Friday, May 18, 2012

Studs, Pigs and Dogs: Renaissance Portraits at the Met

A shorter version of this piece appeared recently at The Huffington Post.


I recently had the good fortune to attend the now-closed show "The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Met. (If you are disposed to buying pricey art books, they offer quite a nice one.)

Wandering through the large number of works, I saw a few pieces which will serve well as reference points for a network of ideas the show inspired in me. First, consider the death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-1492):
Cast of the Death Mask of Lorenzo de' Medici, Orsino Benintendi, 1492, stucco on panel, image © 2012 Laura Gilbert

Our classical education being the irregular and half-forgotten shambles that it is, we lean on Wikipedia to refresh our memory of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Scion of the wildly successful Medici family, Lorenzo inherited his grandfather Cosimo's clever practice of both banking, and running Florence. Writing poetry, patronizing the arts and sciences, and pulling off tricky diplomatic feats ran in the family. Lorenzo himself was born at the right time to be buddies with Da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo.

Apart from indulging in the exact profligacy Machiavelli warned against, with the depressing balance sheets Machiavelli foretold, Lorenzo dodged death in the Cathedral of Florence, surviving an assassination plot engineered by the rival Pazzi family and their friends the Archbishop of Pisa and Pope Sixtus IV. Lorenzo's brother Giuliano ("The Screw-Up") ain't make it.

Understandably irritated, Lorenzo responded by executing a gaggle of Pazzis and lynching the Archbishop. The Pope did not take this at all well, excommunicating the Medicis, seizing whatever assets he could, and placing Florence under interdict, which was a very impressive thing to do back then. The whole mess escalated into a full-scale war between Florence and Naples, resolved only by Lorenzo deciding to exercise his diplomatic acuity.

What we conclude from this is that Lorenzo was one of history's enlightened bad-asses: rich in learning, deep in insight, charming at parties, and handy with edged weapons.

Considering the death mask, we think, "What the hell -- he looks like he should look." Lucky man! A strong square jaw and a wide, expressive mouth; a mighty nose, manfully crooked; sculpted, fashion-plate cheekbones; enormous eyes, capable of great soulfulness, beneath the glowering brow of deep thoughts. Here we have Art perfectly matched to Meaning -- but this is no Art. Nature herself has decreed that Lorenzo should be magnificent, and should resemble precisely what he is.
Now let us move on to the rather less fortunate Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi:
Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi, Mino da Fiesole, 1454, marble, image © 2012 Laura Gilbert

Niccolò was a banker in Florence of the generation preceding Lorenzo. Also, his looks were nothing to write home about.

All commissioned portraits testify to the wealth of their subjects. But Niccolò's portrait speaks more clearly than most. Straining my ear, I thought I heard him whispering across the centuries. He said, "You want to know how much money I have? Fuck you, that's how much money I have. You see this wattle? That's how much fucking money I have. I will buy you and fucking eat you. You think I can't afford the mustard? I got the mustard right here, pal. It takes a lot of mustard to keep three chins going. Look at my imbecilic gaze. You see that? You know how come I had my imbecilic gaze chiseled into goddamned Ferrara marble? Because that's the fucking mountain of gold Florins I have in the vault, that's how come, you fuck."

Which is to say, no doubt he was a powdered crook, but what joie de vivre he had in it! What verve! That is what this profane portrait memorializes for us, all these years later: not the wealth alone, but the character. The character still stands, in defiance of the forgetfulness of time.

This bust is not an act of mechanical recording, as is the death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici. It represents a choice by Niccolò to flaunt just exactly what kind of an ugly pig he was, and the aptitude of his sculptor Mino da Fiesole in capturing the particularity of the man. It is so wonderful a thing, this hideous bust -- a raucous I Am that rings down through the ages. It is as magnificent, in its way, as Lorenzo's heroic visage.

Now take a look at what seemed to me the saddest piece in the show, a low relief portrait of Eleonora of Aragon:

Eleonora of Aragon, Savelli Sperandio, 1475, marble, Rijksmuseum

The caption helpfully informs us that a contemporary of Eleonora's described her as "small and short of stature, heavy and fat, the head broad and the neck short." And, yeah, you can kind of tell from the portrait. But what you can mostly tell is that she is not a good-looking individual. How exactly she isn't good-looking is unclear.

As you know, I'm a working artist, and I've done commissioned portraits. I've never had the luck to work with a chortling Niccolò, who bounded in and said, "'Zounds, friend, make me as ugly as possible." But I've dealt with any number of Eleonoras. These clients come in and say, "Oh, don't make me look old -- fix my jawline -- can I look thinner? -- can you take out the bags under my eyes?" And there's only so much you can take out, before there's nothing left. The portrait assumes a generic, abstract character. That is what has happened to Eleonora of Aragon. Whoever she was, it's not here. It's not like her sculptor Savelli Sperandio couldn't have individuated her -- consider his portrait of Ercole I d'Este from the same year:
Ercole I d'Este, Savelli Sperandio, 1475, marble, Palazzina di Marfisa d'Este

No such unique homeliness and honesty for Eleonora of Aragon. I am reminded of the wisdom of Bones. In Season 1, Episode 10 of the popular Fox TV series, Bones and Angel have a little trouble reconstructing the face of a murder victim who had undergone cosmetic surgery of the skull:

ANGEL: ... by now I usually have a feel for the person. What they wanted. How they felt. What was going on in their lives. With this girl, nothing.

BONES: She thought she was ugly. She did everything she could to make herself beautiful and all she did was make herself more invisible.

Bones is outraged at this erasure, and I am outraged too. There are very, very few means by which humans can leave a mark long past living memory. We can leave words and works, and if we have some money, we can commission monuments and portraits. Eleonora of Aragon, unlike most of the billions who lived and died before us, had the resources to buy our memory of her, from 1475 all the way down to March of this year. And she blew it. For whatever reasons -- vanity, shame, social constraints on women -- she elected to become a ghost, a hole in art history shaped roughly like herself. There are so few, so painfully few that have remained; and we lost her.

Consider again these three key portraits from the show:

First, we have a man who so looked as he ought to have looked that the Renaissance equivalent of a photograph, unadorned, does justice to him as a charismatic and individual presence.

Second, we have a man who was ugly, who embraced his ugliness with gusto, and in embracing it, ensured his survival. His ugliness, so individual, so true, enriches us still.

And third, we have a woman who was ugly, who sought to conceal her ugliness, and wound up vanishing; because no art can make the ugly formally beautiful, and retain a plausible resemblance to its subject.

If the bitter sweep of history has one lesson to teach us, it is that we cannot all be Milla Jovovich. It is nice to be beautiful, but if we can't be beautiful, we can be ugly. Ugly, and vividly, vitally ourselves. The only sin, quite literally a mortal sin so far as art is concerned -- the sin that kills the sinner -- is shame in our flesh. This will surely obliterate us, and eclipse every benefit of memory the portrait can bestow.

Photographs of Lorenzo de' Medici and Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi courtesy of Laura Gilbert, via her blog Art Unwashed

Image of Eleonora of Aragon courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Image of Ercole I d'Este courtesy of the Musei Civici di Arte Antica, Ferrara.


  1. Yes, a much better synopsis of Lorenzo the Magnificent..always had a weird crush on him (!)
    Well, women love badasses, and anyone with he good taste to mentor Michaelangelo had something going on...
    Am now a follower of your blog, so expecting great things...(cityprole)

  2. Nice to see you here, Miz! I'm glad you enjoyed the longer bio, even if it didn't really fit for the first version of the piece you saw. I could see having a crush on Lorenzo; not only a badass, but very sensitive.

    My dad complained that Vasari's account of the age of Michelangelo was annoying not only because Vasari brags "we live among the greatest artists in history" but because he's right.