PRINT February 2012


“The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bernini”

Donatello, Reliquary Bust of San Rossore, ca. 1425, bronze, 22 x 23 7/8 x 14 5/8".

THE FIRST OBJECT one encounters when entering “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini” is a hoax. Donatello’s Reliquary Bust of San Rossore from around 1425 displays a bearded man with a furrowed brow who humbly gazes at the floor, absorbed in what appear to be troubled thoughts. This rendition is so intimate and lifelike that we are easily convinced it is an accurate portrait not only of Rossore’s physical features but also of his personality. Yet Donatello did not depict the saint from life: Rossore was an early Christian martyr, whom he could not have known.

To open a presentation of Italian Renaissance portraiture with an invented likeness only seems paradoxical. As becomes evident in this exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, curated by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann, the development of fifteenth-century portraiture was in fact greatly influenced by reliquaries and representations of saints such as Donatello’s. A relic is more than the physical remains of a saint: It asserts his or her uninterrupted presence in this world. In order to make this claim, relics had to be staged in a persuasive way. For the bust, which contained a piece of Rossore’s skull under the lid at the top of the head, Donatello chose realism to achieve this goal. Through its lifelikeness, the sculpture not only affirms that the relic is truly a piece of the saint’s head but also complements the missing parts of Rossore’s body. By thus restituting Rossore, Donatello evinces that the fragment of the skull effectively stands in for the entire saint (pars pro toto). Precisely because of this importance of the body for the cult of saints, we encounter from early on increased individuality in their representations.

For the same reason, death masks also played a central role. By implication acheiropoietic, that is, not made by hand, these actual casts of a corpse’s face offer a true likeness (vera icon) in addition to being touch relics thanks to the physical contact with their holy subjects. Even in secular contexts, death masks often possess similar connotations, especially when presented like Lorenzo de’Medici’s, also included in the exhibition. Produced in 1492 (likely by Orsino Benintendi), the work suggests the divine sanction of Lorenzo’s government and arranges Lorenzo’s mask frontally, like an icon, in the center of a black panel with inscriptions in gold at the top and bottom. Most important, the death mask physically manifests Lorenzo in the index of his face, just as Rossore’s likeness served to assert his true presence in the bone. In both cases, verisimilitude was an effect of the desire to evoke presence, not an end unto itself. Indeed, according to Hans Belting, the roots of imagemaking per se lie in the aim to actualize and make present. All art, including portraiture, derives from the cult of the dead, and its original function is, therefore, commemorative.

A case in point is the posthumous terra-cotta bust of Niccolò da Uzzano from ca. 1450–55, often attributed to Donatello but which the exhibition assigns to the workshop of Desiderio da Settignano. (This work was only on view at the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Bode-Museum, where the exhibition debuted; the show was organized by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, and the Met.) Whoever the artist, he produced a wonderfully dynamic and vivid portrait. Instead of being iconlike and frontal, Uzzano seems captured midmotion—turning around and raising his gaze—and seems to breathe. Yet in apparent contradiction to its lifelike appearance, the bust incorporates Uzzano’s death mask, the eyes of which have been opened. That the impression of remarkable liveliness manifests itself in such a mask—which is to say, in the imprint of death—constitutes the sculpture’s fascinating paradox. The death mask does not merely contain the potential of presence. Rather, through the mask’s integration into an extraordinarily dynamic sculpture, Uzzano seems to be resurrected like a zombie. The true accomplishment of the bust is, therefore, that it combines presence—the real purpose of portraiture—with animation.

The process that led to so much liveliness and expression was gradual. Previously, in the early fifteenth century, the dominant scheme of portraiture was the bust-length figure in pure profile, a type that creates an essentially timeless setting and offers only limited expressive possibilities. In the exhibition, three such portraits, each depicting a man wearing a red turban—painted by Masaccio (ca. 1426–27), Domenico Veneziano (ca. 1440–42), and a Florentine artist, possibly Paolo Uccello (ca. 1430–46)—look so similar that it has been suggested they depict one and the same person based on a common prototype. The pure profile view seems to content itself with the basic commemorative function of portraiture: to faithfully reproduce the physical appearance of a person for eternity.

Portraiture could only begin to engage with individuality and character after it liberated itself from a fixed type. It finally admitted what Hans-Georg Gadamer has called “occasionality” or “occasional traces,” that is, distinct expressions in a concrete temporal and spatial situation, which reveal a person’s singularity. By turning the person around and displaying bodies in motion, portraiture facilitated impressions of spontaneity and chance. Active persons were now depicted in specific moments and places. Thus, Andrea del Castagno’s Portrait of a Man, ca. 1450–57, the first painted representation of a person in three-quarter view and also included in the exhibition, no longer simply reproduces a man seen from the waist up. Instead, it creates an image in which the man appears to be a sensual being and thus begins to truly exist. While elements such as a red cloak signify the subject’s high social standing, Castagno does not reduce the man (the image) to a representative (representation) of a certain class, profession, or position. Nor is he merely the embodiment of a sentiment; melancholy is only one of several signifieds of affect that inform our impression of his personality. Castagno’s man appears as an individual precisely because his posture and features are occasional: They are equivocal and appear to belong exclusively to him. He is seemingly a self-reflexive and hence autonomous subject.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, ca. 1490, tempera on wood, 24 3/4 x 18 1/8".

At first sight, the liveliness resulting from this new approach might seem at odds with the commemorative, hieratic dimension of portraiture. Yet it was certainly promoted by Petrarch’s famous complaint about Simone Martini’s painting of his lamented and beloved Laura—that it depicted Laura’s likeness but could not bring her to life. In the Renaissance, this statement was one of the most influential in the competition (paragone) between poetry and the visual arts. It constituted a challenge, to which artists responded by producing works that increasingly sought interaction with spectators and reached into their realm, whether through composition or through the gaze. For example, in Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Young Man, ca. 1470, the man seems to turn around with a smile as if responding to our arrival at the scene. John Shearman has called this relationship “transitive,” for just as transitive verbs require a direct object to complete their meaning, works such as Antonello’s only realize their full potential in the exchange with viewers. In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s touching painting Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, ca. 1490, which displays a young boy approaching his grandfather, the Petrarchan theme is even more evident. Indeed, the representation of the man is likely posthumous. Unlike Simone Martini, then, Ghirlandaio manages to create an image of the deceased that is so lifelike that the boy (that is, the viewer) reaches out to him—and the man truly comes alive again, gently embracing his grandson with his left arm.

Ghirlandaio also pushes realism to new extremes by depicting the man’s deformed nose in unsparing detail. Yet the result is not comparable to the uncanny likeness of Lorenzo de’Medici’s mechanically produced death mask, for the latter is primarily a relic due to its indexical relation to the deceased. Rather than sanctity, Ghirlandaio’s realism evokes individuality. And it is so effective that it almost persuades one to agree with Jacob Burckhardt’s old thesis of the emergence of the free individual in the Renaissance. But, of course, psychoanalysis and modern identity studies have long since revealed that the autonomous subject is an impossible fantasy. Indeed, the representation of women in the exhibition provides a dire reminder of how far removed the era actually was from Burckhardt’s ideal. Aside from Sandro Botticelli’s remarkable Portrait of a Lady at a Window (“Smeralda Bandinelli”), ca. 1470–75, the depictions of female figures lack occasional traces and, consequently, grant the women little agency, forcing them instead to embody notions of beauty, humility, and faith. The birth of the individual apparently did not include women. Nevertheless, when looking at the portraits of men, one is still charmed into believing that fifteenth-century (male) portraiture actually shared Burckhardt’s utopian dream. It is precisely because of this seductive illusion that we enjoy the pictures so much. We sense that they possess an optimism, however quixotic, that has no place in the cynical deconstruction of individuality of much (post)modern portraiture.

Benjamin Paul is an assistant professor of Italian Renaissance art at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. His book Nuns and Reform Art in Early Modern Venice: The Architecture of Santi Cosma e Damiano and its Decoration from Tintoretto to Tiepolo has just been published by Ashgate.