NEW YORK – Giuliano de’ Medici went to church on Sunday, April 26, 1478, not realizing that it was the last thing he would ever do.
Known as the “Prince of Youth” of the Italian city-state of Florence, Giuliano de’ Medici was a charming young man with aristocratic good looks. He was also the brother of the brilliant, if homely, Lorenzo de’ Medici, the de facto ruler of Florence. That made him a marked man.
As the Medici brothers stood amid a crowd of several thousand worshipers under the famous dome of the Florence Cathedral, four assassins crept toward them. Recruited by the rival Pazzi family and a network of enemies, the hit-squad closed in for the kill. With all eyes on the priest celebrating High Mass, the assassins struck. Lorenzo, badly wounded, survived. Giuliano, stabbed nineteen times, expired in a pool of his own blood a few feet from the cathedral’s altar.
Acts of violence like the Pazzi Conspiracy have occurred with depressing regularity throughout history. What is remarkable about this bloody coup d’etat is that we know what the Medici brothers and other protagonists looked like. Visual documentation for earlier events in history is often – surprisingly – lacking. Except for heads-of-state like Julius Caesar, also brutally assassinated, very few actual portraits of the great figures of the past have survived the passage of time.
The Italian Renaissance changed this situation forever. History’s blank canvas began to be filled with painted and sculpted images of the great and the near-great. With remarkable clarity, a new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City reveals the transformation in visual imagery and psychological viewpoint which took place in Italian city-states like Florence, Milan, Urbino and Venice during the 15th century.
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini presents 160 works of art by the leading artists of Italy during the 1400’s. This glittering century, called the Quattrocento according to the delightful Italian custom, witnessed one of the major cultural revolutions of all time.
From Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli in Medici Florence to Andrea Mantegna at the Gonzaga court in Mantua and Giovanni Bellini in the Republic of Venice came an affirmation of the centrality of the visual arts in human affairs. These Quattrocento artists depicted the outward features and the inner emotions of human beings with displays of skill and virtuosity not seen since the days of Imperial Rome.
One of the secret supporters of the Pazzi Conspiracy is featured in an especially notable work. Federigo da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo is a virtual catalog of the arms, accoutrements and emblems of office of a Renaissance Prince. Of equal importance, the painting reveals the growing sense of individuality exhibited by the greatest soldier-scholar of the age. This painting embodies the cardinal precept of the Renaissance: knowledge is power.
Federigo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, was a leader of mercenary soldiers known as Condottieri. Federigo sold his services and those of his troops to the highest bidder. He frequently served the Pope in the defense of the Papal States which sprawled across central Italy. This magnificent portrait formerly was thought to have been painted by a Flemish artist, Justus van Gent, who worked in Italy. It was the Flemish who were the innovators of oil painting, so Justus was a link to the equally important Renaissance of northern Europe. But the painting is now attributed to a Spanish painter, Pietro di Spagna, who worked with Justus at the court of Urbino.
Whoever painted this evocative work virtually defined the image of the Renaissance Man.
Federigo da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo portrays the shrewd, battle-tested warrior surrounded by the tools of his trade, sword and helmet. It also shows him wearing England’s Order of the Garter on his lower leg, an honor presented by King Edward IV in 1474. A bejeweled mitre, sent by the Shah of Persia, resets on the reading podium where the lavish folio volume he holds would normally be displayed. Perhaps the most treasured object in his collection is the sceptre held in the hand of the infant Guidobaldo, son and heir of Federigo’s hard-won domain.
Federigo prided himself on his collection of hand-copied books and ancient Roman coins and medals. He displayed his treasures in special rooms in his palaces. The stunning paneled walls of one of these, The Studiolo from the Ducal Palace in Gubbio, was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum in 1939 and is on permanent display in the museum’s Renaissance gallery. The studiolo, completed around 1476, displays spectacular examples of intarsia, or precious inlaid wood designs, expressing Federigo’s varied interests in the arts and sciences. It definitely should be seen in conjunction with this exhibition.
Federigo’s obsession with Roman coins may have contributed to the fact that he is portrayed in profile in the double portrait with his son. In fact, all of the portraits of the Duke of Urbino were executed in profile. Federigo lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose in a jousting accident. He was always depicted in profile looking to the left, thus obscuring his missing eye. A condottiere commander like Federigo could not afford to advertise a gap in his defenses, physical or strategic, especially when the dagger of Renaissance warfare could as easily strike him as it did Giuliano de’ Medici.
Not every Renaissance prince, however, was a man of war. Leonello d’Este, ruler of Ferrara, a small city state in the Po Valley of northern Italy, was an avid collector of Roman antiquities. He went a step further, commissioning his favorite artist, Antonio di Pisano, known to history as Pisanello, to portray him in Roman-style profile, both in a painted portrait and on a bronze medal to commemorate his marriage to Maria of Aragon in 1441. This striking bronze depicts Leonello with the restraint and austerity of a leader of the Roman Republic. On the reverse is a charming scene that is a pun on Leonello’s name and marital situation. A lion, tamed by Amor, the winged god of Love, stands in harmony with its angelic conqueror, with the eagle of the d’Este family perched on a branch above.
Leonello d’Este ruled Ferrara for only a brief interval, 1441-1450, but the example of his support for the arts and scholarship, was profound. His brothers, Borso and Ercole, maintained the Humanist tradition at the d’Este court that their late brother had espoused. Humanism was a blend of fascination for Greek and Roman antiquity, an emphasis on civic participation in daily life and an appreciation for a more naturalistic depiction of Christian sacred motifs. Humanism exerted a steadily growing influence on the creation of new art works as patrons desired to surround themselves with paintings, statues, tapestries and other objects that evoked themes from the new learning.
One of the most notable of these Humanist patrons was Isabella d’Este, the daughter of Ercole, who married into the Gonzaga family of Mantua. So passionate was Isabella’s patronage of art that she pawned her own jewels on occasion to pay for works she commissioned from Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and others.
In 1498, Isabella d’Este ordered a gold cast medal of her likeness in profile, set with diamonds and enamel flowers on her personal copy. Isabella was not a striking beauty, as we know from a profile sketch of her by Leonardo da Vinci. But the realistic evocation of her features displayed on this medal testifies to a sense of inner worth that was not based on outward physical attributes.
Isabella d’Este presented copies of this medal to favored poets at her palace. Renaissance courts like Ferrara and Mantua were major centers of literary activity, where rulers promoted the creation of poetry, philosophical writings and translations of ancient Greek and Roman authors. These works exerted a powerful influence on European writers down to the era of Shakespeare, Montaigne and beyond.
The support for the arts by Isabella d’Este is all the more remarkable because so much of her life was devoted to practical matters of state. She saved Mantua from conquest by Venice in 1509 when her vainglorious husband, Francesco Gonzaga, allowed himself to be surprised by a Venetian attack and captured. For her efforts, Isabella was chided by her ungrateful spouse, “We are ashamed that it is our fate to have as a wife a woman who is always ruled by her head.”
The numerous painted portraits and sculpture busts of Renaissance Women on display in the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition testify that Isabella d’Este was no exception when it came to intelligence and strength of character.
Although we do not know the identity of the two women portrayed by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Young Woman, Ca. 1460-65, and Desiderio de Settignano, Bust of a Young Woman , Ca. 1462, the inner resources of both are readily apparent. Although both of these works were likely created to enhance the marriage-ready status of the two women, their physical presence is paramount. In the case of Pollaiuolo’s painting, chosen as the signature work for the Metropolitan Museum exhibition, the rich embroidery of his subject’s dress is almost a distraction from the graceful draughtsmanship that enabled the artist to depict her beauty and intelligence.
Likewise, the tremendous skill with which Desiderio de Settignano evoked the crinkled folds of his subject’s dress almost passes unnoticed. As we gaze at the bust of this young women, it is her ironic expression and the slight tilt of her head that absorb our attention. In the case of this portrait bust, as with all great sculpture, it is an open question as to who is looking at whom, so vivid and animated is the marble image before us!
We are reasonably certain as to the identity of Sandro Botticelli’s Ideal Portrait of a Lady. Painted between 1475 -1480, many scholars believe that Botticelli based the features of the ” Ideal Lady” on those of Simonetta Vespucci. Along with Lisa del Giocondo, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, Simonetta Vespucci has entered the myth history of the Renaissance. La bella Simonetta has gone down in history as Botticelli’s muse and the “lady love” of Giuliano de’ Medici. It is known that Botticelli painted an image of Simonetta Vespucci as Athena on the banner of Giuliano de’ Medici at the jousting tournament of 1475 – even though she was married to another man. A year later, she died, aged twenty-three, from tuberculosis. Giuliano went down to the daggers of assassins less than two years later.
Nothing inspires romantic fantasy like tragic deaths at an early age. Simonetta Vespucci, Giuliano de’ Medici and Sandro Botticelli were linked in the popular mind as the principals of a romantic triangle. However, the speculation that la bella Simonetta was the model for Flora in Botticelli’s Primavera is just that: speculation. She may – or may not – also have inspired Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. A more naturalistic portrait of Simonetta Vespucci on display in the Metropolitan’s exhibition is said to be a companion piece to the pensive portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici also on view. That is speculation too. By the time that Primavera and The Birth of Venus were completed in the 1480’s, Simonetta Vespucci was dead and no written documentation has survived.
These reputed portraits of Simonetta Vespucci are deeply significant works all the same. The Renaissance was the forge of individualism in Western culture. The attempt to put a name and a face on Flora, Venus and other mythological characters, said to be modeled after la bella Simonetta, is thus part of the search for identity that characterized the Quattrocento. With the coming of the Renaissance, even allegorical figures needed to be based on some foundation of reality.
If to give “a name and a face” to individuals was the great legacy of Renaissance civilization, this achievement was based on the roots of the Renaissance in the Middle Ages. For all the attempts by Florentine writers like Giorgio Vasari to emphasize the innovative nature of the Renaissance, the achievements of its artists and writers were always securely based on the foundation laid by the Christian Church and secular organizations like the trade guilds which commissioned art of their patron saints.
A more medieval object can scarcely be conceived than a reliquary, a case to hold the bones or personal effects of a Christian saint. Yet, the Reliquary Bust of San Rossore, created by Donatello around 1425, is key to the process by which realistic portraiture achieved lasting prominence during the Renaissance. The cast bronze and gilded bust by Donatello is the first fully sculpted, life-sized, portrait bust that had been created since ancient times. Donatello made the reliquary to hold the skull of Saint Rossore, who according to Christian tradition was martyred by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 304 A.D. Donatello, an artist who gave an indelible stamp of individuality to each of the many portrait sculptures he created, lent a special touch of individualism to Saint Rossore. According to Paul Walker, author of The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance, Donatello is believed to have used his own features as a model for those of the saint’s.
Donatello’s San Rossore was followed during the course of the Quattrocento by artists who refused to be constrained by the limitations of profile portraiture. One of the most fascinating to do so was Antonello da Messina, 1430-1479. Unique in being the only great Renaissance artist from the south of Italy, Antonello somehow studied the new Flemish oil painting techniques, which had made little impact on the rest of Italy before 1500. Living in Sicily during his youth, Antonello was also exposed to numerous examples of Byzantine icon painting. Byzantine art was almost exclusively devotional. Images of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Christian saints were depicted full-faced so as to promote spiritual meditation by the faithful who gazed upon them.
Antonello da Messina realigned the Byzantine icon format to create a more naturalistic, three-quarters position for the subject’s face. In his Portrait of a Young Man, painted in 1478, Antonello fused the psychological intensity of Byzantine icon painting with a close regard for his subject’s unique, personal identity. Antonello died the year after he painted Portrait of a Young Man, but with this and a handful of similar works, he blazed a trail for all of the great portrait painters who came after him.
Giovanni Bellini was one of the first to follow in Antonello’s footsteps. In his portrait, Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic, he incorporated the features of a living person to depict a religious figure from the past, as Donatello had done with the bust of Saint Rossore. Bellini used the increasingly popular oil painting technique, along with Antonello’s close scrutiny of human character, to create what is recognizable as a modern portrait painting. The Renaissance “moment” had arrived.
Yet, the Renaissance was more of a process than a distinct event. Indeed, to try and configure the Renaissance in terms of names and dates on a timeline is a hopeless, counter-productive task. The once “crucial” events of the Renaissance, like the Pazzi Conspiracy of 1478 or the war against Venice of 1509, have dwindled in importance when compared with momentous developments of more recent times. The art of the the Renaissance, however, gains in stature and magnitude with each passing epoch.
Look at Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, painted around 1490, and you will witness as profound a statement of human dignity, compassion and empathy as you may ever hope to see.
Ghirlandaio, the teacher of Michelangelo, was one of the great masters of fresco painting during the Quattrocento. As a result, he is comparatively little known outside Italy since fresco work cannot be safely transported to international exhibitions like that of the Metropolitan Museum. With the Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, a tempera painting on wood, Ghirlandaio evokes the bond of love that is the hallmark of human beings of all cultures and all historical eras. It is this feeling of kinship which makes us individuals and it was the achievement of Renaissance masters like Donatello, Ghirlandaio and the rest to develop techniques for artistically evoking the emotional sentiments that make us human.
In Ghirlandaio’s painting, when the little boy looks up, he does not see an old man with pustules and warts on his diseased nose. He gazes upward and beholds “Nonno,” his grandfather. That is what we see too.
Appearing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street), New York, NY 10028: The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, December 21, 2011–March 18, 2012