execution of sketches and their transfer to canvas or wood. But the portrait did not always end with the painter’s final brushstroke. It was common for painters to keep “records” of portraits of certain prominent people and to make replicas of varying faithfulness that were commissioned by the sitters themselves or by third parties. Indeed, the making of portraits was not always a creative process and during the Renaissance even the most famous painters like Titian were commonly required to copy portraits by other artists, particularly of aristocrats and royalty.

These practices, but above all the fact that portraiture requires a specific referent (the sitter), explain why it was undervalued by critics like Vasari, who regarded it as a mechanical reproduction of reality (ritrarre) and, as such, inferior to imitare (representation of reality in accordance with an idea or its essence). Interestingly, Vasari himself refutes this pejorative view of portraiture in a drawing shown in this section. By portraying himself as Saint Luke painting the Virgin according her instructions, Vasari shows portraiture to be an activity inspired by divinity, likening it to the writing of the Gospel by Saint Luke himself.

The boundaries of portraiture
“He ordered Gentile Bellini to make a portrait of that minstrel and Mahomet himself made another. Gentile Bellini brought the one he had made to show Mahomet, and Mahomet also showed him his, and he said to Gentile Bellini: tell me what you think of this portrait which I have made and I must tell you what I think of the one you have painted [...] Gentile Bellini said to him [...]: It seems to me that you painted this madman just as he is. I could have painted it the same way, but because he has been many times in your presence, I showed him with the face of a good man, as anyone who had been in your presence would rightly be.”
Crónica de los turcos, c. 1535

What is and what is not a portrait? Can there be a portrait without physical likeness? The boundaries of portraiture are not always clear, and to illustrate this uncertain territory we have included, on the one hand, highly individualised images that are not portraits but characteristic representations of beauty or physical decline and, on the other, greatly stereotyped images such as those of a certain jesters, which are portraits.

The second question posed by this section is to what extent portraiture was capable of going beyond physical likeness and capturing the sitter’s inner self: his spirit. We are dealing with a poetic topos of Antiquity that was espoused by many Renaissance poets to point out the limitations of painting and enjoyed great prestige in portraits of intellectuals, which were generally accompanied by inscriptions stating that their true nature lay not in their physical appearance but in their writings.

The third question is the inability of painterly language to convey certain concepts and ideas, and how, in order to remedy this limitation, painters resorted to non-artistic codes of communication such as classical rhetoric, with its broad repertory of gestures, and physiognomy—the science of interpreting human character by studying the face—in order to represent the sitter appropriately.

Lastly, portraiture was conducive to experimentation and reflection on painting itself. We thus find fascinating examples of illusionistic play where the sitters are projected beyond the picture plane, portraits of portraits, and even counter-portraits such as anamorphoses, in which the image is distorted beyond recognition.

The diffusion of portraiture
"We found the clerics married and with many children and in all their homes, painted on double sized vat paper in the main rooms of their houses, Martin Luther, very reverend with his clergyman’s dress."
Libro de la vida y costumbres de don Alonso Enríquez de Guzmán

Alonso Enríquez de Guzmán reports on what he saw in Saxony after the battle of Mülhberg on 24 April 1547, in which the imperial troops defeated those of the Schmalkaldic League. Despite referring to “painted double sized vat paper”, he no doubt means the large woodcuts of Luther’s portrait made by Lucas Cranach’s workshop in 1546 after the German reformer’s death. Enríquez de Guzmán’s statement illustrates the extremely widespread dissemination of portraiture during the Renaissance. Not only did it become increasingly common for people from different walks to have their portraits made, but society grew accustomed to portraiture as an essential element of its visual culture.

The printing press played a fundamental role in this process. Independent woodcut portraits began to be made after paintings at the end of the fifteenth century and in the following decades printing made available to the public at large images of saints, rulers, captains and men versed in a broad variety of disciplines, initially in individual prints and subsequently compiled in books following the example of Andrea Fulvio’s Illustrium Imagenes (Rome, 1517). Portraiture thus acquired a new documentary dimension that explains the repeated references found in engravings to the trueness to life of the images they reproduced, often citing the source used. The finest example of the documentary value of portraiture is provided by Paulo Giovio’s Elogia virorum litteris illustrium..., the 1577 edition of which reproduced the first and most important collection of Renaissance portraits, that formed by Giovio in his Museum on the shores of Lake Como.

But in addition to satisfying the public’s curiosity, engraved portraits became inevitably linked to the use of printing for political and religious purposes during the Renaissance, particularly in the Germanic world under Emperor Maximilian I. Martin Luther was probably the person whose image was most widely disseminated in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and who used it most skilfully to achieve his aims.

The court portrait
“Any Prince is comprised almost of two persons. One is the work of Nature, in that he is similar to all other men. The other, thanks to Fortune and divine favour, is the embodiment of governance and protection of the public good, for which reason we shall call it a public person”.
Fadrique Furió Ceriol, El Concejo y Consejeros del Príncipe, Antwerp, 1585.

In the Renaissance court portraiture took shape as an expression of the dual nature—real and ideal—of the ruler, the two persons of whom Furió Ceriol speaks. This made it necessary to reconcile the need for trueness to life, as required by the growing personalisation of power, with its symbolic and timeless dimension, giving rise to a tension between realism and idealism that was, and continues to be, inherent in court portraiture. Physical flaws were commonly downplayed in Renaissance portraits and authors of treatises borrowed a rhetorical device mentioned by Pliny and Quintilianus to justify these selective alterations: dissimulatio, according to which realism should be subordinated to decorum. The classical example was provided by Apelles, who portrayed the one-eyed King Antigonos in profile—the same Apelles whom Alexander the Great appointed as his exclusive portraitist. It is no coincidence that the Greek painter and Macedonian monarch were the mirror in which the most prominent Renaissance artists and rulers saw themselves reflected.

Although the court portrait lies at the very origin of the genre and many of the portraits shown in the first section of this exhibition are of rulers or members of their circles, it was not until the sixteenth century that the court portrait acquired very specific features. The progressive “democratisation” of portraiture forced painters and patrons to seek ways of setting court portraits apart from the ordinary kind, and new types of images such as full-length, seated and equestrian portraits emerged in response to this demand.

After decades of experimentation, the second half of the sixteenth century witnessed the progressive standardisation of court portraiture based on a model that remained in use, with slight variations, until the eighteenth century. This model took shape around 1550 with the portraits painted by Titian and Anthonis Mor for the Habsburgs, a magnificent and harmonious blend of reality and idealisation which became increasingly standardised and spread across the whole of Europe, crossing political and religious boundaries.

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