Friday, February 10, 2012

The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini

The Renaissance was the age of the Medicis (Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is still one of the classics dealing with the importance of the Medici family) and the lovely Simonetta Vespucci over whom Guiliano Medici jousted, holds a cameo belonging to Lorenzo in her portrait by Botticelli in, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, currently at the Met. “El Fin Fa Tutto,”  “the end tells all” is the inscription on a portrait attributed to Venezianio from 1440. So Lorenzo di Medici's death mask, which also appears in the show, reflects the renewed interest in a practice that began in ancient times. Pisanello and Mantegna were the two court painters, but Mantegna, who had more of an investment in reality than idealization, sometimes met up with the censure of his subjects. The Duke of Milan, for example, burned the portrait that the artist did of him. The following quote from Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1565) accompanies the exhibit: "[Giovanni Bellini] introduced into the concept that anyone, even someone of no rank, could have his portrait done by him or by some other painter.” And the curators go on to point out that “In Renaissance Florence there was a direct correlation between the mercantile class’s practice of keeping a diary or memoir and the commissioning of portraits. In both, the individual asserts his class and status and character.” Art collecting was obviously as much as source of status in the Renaissance as it is today. But is it going too far to say that the commissioning of art and the conferring a certain level of celebrity and social status on the subjects chosen by a painter—in the way that Warhol and Hockney were still doing in the last century— reached feverish highs in Renaissance? “The goal was to confer a distinct identity on the subject,” the curators remark. “…every civilization and culture has evolved its own solutions to this task, but those evolved during the 15th century established the conventions that informed portraiture down to the invention of the camera.”

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