The image of the individual : portraits in the Renaissance

The image of the individual : portraits in the Renaissance. Edited by Mann, Nicholas and Syson, Luke London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press, 1998.

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Title The image of the individual : portraits in the Renaissance
Language of Title eng
Place of Publication London
Publisher Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Press
Publication year 1998
Sub-type Other
Open Access Status
ISBN 071410891X
Language eng
Editor Mann, Nicholas
Syson, Luke
Total number of pages 240
Subjects 410202 Fine Arts (incl. Sculpture and Painting)
Formatted Abstract/Summary

The portrait in the Renaissance has long been connected with 'the cult of personality', with a particular notion of individuality that is held to have emerged in the early years of the fifteenth century and which provoked men and women to have their features recorded accurately for the first time since antiquity. The visual commemoration of someone should, by this interpretation, lay stress precisely on those aspects that render its subject most obviously individual: his or her appearance.The portrait invites the viewer to recognise its subject by, for example, the shape of her high forehead and her limpid blue eyes, by his W.C. Fields nose (think of the Ghirlandaio portrait of an old man and his grandson in the Louvre) or even by a deforming injury (like the famous Montefeltro profile) and thus to differentiate one person from another.That Renaissance portraits are indeed sometimes, or even often, just this sort of record cannot be doubted. The social or political functions of certain portraits implied, as an essential prerequisite, the rendering of an accurate likeness. Galeazzo Maria Sforza did not dispatch Zanetto Bugatto to Paris, and Henry VIII did not send Holbein to Düren and Brussels, to produce idealised portraits of their potential brides-to-be. They wanted to know what they looked like. Moreover, when Beatrice d'Este, Duchess of Milan, warned her mother that the portrait she was sending of her baby son, Ercole, was no longer accurate because the infant had grown, then we realise that phrases like al or dal naturale or au vif mean not merely lifelike but often actually life-sized, and that a reproduction (ritratto or 'counterfeit') was meant to be exact. These examples were the product of the natural curiosity of contemporaries wishing to glean knowledge of the appearances of friends and (sometimes potential) relations who were separated from them by distance. It is, however, likely that the desire in the Renaissance to portray faces accurately stemmed initially from more abstract, ideological motives and that the portraits made in familial or pseudo-familial contexts may actually have been exploiting for mundane ends the capacity of a portrait truthfully to copy someone's features which owed its origin to a different set of circumstances. The reasoning behind and the roots of such thinking constitute a central theme of this book.

For it seems that the existence of 'truthful', independent portraits derives from an unexpected and specific confluence of cultures: the humanist study of classical precedent, and the use of images of the living, or recently dead, in contemporary Christian religious practice. Neither of these issues is simple. Drawing on antique example should not be understood as a matter of mere imitation of ancient portrait material - as simply the copying of Roman or Greek coins or sculpted busts, or even as the attempted emulation of the kind of image-making described by Pliny the Younger or other authors. The desire to make portraits certainly sprang from the examination of surviving ancient artefacts and from the detailed literary exploration of the role of images in antiquity. Carved busts, and especially ancient coins and gems, were key sources. In this volume Hugo van der Velden highlights, for example, Cicero's concept of the ius imaginis ad memoriam posteritatemque prodendam, 'the right to have an image for preserving the memory'. Even the apparently straightforward exchange of portraits between family and friends may, in fact, be founded on ancient friendship practices, as they were understood in the fifteenth century. Cicero's De Amicitia was certainly the inspiration for Alberti's statement that the value of the portrait lay in its capability to make absent men present. Although antique precedents for portrait-making were crucial, the Renaissance understanding of Greek and Roman notions of human appearance in general was as important. The exploration, and subsequent diffusion of different ancient theories of the relationship between physical appearance and the soul -- sometimes complementary, often contradictory -- provided the intellectual foundation of fifteenth and sixteenth-century portrait strategies. Belief in the utility of physiognomical theories was widespread throughout the Middle Ages, but the growing popularity of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Physiognomy in the fifteenth century demonstrates the greater centrality of such a credo. Indeed, it became something of a commonplace, which was neatly encapsulated by Rouillé, for example, in the introduction to his published collection of historical portraits, where he called the face, un chiaro specchio dell' animo, 'a mirror of the mind', that 'through the art of physiognomy, one can conjecture'. To this 'scientific' dimension, learned from the ancients, one must add Plato's notion, variously understood in the Renaissance, of the relationship between beauty and virtue.            ....................
Keyword Portrait painting, Italian
Identity (Psychology) in art
Portrait painting, Renaissance -- Europe
Portrait painting, European
Portraits, Renaissance
Portrait painting, Renaissance
Q-Index Code AX
Q-Index Status Provisional Code
Institutional Status Unknown

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Created: Thu, 25 Jun 2015, 15:59:01 EST by Ms Christine Heslehurst on behalf of Scholarly Communication and Digitisation Service