Reality Show: ‘The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Are not all portraits a fiction?” asks the opening wall text of “The Renaissance Portrait From Donatello to Bellini.” This substantial and surprisingly metaphysical exhibition of 160 Renaissance paintings, busts, medals and drawings borrowed from collections across Europe tells the story of the birth of European portraiture. Representations of individuals in fine art were a rarity for a thousand years after the Romans, reserved for rulers and historic figures, but in 15th-century in Italy, private portraits once again flourished, partly as an aspect of Renaissance humanism. Portraits at the Met’s show give us a sense of the emergence of our own modern, highly visual sense of self; they provide a historical lens through which to examine the forms of representation and self-presentation we take for granted.

In the first room, three tempera-and-wood paintings of profiles made around 1440 represent the earliest forms of the genre and are almost expressionless in their simplicity. The Profile of a Man (1430-40) by Paolo Uccello is an austere silhouette in tempera on poplar panel in which the relation of ear, nose, mouth and eye is the only clue to the sitter’s character. In Profile of a Man, attributed to Domenico Veneziano, the arch of a nostril and the expressive curve of lip and eye are the only traces of individuality in a face as smooth as a peach.

A particularly stunning gallery contains portraits of women, most of them painted on the occasion of their subjects’ weddings or betrothals. Fra Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a Woman With a Man at a Casement (ca. 1440) captures the play of a couple’s ringed hands and profiles; their fingers and faces are almost but not quite touching. There is nothing erotic to this encounter. Instead, there is the sense that the two figures were painted separately, that their proximity is a matter of compositional convenience rather than an indication of intimacy. Her brocade of seed pearls and ermine are signs of her dowry; under his hands is his family crest. Their faces are just one element of the elaborately coded signs of the forms of capital each brings to the union; this is a New York Times wedding announcement in tempera on wood.

The women in these early portraits are pale, inscrutable virgins with thick necks choked in pearls; their high, bare foreheads and weak chins were the fashion of the period. In work from just two decades later, however, there is more liveliness. Marietta Strozzi, the daughter of the wealthy banking family, emerges startlingly animated from a simple marble bust made in 1462 by Desiderio da Settignano with her raised eyebrow. Sandro Botticelli’s tempera on wood Portrait of a Lady at a Window (Smeralda Bandinelli) (1470-5) was owned by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and is the arch and resplendent predecessor of the idealized women that Rossetti and his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues painted in the mid-19th century.

But it’s two paintings by Botticelli that steal the show. From the first glimpse these portraits—both depicting Giuliano de’ Medici’s lover Simonetta Vespucci—inspire something like adoration. Simonetta resembles nothing so much as Kate Winslet in a particularly exotic Merchant Ivory film; a famed beauty, her radiant white skin is set of against a black background, and her flowing hair is twined in yards of pearls. The paintings tell us not what she can bring to a marriage or who her family is, but that she is worthy of love because she is beautiful, an allegorical Venus. In the second portrait her hair is picked out in real gold, a painterly metaphor for her golden locks, and the equivalence of material and description feels like smitten poetry.

The Medici was the most powerful family in Florence at this time, and portraits of the Medici men, by the likes of Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci, give us a sense of the physical appearance of these famed titans. The Medici men arrived at their power at the height of realism in portraiture. Patriarch Cosimo de’ Medici is immortalized in a marble bust from 1460 as a wrinkled old man, while his grandson Giuliano is, in painting after painting, beetle-browed and long-nosed. He comes out a little better in Andrea del Berrocchio’s life-size terra cotta bust Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici: here his thick jaw and high, wide forehead look striking and virile. In a portrait on parchment by Gherardo di Giovanni del Fora, Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici could be a modern teen with his incipient beard, watery eyes and mullet. He was apparently not very bright; he was the Medici noted for his “small mind,” and the skilled likeness conveys something of this quality.

A room dedicated to portraits of Florentine men ventures outside the Medici. Lorenzo di Credi’s extraordinary Head of an Elderly Man Wearing a Hat (1500) depicts old age with the delicacy of each line and sag made gorgeous; features such as the eyes, lost in thought, are startling because they reveal a beauty in mortality. Cosimo Rosselli’s Portrait of a Man (1481-82) gives its subject a 5 o’clock shadow; he is balding, all-too-human, his bit of neck fat and his discomfort with posing evident. The wonderfully fat marble bust of Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole (1454) preserved the man’s stuck out ears, weak chin and plentiful jowl fat. He is immortalized without a fig leaf of idealization. A touching painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy (1490), shows an old man with severe rhinophyma—a condition that covers his nose with warts—and a young boy who looks at him lovingly, having placed a slender hand on the old man’s chest.

The room featuring court portraits highlights the weaknesses of the ruling class, from a small, glowing painting by Andrea Montaigne of the frail 16-year-old Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga (1461), to the (the show reports) “hideously fat” autocratic ruler of Milan, who would let only Pisanello, the itinerant court artist, draw him, to Niccolò Piccinino, also by Pisanello, a medal of a Perigian general “so short it was said he could be shoved in a sack and carried over the shoulder of a soldier.” The vain Borso d’Este, an aging duke, is decked out in a Pisanello metalpoint like Elizabeth Taylor; he loved his jewels. Alfonzo II d’Aragon, cast in bronze by Guido Mazzoni, has lavish bags under his eyes; he is a fat frog of a prince, ugly and wrinkled. You wonder what grotesque images might result if modern collectors favored frank portraits of themselves.

Other wealthy patrons favored small gems and cameos, and the show contains some relics of the cult of Milanese court jewels. One enameled trinket belonging to Isabella d’Este, famous as the vainest woman of the Renaissance, features her name spelled out in diamonds on a medallion of her likeness.

Finally, portraits from Venice and the Veneto represent their own world and social order. A couple of paintings by Giovanni Bellini shine here, including Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic (1515). Bellini pairs a real monk—replete with drooping eyelids and pouting mouth—with a richly painted symbolic setting. The piece is the inverse of a reliquary bust from the beginning of the show; here, painting the portrait closely observed from life has taken the place of pride, and the religious function of the painting is a mere fiction. The Venetian Caterina Cornaro, in oil on wood (by Gentile Bellini), became queen of Cyprus upon her husband’s death. This portrait, in which she is criss-crossed with veils and pearls, makes her out as a tough woman who might be an aristocratic mafia widow in a Scorsese version of Venetian history.

Many of the paintings in the exhibition are damaged or suffering the effects of age, and some have uncertain authorship or other historical questions surrounding them. Yet they are prescient. Hans Memling’s oil on wood Portrait of a Man With a Roman Coin (1471-74) presents a modern man, self-conscious, each glinting fingernail and cuticle lucid in paint. There is something to the strange temporality of his pose; it is not frozen as in a photo flash but more languorously immobile, yet in his pose we recognize the act of self-presentation. Again and again on this tour through Renaissance Italy we encounter faces that verge on familiar. The déjà vu they evoke comes from how these individuals, made epic and ennobled by art, are the precursors to our own modern sense of self.

Reality Show: ‘The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini’  at The Metropolitan Museum of Art