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Looking at Italian Renaissance Portraiture

Looking at Italian Renaissance Portraiture

“The Renaissance was the first period in Western art history to name itself, for its time and for posterity.”  (Gilbert, 395)

Renaissance is French for “rebirth.” This period in Italy brought a clear break from artistic traditions and other societal conventions. The art of the Renaissance changed the way people looked at works and artists themselves. For approximately 150 years, from c. 1400-c. 1550 the Renaissance in Italy enjoyed the patronage of the wealthier classes and the Christian church. Florence, Italy was the early center of the Renaissance; however, Rome and Venice became later centers. While any painting, including portraiture, embodies mathematical concepts, characteristics of this high art period brought art into conjunction with sciences. This created greater realism in paintings, especially portraits. Artists dissected corpses in order to discover more about the human body.  

Characteristics

Portrait painting is the artist’s interpretation of what his or her eyes see. The portrait becomes the sitter’s a real presence on canvas. There were two characteristics within Italian Renaissance portraiture that made it unique to this period. The first characteristic is the expression of individual identity. In earlier paintings, unless the wealthy commissioned paintings or portraits facial features were mostly not individualized. Only the wealthy had the money to have portraits painted. Artists painted faces that were generic, having no fine or stylized distinguishing details in their own work. Early Renaissance portraits, backgrounds were a solid neutral color without designs or details, so that the painting called attention to the person’s face.

The second characteristic is the portrait’s format or which way the sitter is facing in relation to the artist. An earlier Renaissance artist, Fra Filippo Lippi, in his portrait, Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, ca. 1440–44, an early Florentine tempera on wood, illustrates the three-quarter’s format. Leonardo da Vinci changed this format in his famous painting, Mona Lisa, where the artist and sitter were facing one another. Because of this format, a greater connection between the two existed. Da Vinci used a technique called “sfumato,” or soft, heavy shading. Her unfathomable side glancing eyes and smile that is just barely there creates the portrait’s mystique, one that’s been debated for centuries.  

Artists of the Italian Renaissance

Although there were many master artists of this period, some are more familiar than others. To name every artist of the Renaissance and High Renaissance periods fills many volumes.

In Titian’s (Tiziano Vecellio) Portrait of a Man (Man with a Quilted Sleeve), c. 1510-1520, oil on canvas, he uses the three-quarter’s format. The man is not in full profile, but faces the artist a little more than in Fra Filippo Lippi’s portrait. His arm is resting on the back of a bench. He is not smiling, but appears more peaceful or serious. Light plays on his sleeve, giving it the shine typical of silky fabrics. Some sources suggest that the painting may have been a self-portrait of Titian when he was younger.

While the fresco in the Sistine Chapel is not a portrait in the typical sense, Michelangelo Buonarroti does not have to be introduced. Michelangelo means “Archangel Michael.” One that many people think of immediately when mentioning his work is Creation of Adam. Michelangelo combined the themes of religion and art, yet it was not his only work, just one of his more famous portraits in his commission to paint the Sistine Chapel. His portraits and sculptures, such as the Pieta, evoke emotional responses from their viewers.

Giovanni Bellini is considered the “father of the Venetian” Renaissance. His portraiture brought to the Italian Renaissance a dimension of color and light that spread throughout the European Renaissance. Arguably, his portraits strike a chord emotionally with their attention to detail and many of the subjects he chose. His most famous painting and probably the one for which he is best known is Madonna and Child, c. 1488, oil. Yet, while he was an artist in his own right, he came from a wealthy artistic family. Bellini influenced many who came after him, such as family members, plus Dutch artist, Jan van Eyck.

Perhaps one of Sandro Botticelli’s most recognized works is The Birth of Venus. Yet this Renaissance portrait artist took one step further than Bellini in his details. While many of Botticelli’s portraits have solid neutral backgrounds, the details of his subjects are stunning. In both The Birth of Venus and his other mythological portrait, Venus and Mars,” Botticelli adds details to their clothes, hair, foreground, and background. Another one of his portraits, “Madonna,” shows the mother of Christ as a fair and gentle woman. Botticelli gives great detail to her hair and the scarf which covers her head. He also portrays her magnificence gently with a corona. She looks as virginal as the day she gave birth to baby Jesus.

Before the Italian Renaissance, artists were limited to formulaic religious iconography, now they brought personalization to their paintings. What an artist painted before the Italian Renaissance was limited by artistic movements and organizations and being allowed to paint what was acceptable at the time. With the rebirth of art, combined with science, math, and religion, the artist’s conception of beauty was not dictated by someone else, but his own perception. So many of these portraits created during this period, now considered classics, are continually studied by students besides being viewed in museums. Their details and classic nature amaze both those with knowledge of this movement and those who know little or nothing about it. Perhaps it is one of the greatest periods, as a cornerstone of change in art.

Works Cited

Gilbert, Rita, ed. Living with Art.  New York:  McGrawHill, 1995. 

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