Faces of the Renaissance: Jonathan Lopez reports on an exhibition of Renaissance portraiture that includes many highlights, but is badly let down by its accompanying publication.
21 December 2011-18 March 2012 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Catalogue by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann (eds.) ISBN 9780300175912 (hardback) 40 [pounds sterling] (Yale University Press)
In his 1953 A.W. Mellon Lectures, Kenneth Clark asserted that the nude is not merely the unclothed body represented in art, but rather the manifestation of an abstract concept: ideal beauty. The 15th-century emergence of the portrait as an autonomous art form--as opposed to sculpted portraits attached to tombs or donor portraits in religious narrative paintings--has traditionally been seen in light of a similar abstraction: the Renaissance-era advent of a new kind of personal consciousness, freed from the constraints of a hierarchical medieval worldview. The Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt somewhat grandiloquently named this development 'the birth of the individual'. Burckhardt's foundational essay, 'Das Portrat', in his Beitrage zur Kunstgeschichte von Italien (1898) remains indispensible to the field, and the current show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which traces roughly the first century of Italian portraiture, can usefully be understood as at once a refinement with regard to painting, and an amplification with regard to sculpture, of John Pope-Hennessy's The Portrait in the Renaissance (1966), a work in the Burckhardtian tradition yet vastly more detailed on issues of connoisseurship.
To walk through this exhibition and see so many objects of momentous cultural importance presented in intelligent groupings which bring out subtle visual relationships is a privilege both rare and profound. Top-quality pieces from the organising institutions--the Met and the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin--join loans from distinguished museums around the world as well as select private collections. Exquisite sculptures by the likes of Donatello and Verrocchio complement master paintings by Botticelli, Mantegna, Pollaiuolo, Filippo Lippi and others. The exhibition follows a chronological arrangement within three geographic divisions: Florence, the Venetian Republic and the courts of the Italian peninsula. One sees, step-by-step, the evolution from classically-inspired profile views, full of hieratic dignity--for example, Masaccio's c. 1426-27 portrait of an anonymous male sitter--to more dynamic works in which the sitter's personality engages the viewer directly, such as Botticelli's Portrait of a Lady known as Smeralda Bandinelli (c. 1470-75; Fig. 1).
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The exhibition's emphasis on local developments places the depicted individuals--the Medici, the Sforzas, the Estes, the doges of Venice--in an especially rich social context. Trends emerge: the humanist emulation of antiquity in the portrait medals of Pisanello; the veneration of family tradition in such pictures as Ghirlandaio's Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy (c. 1490); the importance of portraiture in commemorating weddings and betrothals, for instance in Gian Cristoforo Romano's c. 1490-91 marble bust of Beatrice d'Este, which likely was sent back to her natal family in Ferrara after her marriage to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The unevenness of portraiture's development in different regions also becomes apparent: the peninsular courts held to profile portraiture far longer than did innovative Florence; in Venice, an oligarchy where personal assertion was looked down upon, the autonomous portrait did not gain wide acceptance until Antonello da Messina introduced a sober, northern-European influenced style in the second half of the century, whereupon a great efflorescence soon followed with Giovanni Bellini.
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Ideally, the catalogue for a show of this calibre would offer commensurate written insights. Unfortunately, poor co-ordination of the essays in the multi-author volume published to coincide with this show yields needless repetition of topics and information. There is no proper lead essay to establish the narrative, and no uniform standards of quality or relevance appear to have been enforced on the contributors. Whereas Patricia Rubin's essay on the purposes and forms of portraiture in Florence is very fine, and Peter Humfrey offers a solid overview of portraiture in Venice, Rudolf Preimesberger's parsing of the Latin and Italian versions of Leon Battista Alberti's treatise De Pictura (1435-36) is a veritable caricature of excruciating, obscurantist pedantry.
The majority of the catalogue is devoted to object entries. These are too long to serve as convenient reference material and too short to allow for the extended development and substantiation of ideas. Certain contributors--notably Andrea Bayer, Francesco Caglioti and Stefan Weppelmann--manage to produce sterling work within these constraints, but others flagrantly abuse the format, making sweeping assertions uncorroborated by facts. Marco Collareta finishes his entry on Donatello's Reliquary Bust of San Rossore (c. 1425; Fig. 2) by asserting that 15th-century Italian portrait busts were fundamentally different from contemporaneous Netherlandish portraits on panel because an interest in psychological expression 'was absent from northern European art at that time'. While his statement has the undeniable virtue of surveying the broad compass of art history with apparent authority, it lacks the far more important virtue of being true. The portraits of Jan van Eyck alone--his Portrait of Jan de Leeuw (1436) and 'Man in a Red Turban' (1433), for instance--are sufficient refutation, being justly renowned for their psychological nuance.
The question of Netherlandish portraiture comes up again in a more intelligent entry by Keith Christiansen on Andrea del Castagno's Portreit of a Man (c. 1450-57; Fig. 3), the earliest known Italian portrait to employ a three-quarter view. Christiansen, rightly I believe, dismisses the idea that Castagno must have borrowed this pose from northern prototypes. Noting the work's sculptural qualities, he points to portrait busts--a leitmotif of the exhibition--as a more likely inspiration. But did Castagno really need the example of portrait busts per se to create this picture that shares every salient characteristic with his own portrayals of saints and angels, themselves often in three-quarter view and rather sculptural? Had Christiansen been given more space he would have been able to explore this issue in depth. But as it stands, one is left to wonder wistfully what Lord Clark, whose work set such high standards for eloquence, erudition and insight, might have brought forth had he applied himself to the astonishingly rich topic of the portrait.
Jonathan Lopez writes on art and culture for The Wall Street Journal.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 2012|
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