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Virtue and beauty: renaissance portraits of women. (Museum Today).

AN EXHIBITION focusing on the extraordinary flowering of female portraiture in Florence, Italy, from c. 1440 to c. 1540, "Virtue and Beauty: Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women," includes 48 works from this period. Together, they illustrate the expansion of portraiture in Florence beyond the realm of rulers and their consorts to encompass women of the merchant class, who figure in a number of panel paintings, medals, and marble busts.

Renaissance portraits differ in many ways from portraits today. Above all, they lack the psychological dimension--the revelation of the inner self--characteristic of modern portraiture. When a Renaissance portrait represents a sitter's individual nature, it reflects a different conception of identity. In the case of women, they were seen in light of their social status and familial roles as wives and mothers. The female portraits in the exhibition are, in this sense, individual variants of the society's paradigm of the "ideal woman." Significantly, many of the paintings and all of the medals in the show are double-sided, with the front presenting the likeness of the lady and the reverse a "portrait" of her (good) character in terms of mottoes or emblems.

Judging from their portraits, one might well conclude that Florentine women of the time all had long necks, golden hair, pearly white skin, sparkling blue eyes, and rosy lips and cheeks. This similarity reflects a canon of female beauty derived from literature, particularly Petrarch's sonnets in praise of his beloved Laura. Aside from the real or imagined beauty of their female subjects, artists celebrated their exemplary virtues--modesty, piety, and, above all, chastity, the preeminent quality of a woman in a patriarchal society. Virtue and beauty were, in fact, linked in Renaissance thought and art, based on the notion, going back to ancient Greece, that outward beauty signified an inner beauty of spirit.

The earlier portraits in the exhibition represent the sitter in strict profile, wearing lavish costumes and jewelry of the sort that young women donned on the occasion of their marriage. These depictions, with their suggestion of an ideal, unapproachable beauty, were highly popular with American collectors at the beginning of the 20th century, with the result that a number of profile portraits of women lent to the exhibition come from U.S. museums. For example, Filippo Lippi's "Woman with a Man at a Window" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the earliest independent portrait of a woman from Florence that has survived. The prominence of the lady, who is watched by a man at a window casement, has long puzzled commentators on the picture, but it might suggest that the portrait was commissioned by the woman's family to celebrate her betrothal. Other early profiles by Lippi, Paolo Uccello, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo are featured in the exhibition.

A selection of Renaissance medals, which inspired the profile pose and the double-sided portrait format in painting, is included as well. Among the women from prominent Florentine families depicted in these medals are Maria de' Mucini, Giovanna Tornabuoni, and her sister-in-law, Lodovica Tornabuoni. The allegorical figures on the reverses of the medals include the Three Graces, a maiden with a unicorn, and a phoenix.

In Northern Europe, the three-quarter view, revealing more of the sitter's face, prevailed. Perhaps because of the possibilities the three-quarter view offered for psychological exploration and communication with the viewer, it was adopted in Florence in the 1470s in the work of Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci. Both artists would have been familiar not only with Northern portraiture, but with recent innovations in sculpture. A bust of a lady with flowers by Andrea del Verrocchio, Da Vinci's teacher, is remarkable for its vitality, achieved in part through the unprecedented inclusion of the sitter's hands. The bust leaves Florence for the first time to be included in Virtue and Beauty.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is "Ginevra de' Benci," a double-sided tour de force by the young Da Vinci. In his portrait of Ginevra, recently betrothed and seeming older than her 16 years, he breaks with the profile convention to depict the sitter in three-quarter view silhouetted against a bush of juniper (ginepro in Italian, a punning reference to Ginevra's name). The background of the reverse is a trompe l'oeil slab of porphyry--a precious stone that, in this context, signifies the everlasting nature of the patron's love or of Ginevra's virtue. Superimposed on the porphyry is a scroll reading "Beauty Adorns Virtue" in Latin and a wreath of laurel, palm, and juniper--all referring to the sitter's virtue. This format, unusual in Florence, recalls the painted reverses of portraits by the Venetian artist Jacometto Veneziano, four of whose luminous depictions of men and women are on display near "Ginevra de' Benci."

Two important three-quarter portraits by Botticelli are featured in the exhibition, as well as a stunning painting of a young woman traditionally identified as Simonetta Vespucci. Exceptionally large and employing the old profile view, the picture seems to be an ambitious attempt to express the Petrarchan ideal, rather than to portray a real person. The artist has envisioned an aloof beauty whose pearl-wrapped tresses, cameo pendant, and heron-feather headpiece have mythological overtones.

In the 16th century, frontal views of portrait sitters became common, and these were combined with more-elaborate settings and a more-psychological approach to create the ancestor of the portrait as we know it today. Agnolo Bronzino's "Portrait of a Lady" presents a dignified sitter with the faintest of smiles playing on her lips. The artist added humorous touches like the large-eared dog and distorted mask on the lady's chair. Six other portraits from the later Renaissance, several including depictions of children, represent women in the years just before and after the Medicis transformed the Florentine Republic into a duchy. Despite years of innovation in portraiture, artists in the new courtly society of Florence continued to show women in their variegated roles as embodiments of beauty and virtue.

"Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women" is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. D.C., through Jan. 6, 2002.

David Alan Brown is curator of Italian Renaissance paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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Title Annotation:exhibition
Author:Brown David Alan
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 2001
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