Faces out of the Crowd: On the Renaissance Portrait

Faces out of the Crowd: On the Renaissance Portrait

Faces out of the Crowd: On the Renaissance Portrait

How Renaissance painters brought human presence to the fore.


The voice is that of a court painter, a miniaturist, in the Ottoman world of the sixteenth century. “Two years ago,” he says, “I traveled once again to Venice as the Sultan’s ambassador,” where he studied the portraits made by the Venetian masters. “More than anything,” he continues, “the image was of an individual, somebody like myself. It was an infidel, of course, not one of us. As I stared at him, though, I felt as if I resembled him. Yet he didn’t resemble me at all. He had a full round face that seemed to lack cheekbones, and moreover, he had no trace of my marvelous chin. Though he didn’t look anything like me, as I gazed upon the picture, for some reason, my heart fluttered as if it were my own portrait.”

Describing the painting’s setting, and its inclusion of still-life objects associated with both the sitter’s way of life and allegorical themes like the passing of time, the miniaturist recalls how his mind seized upon a mystery. “What was the narrative that this representation was meant to embellish and complete? As I regarded the work, I slowly sensed that the underlying tale was the picture itself. The painting wasn’t the extension of a story at all, it was something in its own right.” Somehow, he seems to believe, this kind of autonomous, self-contained pictorial invention was no longer a thread in a pre-existing narrative but the secret ingredient of communicating individuality in art. “If you’d never seen that man, if they told you to pick him out of a crowd of a thousand others, you’d be able to select the correct man with the help of that portrait. The Venetian masters had discovered painting techniques with which they could distinguish any one man from another,” the miniaturist marvels, “without relying on his outfit or medals, just by the distinctive shape of his face. This was the essence of ‘portraiture.’”

The author I’ve been quoting is Orhan Pamuk, and the passage in question falls near the beginning of My Name Is Red. Though set in the sixteenth century, the novel and its theme of the seductive and threatening moment of encounter between cultures—or, one might say, a moment of cultural contamination—are urgently contemporary, so much so that it’s reasonable to think Pamuk wants his readers to keep several questions in the back of their minds. Could a man of the sixteenth century have articulated the specificity and difference of another culture with such clarity? To what extent could he have recognized himself in the other, or anyway admitted as much to himself with such frankness? Or are we expected to notice the contemporary author throwing his voice, to observe Pamuk’s own lips moving as the words tumble out of the mouth of his character Enishte Effendi?

It is possible to hear still other voices in Pamuk’s words (or Enishte’s, if you will), among them a singular one from the nineteenth century. The idea of the individual as the great discovery of the Italian Renaissance, and of painting as one of the primary mediums of its transmission, inevitably bears the stamp of Jacob Burckhardt, whose Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy was published in 1860. Don’t for a minute think that this old book is out of date. One can say of it what Burckhardt said of Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories: “we might find something to say against every line…and yet the great and unique value of the whole would remain unaffected.” The Swiss historian’s thesis that the Italian Renaissance, and especially its occurrence in Florence, was “the most important workshop of the Italian and, indeed of the modern European spirit,” evokes the historical process by which “an objective treatment and consideration of the state and of all the things of this world became possible.” By the same token, Burckhardt argues that the “subjective side…asserted itself with corresponding emphasis; man became a spiritual individual, and recognized himself as such,” a belief that presides over our sense of the meaning of “the West.” That Pamuk—who hails from Istanbul, where Europe and the Islamic world converge—would be drawn to the theme is hardly a surprise.

* * *

But what distinguishes the “individual” whom we meet, fresh-faced and raw, in the Italy of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries? Is he or she a new incarnation of the human, in whom the un-individuals of the neighboring regions not only to the east but to the north could find their own reflection, though not an identical one? The remarkable exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini” (on view through March 18), offers some answers, but only part of the story. For one thing, though the Met tells the story as an Italian one, it was not exclusively that. The Renaissance did begin earlier south of the Alps than to their north, but the development of art in this period was also a matter of transalpine communication. The invention of oil painting would prove crucial to the ability of painters to render more profoundly the presence of “all the things of this world,” the self-standing human individual among them, and that story starts in Flanders, not Florence. And as great as Giovanni Bellini was, and however one finally wishes to define the Renaissance in art, he represents neither its fulfillment nor its end. The age-old view would be that the culmination of Italian Renaissance art came with Raphael (or, if you prefer Venetian to Florentine painting, Titian), and that its transformation into something else, something stranger and more disturbing, that we have learned to call Mannerism, came with Michelangelo (or Tintoretto), an artist a couple of generations younger than Bellini. A story can’t be understood until its ending is known, and for that reason a seemingly comparable exhibition mounted in 2008 at the National Gallery in London, “Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian,” which even included a few of the same key works but within a greater temporal and geographical context, gave a fuller sense of the career of the portrait in the Renaissance.

Vivid communication of the individuality of the portrait subject, the aesthetic specificity of the artwork and stylistic individuality—a third key concept, though unmentioned by Enishte Effendi—did not come easily to Italian artists at the dawn of the Renaissance. That’s apparent in the first room of “The Renaissance Portrait,” where three male profiles from Florence, all tempera on panel, hang side by side. Each impassive face, set against a dark and neutral backdrop, looks to the left and wears similar red, turbanlike headgear (called a mazzocchio); as the exhibition catalog notes, “the unprepared visitor…might think that they formed part of an extended series.” Yes, differences in features are evident, most obviously of the nose. Stylistic distinctions can be discerned too, such as the way the body of one has been conceived in a more robust fashion, while in another the body is a sort of unassuming pedestal for the head. In parallel, the mazzocchio floats lightly on the head of the latter, while in the former the way the sitter’s head bears its millinery burden contributes to his sense of dignity. But nothing of a subjective attitude, little of an inner life transpires from the paintings. And you couldn’t, pace Enishte, pick one of these guys out of a crowd. The three artists who painted their portraits were still working comfortably in the medieval frame of mind, in which “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” as Burckhardt claimed. Group identity and social standing still trumped personality.

It may not be surprising that paintings so similar are attributed to three different painters—one with relative confidence to Masaccio (though the English art historian John Pope-Hennessy, for one, disagreed); the other two, with more circumspection, to Paolo Uccello (this one has more often been thought to be by Masaccio as well) and Domenico Veneziano. More curious is that scholars have dated the origins of the three paintings over a fairly wide spread of years: the Masaccio is thought to be from ca. 1426–27, the Uccello from ca. 1430–40 (the catalog entry, by Neville Rowley, opens the window even wider, to “between about 1420 to 1445”) and the Domenico Veneziano from ca. 1440–42. Domenico’s painting is more elegant than the other two, which in turn are more imposing—but only within a very tightly constrained field of differences. Though twenty years may separate the earliest painting from the latest, the artists had no more scope to manifest greater individuality of style.

Further along in the exhibition is another trio of Florentine profiles, again left-facing, but this time of fine and fashionable ladies. (Why are left-facing profiles so much more numerous than those facing right? It’s a mystery, and just as much a mystery, to my way of thinking, that it goes unmentioned.) All three portraits are by either Antonio or Piero del Pollaiuolo, and are thought to be from the 1460s or ’70s. Two are said to be tempera and oil on panel, the third tempera alone. I’m not sure how the mixing of tempera and oil works, but Stefan Weppelmann, in the catalog, rightly points out “a novel tactile quality” in the treatment of the portraits’ surfaces—though one far from the volumetric force soon to be achieved in oil painting. The lines describing the silhouette of each woman’s face are of incredible refinement. Yet with their blandly demure, incommunicative expressions, the portraits remain true to type—ravishing insofar as they approach absolute congruence with an idealized image of themselves. Whatever individuality distinguishes one from another is a matter of variations on a theme.

Compare these paintings with a couple of sculptures from around the same time, marble busts of young women, one by Desiderio da Settignano (perhaps of Marietta Strozzi, a renowned beauty) and the other by Andrea del Verrocchio, both of which are animated by an inner movement that still, apparently, could not be admitted into the painted portraiture of the day. Francesco Caglioti, the contributor of the catalog entry on the Desiderio, does not exaggerate in calling it “a masterpiece of delicate sensibility, perfectly developed in the definition of volumes and the sense of vibration that marks the surfaces.” In the midst of the almost heraldic painted portraits of the time, this object seems to have arrived like a meteor. The descriptive treatment of the face—and all the more so, the supporting shoulders and bodice—is restrained, with the indication of details unerringly reduced to a minimum. Yet the pose and expression are unforgettably vivid. Contrary to the determinedly straight-ahead gaze of the painted profiles, in this sculpture the slightest turn of the neck and head suffices to show this person spontaneously turning to notice something, or more likely someone. One feels that she has been addressed and is about to respond. The slightly asymmetrical hang of her hair, too, adds to the sense of movement as she cocks her head to size up her interlocutor. The ineffably complex expression on her lips—the slightest smile seems ready to break through the barrier of her reserve, though only if she decides to let it—would hardly have been outdone by the far more renowned expression that Leonardo gave to his Gioconda forty or more years later.

But beyond the observational acuity evident here—as well as in the Verrocchio, which Caglioti calls “the most intelligent and sensitive surviving homage to Desiderio da Settignano’s portrait”—what should be noticed is the perfect equilibrium obtained between a lifelike sense of inner dynamism and the communication of sheer physical presence that is proper to sculpture, irrespective of any form of naturalism or even any commitment to representation. The most determined modern Minimalist, I should think, could study these works with envy and admiration. Even the fundamental abstraction from reality conveyed by the absence of color reflects not so much an idealization or externalization of the subject as each work’s emphasis on an inner movement, a stance—aspects that can be registered, as it were, out of the corner of one’s eye—over the details that might be catalogued by a direct visual inspection.

* * *

If sculpture was more advanced than painting circa 1470, its advantage did not last. In just a few years, and outside Florence, an extraordinary painting was finally able to bring human presence to the fore just as forcefully as Desiderio’s sculpture. It’s a very small portrait of a young man, dated 1478, by Antonello da Messina. Antonello is one of the most fascinating and mysterious figures in Italian art. A Sicilian, as his name reveals, he established his career in Naples, where, according to Vasari, he encountered a painting by Jan Van Eyck. He thereupon ventured northward, perhaps getting as far as Flanders but more likely not, to learn the secrets of the Netherlandish art of oil painting. Along the way he spent time in Venice, where he was hugely influential—“the first Italian painter,” in Pope-Hennessy’s view, “for whom the independent portrait was an art form in its own right.”

This portrait, the artist’s last, must have been painted in Messina, where the artist had finally returned after his stay in Venice. Yet the sitter’s costume, we are told, is Venetian. The sky and landscape in the background don’t so much open a space for him to inhabit as lend greater elasticity to the plane that projects him forward, seemingly full-bodied, into our presence; if, as Sabine Hoffmann writes in her catalog entry, the foreground parapet “serves to separate the viewer’s space from that of the subject,” it must be said that this separation is extraordinarily ineffectual—and is probably deliberate, proving that no mere formal device can restrain this vital force. Shown in three-quarter view, like Desiderio’s young lady, the subject seems to be turning to cast an eye on an interlocutor—but more stiffly, with true haughtiness. If you want to know the truth, his attitude pisses me off. What’s he got to be so proud about? Maybe he’s gloating over the Latin inscription affixed to the stone parapet in the foreground: Antonello of Messina Painted Me, it reads. Here, the personality of the subject, the originality of the artist and the autonomy of the artwork achieve the great Renaissance synthesis.

Because its manner of distinguishing its subject would allow you to pick him out of a crowd, such a painting could be thought of as “representational” or even “realist.” But such a characterization is ultimately misleading. More important, the painting shows what it would have been like to be with this person. The painting conjures up his presence. And we don’t have to like it; we just have to deal with it. Here at last we can see what Burckhardt meant by the development of the individual—or what Pope-Hennessy, a little more than a century later, evoked with the somber contemporary phrase “the cult of personality.” Whereas Pamuk’s Enishte, experiencing for the first time the force of the individual as conveyed by an Italian portrait, felt above all the pangs of an envy that he could all but sublimate (“I, too, wanted to be portrayed in this manner. But, no, that wasn’t appropriate, it was Our Sultan who ought to be thus portrayed!”), Burckhardt was able to see the pictorial phenomenon of individuality in a disabused way. His account of the birth of individualism in the Renaissance is often misremembered as the paean to a glorious achievement, to one of the bases of Europe’s supposed triumph and, if we think of ourselves as Westerners, to ourselves as rightful heirs of that individualism.

But what Burckhardt taught was quite otherwise. The individualism of the Italian Renaissance was the product of a specific historical moment, and was as destructive as it was creative. It was the fruit of the ferment and insecurity of the country’s political situation, an insecurity that could only be overcome by quick thinking and bravado, scruples be damned. Burckhardt’s view of fifteenth-century Italy curiously resembles Marx’s famous description of an incarnation of capitalism in which “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life, and his relations with his kind.” Here already, before the birth of capitalism, with legitimate structures of power having been dissolved, in the eyes of the tyrant or condottiere “facts and the actual relations of things, apart from traditional estimates, are alone regarded; talent and audacity win the great prizes.” And the artists, poets and humanists who made their way from court to court seeking patronage were the prince’s mirror, for like them he was “incessantly active, and, as son of his own deeds, claimed relationship with all who, like himself, stood on their personal merits.”

To think that the modern sense of self is essentially that of a small tyrant is a bleak prospect. But there might be some truth to it. If Burckhardt’s picture of the Renaissance ruler and his mirror image—the artist—seems to anticipate contemporary sociologists’ chatter about “risk societies” and bestselling hymns to entrepreneurship, it’s no accident. Whether the self who is making incessant demands is named Steve Jobs or the Duke of Milan, a sense of emptiness underlies it, masked mostly by an eye for the main chance. And for all the admiration I have for the ways in which the painters and sculptors of fifteenth-century Italy fashioned for the self an aesthetic form that remains so striking today, it’s worth remembering that the Renaissance represents a synthesis that did not and perhaps could not sustain itself for long. No one who sees this exhibition—of which I have mentioned only a few highlights—will soon forget it. Yet one might, in the back of one’s mind, wonder if it gives an adequate answer to another of Pamuk’s characters, who declares that “where there is true art and genuine virtuosity the artist can paint an incomparable masterpiece without leaving even a trace of his identity”—something like the perfect crime, perhaps. The jury is still out.

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