The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini

Good afternoon, everybody. I’m Keith Christiansen,
chairman of European Paintings. I’d like to welcome you this
afternoon for what I think is going to be a very exciting
group of lectures. It seems to me hardly possible
that the exhibition upstairs, “The Renaissance Portrait
From Donatello to Bellini,” is drawing to its close. I suppose it’s only natural that
those of us who worked on it feel we created
something special. It’s the thought
of every doting parent. But enough people have told me
that they think so, too, that I’d like to believe that this is a generally shared
response. Well, we wanted a lecture series
no less special. The exhibition is composed
of objects, but as the great scholar
Aby Warburg noted long ago, these images of individuals have
a special resonance and shed a special light on the period we know
as the Renaissance. We wanted the lecture series to
expand upon some of the issues related to the invention
of the independent portrait. And so a few weeks ago,
we had a splendid lecture given by Lina Bolzoni,
professor of Italian literature at the Scuola Normale Superiore
in Pisa. For years, she’s been interested
in the relationship of portraits to poetry
and literary descriptions, and her lecture, “Poetry and
Portraits in the Renaissance: “The Crystal Heart, ‘If only I had a heart
that was crystal-clear'”– and I told her
that’s a very dangerous desire– examined the amorous secrets that some portraits
were intended to convey, employing some
of the same devices as the poetry of the period, but also how certain
literary descriptions can only be understood in terms
of the practice of portraiture. Our lectures today have been
made possible by the Italian Cultural
Institute, and I want to note
how frequently we have been indebted to them
for these events. It’s a wonderful collaboration, it’s gone on for a number
of years, and I hope it’s one
that we can count on continuing. Well, we’re very lucky
to have secured the two lecturers
this afternoon. They will take us further
into the world of the Renaissance individual. First on the docks is
Professor Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam
University Professor at Princeton University. Professor Grafton is quite
simply everyone’s idea of what a Renaissance scholar
ought to be. He is himself what used to be
called a Renaissance man, and he reminds me of the subject
of one of his books, that great polymath of the 15th
century, Leon Battista Alberti. I don’t know, Tony,
where the elixir comes that enables you to produce
what you have, but it should be patented,
bottled, and sold, and I would be first on line. I first heard Professor Grafton
some years back at Columbia University. The topic was Alberti. The trek up to Columbia
in the late afternoon was something
I actually looked forward to, for this was a truly memorable
series of lectures given with his amazing
combination of erudition, insight, and informality. His other books have covered
a remarkable… remarkably wide range of topics, from “Joseph Scaliger: A Study of the History
of Classical Scholarship,” “Cardano’s Cosmos: The Worlds and Works
of a Renaissance Astrologer,” to “What Was History? The Art of
History in Early Modern Europe.” And in chatting before,
a little bit earlier today, I discovered
that he has co-authored “A History
of Western Civilization,” which we can all
look forward to. His most recent book,
published just last year, was written with Joanna Weinberg
and is intriguingly titled “‘I Have Always Loved
the Holy Tongue’: “Isaac Casaubon, the Jews,
and a Forgotten Chapter of Renaissance Scholarship,” which seemed to me a subject
perfectly suited to his interest in those dark
corners of our field. He’s a regular contributor to
“The New York Review of Books,” as well as the “Times”
literary supplement and “The New Republic.” Now, when Andrea Bayer and I
discussed who we thought would be
our ideal Renaissance historian to address the topic of the individual
in the Renaissance, our first thought was to contact
Professor Grafton. And to my greatest surprise, despite his incredibly busy
schedule and commitments, he accepted and even proposed
the topic I had hoped: “The Art of Biography
in the Renaissance.” Professor Grafton. (applause) – Thank you, Keith,
for that lovely introduction. It’s a great pleasure
and an enormous honor to stand here
as the historical cuckoo in this grandest
of art historical nests. Keith Christiansen and
Stefan Weppelmann have assembled a wonderful exhibition. They’ve displayed
with consummate skill and wonderfully weighed drama a stunning range of sculptures, paintings, medals, drawings,
illuminated books. Their work has opened up
for all of us one of 15th-century Italy’s
magnificent obsessions– its artists’ and patrons’
passion for the portrait: portraits of men and women, portraits of adults
and children evoked in all
of their complexity and images in two
and in three dimensions; portraits that could be
rubbed between the hands, portraits admired on the walls,
and, of course, there was a further range
of portraits in frescoes and other media that even The Met couldn’t
transfer from Italy to here. My humble historian’s task today
is not to discuss the works of art themselves
so much as to lay in part
of the background that can help to explain
why they were created. The passion for making portraits
that inspired so many artists pervaded Italian society and
culture in the 15th century. In writing as in painting,
in Italian as in Latin, the effort to record
for the world the experiences
and sensibilities, the characters and emotional
lives of individuals, provoked creative acts
of writing as multiple, as skillful,
and as exuberantly varied as the arts of visual
portraiture on display a floor above here. By looking briefly
at the words of biographical and
autobiographical writers from the 15th century, we will, I hope,
understand even better what drove patrons to commission
and artists to make that extraordinary range
of works. The connection
between portraits and words and portraits and other media is clear, really, from the very outset of the
story that the exhibit tells. In the early 1430s,
Leon Battista Alberti– scholar, mathematician,
author a few years later of the first modern treatise
on painting– modeled a brilliant,
if slightly amateurish– the finish is not perfect, and he didn’t really know how
to tie that knot– profile plaquette
of his own head. The bastard son
of an old Florentine family, he had to make his way,
despite lack of means, the resistance of powerful men
at Florence and elsewhere, and the problem
that he was a scholar. As he had said mournfully
in his earliest work, “Of a thousand young men
who start out as scholars, “not 100 earn their degrees,
not ten write anything, and not three survive
to make an impression.” Odds which look even worse than the legendary scholarly
job market of the moment. Yet when Alberti set out
to portray himself, he characterized himself
not as the retiring scholar of his little book
on the fortunes and misfortunes of learned men, but as a hawk-like visionary, Roman in dress
and Roman in profile, his hair perhaps slightly
resembling the leonine hair of his friend and later patron
Leonello d’Este, eventually marquis of Ferrara. Next to the image of his face
appear, of course, his… an abbreviated form
of his name and his emblem, the winged eye, which he liked to accompany
with his emblem from Virgil: “Quid tum?” “What,” says Virgil, “what if
Amyntas is tori?” Quidtum– “you want to make
something of it?” Here, Alberti emphasizes
the soaring power of the eye, the eye which he claimed to be
the most powerful of our organs. The eye, which could take even
a poor man like Alberti to triumph in the world. So he’s describing himself here in the most powerful and novel
of ways– as a sovereign artist,
one might say, someone of intelligence,
virtue, and talent who’s made his own standing
in the world by the skill of his hands
and the conceptions of his mind. Like so many of the portraits
on display, it’s both
an extraordinary inquiry into the person as he is and an idealized vision. It sends a message about
the person that he wanted to be. Alberti matters for the story
of portraits. He knew and worked with both
Matteo de’ Pasti and Pisanello, whose work you see here, masters of the profile portrait
in metal form. It’s one of the genres in which
the portrait really spreads from Florence into the courts
of Ferrara, Mantua, and Urbino, where those artists worked. Like those two men, he was a
prolific and expert portraitist. He drew and modeled the faces
of his friends while they talked to him, and threw away any portrait that a child couldn’t recognize
the original of. Sadly, they all seem to have
been thrown away. We have only one or two pieces
of work by him. He told readers of his treatise
on the art of painting that paintings that had
a portrait in them worked differently
from those that did not, had a different power
on onlookers. And he asked artists
at the end of that book, if they appreciated it,
to put his face into their work. I think it’s very clear that both his example
and his encouragement played a role in the new fashion
for portraits of individuals as it spread into the courts
of which he was a habitue. Unlike de’ Pasti and Pisanello,
however, Alberti didn’t confine
his efforts at portraiture to visual media. He also wrote in the 1430s an
autobiography, a precocious one, given that he was only a little
more than 30 years old. It’s modestly couched,
like the works of Julius Caesar, in the third person. And it’s as vivid and brazen
in its own way as the portrait plaquette. Alberti, Alberti tells us,
was a brilliant athlete. He could jump over the head
of a man standing next to him from a standing start. He could throw a coin so high
that it rang as it hit the ceiling
of the Florentine Duomo. Wounded in the foot
as a teenager, he not only bore the doctor’s
painful sewing up of his wound without crying out, but held
the edges of the wound together, singing to distract himself. He loved to look
at handsome old men, but mourned, depressed, when he went out
into the fertile fields and saw their fruits. Most remarkably of all,
he made a special practice of handling and looking
at the things he loathed, such as honey and garlic, until he no longer shrank
from them. “And he thus,” the book says,
“offered an example to show that men can make anything of
themselves if they wish.” It’s an extraordinary claim,
all the more extraordinary because elsewhere
in the biography, Alberti tells of the depression
and delusions that had almost paralyzed him
in his years as a student. Alberti made clear in the Life, in a way exactly as he had made
clear in the plaquette, that he saw art as the key
to making one’s way in society. Not only the visual arts,
however. Above all, he said, one must
apply the greatest artistry in three things: walking in the city,
riding a horse, and speaking. And a further art must be added
to the other three. Namely, none of these
must be seen to be done in an artful way. Only by maintaining
a constant grace of posture and an air
of total effortlessness could a man like Alberti
win the universal approval that he sought. Now, if these stories
are familiar to you, there’s a very good reason why. Jacob Burckhardt, the great
Swiss cultural historian who created
the modern understanding of the civilization
of the Italian Renaissance, as his great book of 1860
was entitled, retells every one of these
stories in his description of the universal man
of the Renaissance, which lights up the second book
of his great cultural history. In fact, as the catalogue of
this wonderful show makes clear, a wonderful article
by Patricia Rubin, Burckhardt, though a great
expert on Renaissance art, knew few portraits
from the period, even though
he saw individualism, the desire to develop
one’s personality and make an impression
and have that last forever, as the key
to Renaissance culture. It was actually
from Alberti’s literary portrait and other biographies that he derived the ideas which still shape our vision
of the Renaissance, and which, when Bode and others
brought the portraits together, turned out to apply to them with
extraordinary prophetic force. When Alberti modeled
his profile in metal, he made creative use of Classical odals, gems,
and Roman coins which had been studied
by antiquaries. Here a 14th-century antiquary,
Giovanni de Matociis of Verona, uses them to illustrate
his history of the Roman Empire for more than a century. And he did something
very similar when he wrote his own Life,
adapting an ancient model to his own modern
and individual requirements. Sometime in the history
of the Roman Empire– we don’t really know
exactly when– a strange Greek writer named
Diogenes Laertius compiled the lives
of the Greek philosophers, from Thales and Solon, the legendary predecessors
of Socrates back in the sixth century BCE, down to the Stoics
and Epicureans. Traditional positivist scholars
used to mock Diogenes, and it’s true that he gives us
a lot of anecdotes to a relatively small amount
of philosophy. It’s to Diogenes
we owe our knowledge that Thales,
going out to observe the stars, fell into a well and was mocked
by the serving maid, who always turns up
in such stories. And that Zeno liked to eat
green figs. But Renaissance scholars
found his work really exciting, as you can see
from the marginalia that this reader entered
in a copy of the first printed edition. He gave them a model for writing
the biography of a thinker rather than a doer, someone whose distinction
lay in the way he’d existed as the head of a school
and a teacher, rather than a captain. And they quarried from it
rich information, such as the three letters
of Epicurus, which are still
the only ones we have, and about which you can read in Stephen Greenblatt’s
wonderful book “The Swerve.” Now, the book was translated
into Latin in the 1430s by a friend of Alberti’s, the Camaldolensian monk
Ambrogio Traversari. Alberti read it
in Traversari’s translation. He was probably one of
the very first to read it, and within a few years, he’d adapted it into his
portrait of his own self. And it’s just marvelous
to see him at work, to see him take Diogenes’ method
of drawing a character anecdote by anecdote,
trait by trait, and applying it to himself. Alberti portrays himself
in his autobiography as a master of wit and repartee,
rather like Oscar Wilde. Unfortunately,
rather like Oscar Wilde, he didn’t invent
all of his jokes. So at one point,
he answers riddles. Asked what would be the biggest
of all things among mortals, he answered, “Hope.” As to the smallest, he said, “The difference
between a man and a corpse.” It’s a good answer, but he’d read it
in his Diogenes Laertius, who tells us that Thales said there was no difference
between life and death. “Why, then,” said someone
to him, “don’t you die?” “Because,” he said,
“it makes no difference.” (laughter) Here you see how Classical
materials recombined creatively could make a portrait, and as you think
about the paintings and above all, perhaps, the
sculptures in the exhibition, it would be well to think
about the ways in which they too take earlier,
especially Classical, images and ways of drawing portraits and reapply them
in a creative manner. This is one of the ways in which
reading the written biographies can help us, I think, to see
the portraits more deeply. Neither Alberti’s passion
for immortalizing his self nor his method
of creative adaptation were unusual. Both had flourished for a long
time, especially in Florence, the city to which he returned
in the 1430s to find it
in the white-hot middle of an artistic revolution, as he explained in his book
on painting. Florentines were
extraordinarily literate. It was a mercantile city, every head of a substantial
Florentine household was also the head of a firm with
investments to keep track of, and partners to watch, and bigger investors
to watch out for and Ponzi schemes
to look out for, and they reacted by using their
extraordinary writing skills. It’s just amazing. In 1427, when the Florentines
instituted a new tax system, the Catasto, that required every Florentine
to write a tax return, 40,000 Florentines out
of a population of under 100,000 were able to write
their returns. It’s an extraordinarily literate
society. And dozens of merchants
kept not just ledgers, but books that modulated
from ledgers of business affairs into autobiographies, sometimes giving us charming
little bits of information. Here’s the physician Giovanni
Chellini from San Miniato recording a special gift. “I record that on the 27th
of August 1456, “when I was treating Donatello,
that singular and leading master “of making statues of bronze
and wood and terra-cotta, “in his kindness, “and for my effective treatment
of his illness, he gave me
a tondo the size of a plate.” Which you can see. But the ricordanza are at their
richest when they reveal, like so many of the portraits
on show here, the multiple facets
of a single personality. In Florence, as elsewhere
in Italy, what mattered most
to the heads of households was maintaining the position
of their families in the economy and society. But in mercantile Florence,
creative destruction ruled; family positions
were always vulnerable. A century before Alberti, royal bankruptcies had destroyed
the greatest banks, the Bardi and the Peruzzi. The head of a Florentine family
knew that he sailed stormy seas, as Giovanni Rucellai,
eventually Alberti’s patron, knew when he chose the sail, filled in this case
by the wind of fortune, as the emblem that scuds
across the facade of the palace that Alberti designed for him
in Florence. These men lived
in vulnerable positions, always in danger of losing
a competitive advantage, of having an investment
in a mercantile voyage blow up. Were still ambitious players
in a commercial society who fought for gain
with every licit weapon, they were also pious believers
in traditional Catholic truths who listened
with passionate attention to Bernardino da Siena, whose portrait you see
in the galleries above you, giving his fiery speeches denouncing taking money–
lending money at interest and the other practices
of commercial society. They strove for gain
and for salvation, and they felt a strain, a deep strain in pursuing
these divergent goals, one that often made them feel
as if they had divided souls. In their wonderfully frank
mixtures of plans for self-improvement and confessions
of irredeemable human weakness, the ricordanza offer some of the richest portraits
of personality in the Renaissance. Here, for example, is Goro Dati,
merchant, writer, a man who knew the coast
of North Africa– which he portrays here in his work on the sphere
at firsthand– and could tell you
exchange rates around the Mediterranean world, reflecting
on his midlife crisis. “I know that in this wretched
life our sins expose us “to many tribulations of soul
and passions of the body. “I see that since my birth
40 years ago, “I have given little heed
to God’s commandments, “distrusting my own power
to reform, “but hoping to advance
by degrees “along the path of virtue. “I resolve from this day forward
to refrain “from going to the shop
or conducting business “on solemn church holidays, “or from permitting others
to work for me “or seek temporal gains
on such days. “Whenever I make exceptions,
in cases of extreme necessity, “I promise on the following day “to distribute alms
of one gold florin to God’s poor.” And I’ll go to the gym. “I have written this down so
that I may remember my promise and be ashamed if I should
chance to break it.” In this vivid personality,
caught between passions, each of which he felt
as deeply as the other, you see very much
the sort of person whose deeply cut faces you see
in the galleries above us. Since the 14th century,
moreover, literary portraiture
and self-portraiture had been high forms of art
in Florence. The creators
of Italian humanism, Petrarch and Boccaccio, produced biographies
by the dozen. Petrarch compiled a magnificent marmoreal biographical
compendium on illustrious men, which went
through more than one version and gave him
many different chances to express his opinion
of the great. Scipio Africanus gets 178 pages,
Romulus only two– that really gives you a sense
of how he thought of them. Boccaccio produced
a less marmoreal but more amusing compendium on illustrious women, which begins with Eve and includes
many accomplished women– there Tamaris, the painter,
who scorned womanly tasks, at the top left, and Circe, the enchantress,
who put a new spin on them, on the bottom right. Coming down to his own time, he described
the dangerous Queen Joanna of Naples, Sicily,
and Jerusalem, sketching her complex character
with deftness and economy. “Joanna is so astute,” he says, “that only trickery,
not brains, can deceive her. “She’s generous in the manner
of a king. “She is soft-spoken and her
eloquence pleases everyone. “When the occasion demands it, “she has a regal and unyielding
majesty. “Equally, she can be affable,
compassionate, gentle, and kind, “so that one would describe
her as her people’s ally rather than their queen.” The humanists’ contribution
to the art of literary self-portraiture
and portraiture went far beyond the writing
of formal biographies. Petrarch showed
extraordinary ingenuity, as well as a lifelong commitment
to the confessional mode that has made him seem to me
as I teach to be something like a model
for the modern Californian, discovering one unlikely
opportunity after another to portray his own character. He wrote a letter to posterity. “Greetings,” he says,
imitating the poet Ovid. “It’s possible that some word
of me may have come to you, though even this is doubtful.” And goes on to describe
not only his writings, but his complexion,
his dark, lively eyes, his passion
for the ancient world, and the fact that he had
to start using glasses when he turned 60 years old, becoming the first intellectual
we know of to lengthen his working life
in that way. Adapting St. Augustine’s
“Confessions,” he wrote and rewrote a wonderful
letter to his friend Dionigi di Borgo San Sepolcro on his ascent of Mont Ventoux
in Provence. Augustine in his “Confessions”
had told the story of how he struggled endlessly
to make himself a Christian, and, finally,
hearing a child’s voice say, “Tolle, lege, tolle, lege”–
“Take and read”– had read the passage
that enabled him to make the final commitment. Petrarch turned his difficult
climb of the mountain– it’s not so difficult now;
every year students send me back the rocks they buy in the shop
at the top– Petrarch made his account,
the difficult climb, into an allegory of his own
lifelong search for virtue, telling us how he had struggled
to reach the top, to see the view. How sitting there, he opened
his little pocket copy of Augustine’s “Confessions,” the very book
that was his model, and which is still
in the Bibliotheque Nationale, and read there that he shouldn’t have been up
the mountain at all, that he shouldn’t be seeking
fame as a writer, that he should be searching
within himself for moral truths, and then went down the mountain,
wrote the letter, rewrote it eventually, and said, “The time during which
the servants have been occupied “in preparing our supper, “I’ve spent in a secluded part
of the house, “hurriedly jotting down
these experiences in the spur of the moment”–
complete lie– “lest, in case my task
were postponed, my mood should change and
my interest in writing flag.” Where Augustine had told the
story of his absolute conversion to the unquestioned life
of the Christian, Petrarch portrayed his self
just as unforgettably as one who could never make
that final step, though born, of course,
in a Christian world. Petrarch’s ingenuity
was enormous. He used colophons in some of
the manuscripts that he wrote– this of his “Bucolicum Carmen”– to set the dates
when he’d written them and explain, in this case, that he’d written
this manuscript himself. He even made some of the books
he owned– here his magnificent copy of
Virgil, now in Milan– into notes on his progress
through life. Here he writes
of his beloved Laura: “Illustrious in herself and
long-celebrated in my verse, “first dawned on my eyes
while I was yet a youth “at the Church of Saint Clara
in Avignon, “in the year 1327 on the sixth
of April at daybreak. “And in that same city,
and that same month of April, “and that same morning hour
of the year 1348, was that fairer light withdrawn
from the light of day.” For Petrarch, in other words, everything from a manuscript
of his own writing to a book in his library could be part of the cumulative
and enormously rich venture into self-portraiture. Alberti was very much
Petrarch’s heir when he used the multiple means
that he did to immortalize himself. So by the 15th century,
members of the Florentine elite, those very people who supported the great new vogue
for portraits in the 1420s and ’30s, were already dedicated
to preserving the memories of their experiences
and their feelings, remaking themselves in words as they hoped to remake
themselves in their sons. And you can see that upstairs,
as well. Florentine scholars inherited
the tools that Boccaccio and Petrarch
had forged and multiple ancient models
for writing biographies: Suetonius’ wonderful, gossipy
“Lives” of the Roman emperors, who tells us
that Augustus used to say, “Quick as boiled asparagus”; (laughter) Plutarch’s “Lives”
of the Greeks and Romans, with their model
of well-weighed comparison between great men of
different origins and contexts; and saints’ lives, which, as Alison Frazier
has shown in a wonderful book, “Possible Lives,” were probably the most popular
biographies of all in the 15th and 16th centuries, and which inspire a good many
of the more pious portraits that you can see above. You can see the creative impact
of these models, for example, in Leonardo Bruni, long-time chancellor
of Florence– rewarded with this magnificent
monument in Santa Croce, pretty good for a literary man– writer of Florentine history and
Florentine official propaganda, and author of multiple
biographies of great creativity. A biography of Cicero,
which, for the first time, treated Cicero strictly
in pragmatic terms, not worrying about the morality
of his political life in the late republic, but just weighing it
for its successes and failures. The most remarkable
of his achievements, I think, is his Plutarchan Life, the “Lives”
of Petrarch and Dante, where he takes
the two great Florentine writers of the 14th century– Dante, the politically engaged
man whose masterpiece
had been in Italian; Petrarch, the retired scholar who had mastered
the Latin classics, as Bruni himself had– weighs their accomplishments
against one another in a complex, dialectical way, praising Dante
for his political engagement, but noting that it had ended
in disaster, wishing that Petrarch had been
somewhat more engaged, but also seeing the virtue
in his ability to pursue his scholarship
to the end by avoiding
political engagement. It’s an extraordinary exercise
in biographical writing, and at one point,
moves into a brilliant argument on the cultural value
of the Italian language itself, making the argument, even though he supports
Petrarch, really, over Dante, that Italian, Dante’s language, was as capable
of great accomplishment as this Latin that Petrarch
had preferred to write in. So in this rather small
and articulate community– fewer than 100,000 people, mostly concentrated
on this side of the Arno, around the Duomo
and the other sites of great cultural
accomplishment– the fashion
for literary portrait painting spread well beyond the confines of the political and social
elite. Alberti was by no means
the only person who combined artistic
portraiture and self-portraiture with literary. Lorenzo Ghiberti, for example, sculptor of the two great sets
of bronze doors on the Baptistry, and famous
for his own self-portraits which he left there, also drew his portrait
in writing. In his commentaries,
which begin as a technical work, responding to ancient authors
like Pliny and Vitruvius on the history of art, mutates briefly but brilliantly
into an artistic self-portrait in which he explains at length how he had solved terrifyingly
difficult problems of perspective
and foreshortening, especially as he made
his second set of bronze doors. It’s a short but wonderful piece
of writing, and between the braying notes
of self-praise that make Ghiberti so irritating are wonderful moments, such as the one in which he
explains that he had been the only connoisseur
to see the virtue of a particular ancient
sculpture because he hadn’t
merely looked at it, he’d felt it with his hands. Don’t we wish we could do that
to the sculptures upstairs? It would be the best way
to see them. His great rival, Brunelleschi,
with whom he fought it out– not just to do the bronze doors, but also to build the dome
over the Duomo– was also a great object
of portraits, though, in this case,
made by someone else. This is
from the Brancacci Chapel, traditionally identified
as a portrait of Brunelleschi by Masaccio. But the great portraitist
of Brunelleschi was Antonio Manetti,
mathematician and scholar, who, in a wonderful
Italian Life, portrays Brunelleschi
as something like the first bohemian artist. He and Donatello,
as young men, go to Rome. They work only when they have
to to support themselves and spend all their time digging
in the Roman ruins, drawing Roman facades. The Romans, totally baffled
by this conduct, thought… They think of them
as treasure hunters, and called them that. Manetti traces Brunelleschi’s
development from the brilliant,
irresponsible young artist of the Roman years to the extraordinary inventor who was able to build the dome
with machines, the models for which
he cut out of vegetables and gave to his craftsmen
so that they would rot before his rivals could take
advantage of them and imitate him; the winner of the first patent
for an invention; the brilliant engineer
who brought time and motion into the overseeing of work
for the first time, making the sellers
of wine and bread climb the scaffold
to serve his workers, rather than allowing his workers
to descend, as workers traditionally had
in order to get their lunch. Here, in Manetti’s work,
you see the details, not just of artistic practice, but of construction as a trade becoming a fit subject
for biographical work. Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were
grandees to be sure, but still, this is a world in which artists are now the subjects
for biography. In other words, the passion for
self-portraiture and portraiture crossed social
and cultural boundaries. In the 16th century, when Giorgio Vasari
and Benvenuto Cellini wrote the magnificent Lives
of the artists, in Vasari’s case, and the greatest of all
Renaissance autobiographies, Cellini’s “Vita,” they were carrying
on the traditions that had really taken shape in the Florence
of the 15th century, following trails that Ghiberti
and Manetti and others had broken then. Across Italy, the Florentine
portrait bug proved infectious. States were passing
into the hands of men like Federigo da Montefeltro,
tough men: the Visconti and Sforza
of Milan, the Estensi of Ferrara; men who came
from problematic backgrounds, sometimes of illegitimate birth; men whose power as rulers rested
on their abilities to work without conceding power
to those who assisted them, to fight their way
out of impossible situations, to be on guard at all times
against internal assassins and outside enemies. In 1478, a clan
with the wonderful name of Pazzi, the crazies, tried to kill Lorenzo
and Giuliano de’ Medici in church. We now know
that their learned friend, that passionate consumer
of culture whose portrait by Piero
di Spagna is also upstairs– Federigo da Montefeltro– was waiting outside Florence
with a mercenary army, ready to come in
and help the Pazzi. However, they killed Giuliano,
but failed to kill Lorenzo, and Federigo stayed outside
while the Pazzis’ heads were turned into footballs
by loyal Florentine boys. Rulers of this kind
sat on thrones that trembled on the tops
of potential volcanoes. They saw cultural patronage as
a way to shore up their power. They sought the solace that came
from brilliant portraits in words, as well as in paint, and found gifted writers eager to provide exactly
the service they needed. The great Roman scholar
Lorenzo Valla, for example, had as his favorite patron
Alfonso of Aragon, a soldierly man
of Classical tastes, the ruler of Naples,
who cured himself of illness by reading the Roman historian
of Alexander the Great, Quintus Curtius, and staged what he called
“hours of the book,” at which he would set
two humanists to correcting the same passages
in Livy, and wait until one of them had beaten the other
into submission. This was just the patron
for a bold writer like Valla, who received a commission
to write the deeds of Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand. He wrote a magnificent Life, one that defies
the marmoreal decorum expected of Lives of great men. Federigo… Ferdinand yawns
in public, he falls asleep. He refuses to behave
like a plaster ruler– he behaves like a human being. And at one point, Valla even
turns the Life into an inquiry on how you write Latin
about a world in which ships are steered
by compasses, the battlefield is dominated
by cannon, and time is regulated in cities
and monasteries alike by clocks: questions that would bedevil
people who wanted to write
classical Latin for centuries to come. So biography had become a wider
field of cultural inquiry. In papal Rome, the empty city,
with its 20,000 inhabitants in the early part
of the 15th century– a city built for a million– was a particularly fertile field
for portraitists. The popes and cardinals, most of them from great
Italian and Spanish families, who began to fill
the eerily deserted spaces of the Eternal City with their enormous palaces, were delighted to pay for busts
and portraits of themselves. And where the artists came
and found commissions, hungry humanists
weren’t far behind. The pioneer Hebrew scholar
and diplomat Giannozzo Manetti wrote a brilliantly evocative
Life of this powerful pope,
Nicholas V. Without Manetti, we wouldn’t
know in any detail that Nicholas planned, more than
a century before Sixtus V, to move the great obelisk
that stood by the side of the old Basilica
of Saint Peter’s, bring it to a more prominent
position, and set it on staff– four bronze, colossal statues
of the evangelists, while at its top, another grand
statue of Christ in bronze would hold up a gold cross, an incredible architectural
and sculptural program, designed so, Nicholas explained, to restore the authority
of the church, which its Babylonian Captivity
had called into question. So biography could expand
into the study of urbanistics and other cultural programs. And even Manetti couldn’t rival the most skillful observer
of papal conduct, the pope himself. Pius II, born Aeneas Silvius
Piccolomini of Siena– he entertained all of Europe,
safely dead, with his extraordinary
autobiographical commentaries, in which he traced
his wanderings from the elegant young man
you see here at the court of Scotland, until his grave days as pope, telling us how he saved
his virginity from the attack of two eager Scottish women
who spent the night with him; how he refused the temptation
to enter what seemed to be a dangerous ship voyage, and then watched it with
complacency as it went down; to how, as a middle-aged man, he put down a revolt
of cardinals in the men’s room at the Vatican and ensured his own election
to the papacy. (laughter) It’s Pius who writes more brilliantly than anyone
else on urbanistics as he describes his own wonderful, tiny,
ideal city of Pienza, the stage set
into which he transformed his native little town
of Corsignano, outside Siena, with a marvelous passage
in which he talks about the beauty
of the buildings, admits that the cathedral
had developed a huge crack as soon as it was open– the crack is still there,
and you can sit there and read this passage
standing by it, which is always good
to make yourself nervous– and then, as a kind of
wonderful final flourish, describes the young boys in the
village racing naked in the mud as he and the cardinals look out
from the windows of the papal palace. A wonderful set piece,
the finest evocation we have of that edifice complex
that dominated the wealthy and powerful
of Renaissance Italy so much and made them build
these extraordinary palaces. My own favorite
of the 15th-century biographers was an amateur writer,
as he himself made clear, but one who knew the great men
and women of the peninsula. It was a time
of great cultural excitement, and a time when great commanders
like Federigo da Montefeltro emphasized their passion
for reading, their passion for the classics. Here you see Federigo, he’s
forgotten to take off his armor, reading a beautiful folio. And the man who knew most
about these men and their collecting passions– the Duveen of the 15th century– was the Florentine bookseller
Vespasiano da Bisticci, an impresario of scribes
and fine vellum who saw to it that every patron
had the books he wanted. It’s Vespasiano who tells us
that in the Urbino library, for which he provided
900 stunning manuscripts, “All the books are superlatively
good and written with the pen, “and had there been
one printed book, “it would’ve been ashamed
in their company. “They were beautifully
illuminated and written on parchment.” He wasn’t exaggerating, as you
can see from the great Bible and this magnificent copy
of the Greek writer Libanius, only two of the treasures now
kept in the Vatican Library. It’s true that, as Martin Davies
and others have taught us, Federigo did own
some printed books, but he kept them
in a secondary library, not in the main one
with the manuscripts. Marvelously, as Vespasiano
supplied books for the new Vatican library
of Nicholas V, for the library
of Oxford University, for the library of Federigo, he set down his experiences
and his contacts in a brisk, informal Italian. He himself had no ambitions
for his work. He said, “These are just
rough commentaries. Someone else can make them
into histories.” But, of course, they’re much
better than the biographies that have been given
a more powerful literary cast. Like some of the more rough-cut
of the… of the portrait images
you see above us, they’re extraordinarily
expressive. Just to give one example, it’s Vespasiano
who tells the story of how that tough nut,
Alfonso of Aragon, found a Sienese ambassador
irritating in his presumption, a man who arrived at court
swathed in lace and overelaborate
in his manners. So the black-wearing Iberian had his lean, grim
Spanish courtiers come to him and gave them instructions, and one after another, they pressed
against the Sienese ambassador and rubbed against him, until, by the end
of the evening, his costume
was completely spoiled and he himself humiliated. It’s no wonder
that it’s Vespasiano’s memoirs, almost more than any other text, that filled Jacob Burckhardt’s
notebooks and that give his books
some of its richest material. So biography,
like the Renaissance, survived the period covered
in this show into a 16th-century Golden Age, and it crashed,
like the Renaissance, into a cultural crisis when the armies of the holy
Roman emperor, Charles V, sacked Rome in 1527. This event, too, found its
proper biographical treatment in a wonderful book
by Pierio Valeriano on the ill fortune
of men of letters, a book that should be read, in order to fill them with hope, by every dean faced
with too big a tenured faculty. It’s a book in which
tells you how humanists died transfixing themselves
with swords, hurling themselves into wells,
starving themselves to death, disappearing,
leaping out of windows. There are many ways
to kill a humanist, and Valeriano tells you
all of them, as well as portraying
the characters of the victims with brief, almost Tacitean wit. But a more fitting place to end
is with a Life that expresses, perhaps more powerfully
than any other, the full contradictions that make personalities
in this age so rich. Gianfrancesco Pico Della
Mirandola’s biography of his prodigious polymathic
uncle, Pico Della Mirandola, the brilliant young prince who sold his birthright
as a mercenary soldier for enough money to build
the greatest library in Europe, who studied Greek and Hebrew, who could read a Greek poem once
and then recite it forwards and then backwards, and who, in 1487, invited
all the scholars of Europe to a disputation on all the
fields of knowledge in Rome, offering to pay their expenses. Pico, who was remembered
above all for the oration with which he planned
to begin this great debate, beginning, “It is written:
man is a great miracle, free to make his own fate”: the model of Renaissance
self-fashioning at its most powerful. Gianfrancesco commemorated
that Pico, the young Pico, and insisted that the pope
had been wrong to forbid him to hold his disputations, and the papal commission wrong
to condemn some of the theses that he had planned to debate. But he also insisted that Pico
had transformed himself in later life after meeting the Florentine
prophet Savonarola, that piety, not learning, had become the center
of his aspirations. Pico, in later life,
so Gianfrancesco reported, burnt a few of his books
that were genuinely evil, repented of his worldly ambition
for fame, and even enjoyed a vision
of the Queen of Heaven, who assured him
that he would never wholly die. Gianfrancesco Pico,
a hunter of witches, found this last
a little worrying, and thought, when his uncle
did die, that it might have been
a diabolic apparition sent to deceive him. But happily, his uncle
then appeared to him surrounded by fire, and explained
that he was in purgatory burning away his sins,
as he should be, showing that he had actually
found the way of virtue at the end of his life. Gianfrancesco not only wrote
Pico’s Life, he placed it at the start of
his collection of Pico’s works so that it would provide
the necessary cautions with which people
would appreciate, would come to this great figure,
the phoenix of his age, would keep them
from being carried away by Pico’s excessive passions for dangerous fields
of learning. And this, indeed, was the message
that readers carried away, like that great Augustinian
cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, who emulated Pico’s study
of the Hebrew Kabbalah, but also inhaled
the scent of burning straw to give his complexion
the air of sanctity, trying to be at once the young
and the old Pico simultaneously, an aspiration that also seems
to have infected Thomas More, who translated Gianfrancesco’s
biography into eloquent English. Look carefully
at almost any of the images that The Metropolitan
has on display. Think about what it was to seek
political power or economic gain in a life ruled by a church
that promised that such pursuits would be rewarded
with damnation, a literal damnation whose flames you could hear
beneath the floorboards, whose smoke you could smell. Keep those balanced desires
and needs in mind, and you will see the portraits
in the exhibition gallery in a new and deeper way. Thank you. (applause) – I think we made
the right choice. (laughter) I don’t know if you take
auditors, Tony, for your seminars, but I’m sure that quite a number
would love to sign up. Well, our next speaker
is someone I’ve known for a very long time– known and admired
and learned from. Professor Caroline Elam is
currently senior research fellow at the Warburg Institute
at the University of London. She’s taught widely,
and from 1987 to 2002, she was the editor of
“The Burlington Magazine.” I can attest
from personal experience that she saved countless of us
from foolish errors and managed always
to get more from us than we thought was there. It was absolutely a marvel,
writing an article, sending it off, and getting
Caroline’s responses. It always opened new windows,
new doors, new ways of looking at things. But most miraculously,
all the time that she was paying such meticulous attention
to the material that we were submitting, she was conducting
her own research on Michelangelo’s practice
as an architect, on urbanism in Florence,
and on Lorenzo the Magnificent, and, in particular,
his legendary garden filled with sculpture
and artists. Through her work
at “The Burlington Magazine,” she became deeply interested in its most famous editor
and founder, Roger Fry, I think probably
the pre-eminent British critic of the 20th century; someone who wrote
with equal eloquence and insight on Renaissance painting
and on Cezanne, whose work he championed. I don’t know any topic
on Renaissance art on which, in chatting with Caroline, I have not left thinking
differently than when I began. Lately, she’s been fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci’s
beautiful portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci in the National Gallery of Art
in Washington, and the person
for whom it was painted, the Venetian poet Pietro Bembo. It’s a subject that relates
to so many themes in the second gallery
of the exhibition, the one devoted to
female portraiture in Florence. Indeed, it’s the one
truly missed presence in the exhibition. We knew it could not be lent, and we simply breathed a sigh
and dealt with it. But we’re going to have it,
in any event, in this lecture. Caroline. (applause) – Thank you so much, Keith,
for that wonderful introduction. And I must say, one of my most
treasured memories of working as editor
of “The Burlington Magazine” was receiving articles
from Keith, which absolutely illuminated the pages of “The Burlington”
in my time. Visitors to this stupendous show
of Italian portraiture, both in Berlin
and here in New York, can’t fail to be astonished
by the quantity and quality of portrait images and all media
from 15th-century Florence dominating the first four rooms
of the exhibition. And, of course, this is only a
fraction of the surviving total. Huge advances have been made in our understanding
of these images over the last 30 years or so. Studies of 15th-century Florence
by art historians, social historians,
historians of material culture, have investigated the functions, contexts,
and display of portraits in the domestic interior and the part they played
in the self-representation of the Florentine
merchant elite. But despite a wealth of
documentation in the archives, we still know little for certain about why and when
portraits were commissioned, who they were for,
how they were made– one version of that seen here
in this manuscript. And if we adopt a sociologically
functionalist view of portraiture, there’s a danger of making mistaken assumptions
about types and of treating portraits
as specimens in an illustrated
social history. So, for example, it’s often
assumed that female portraits were made in the contexts
of betrothal and marriage, and no doubt many were, but there’s surprisingly
little specific evidence for this practice. Female portraiture
in particular has gained, but also suffered,
from approaches such as these. In a now classic article
entitled “Women in Frames,” Patricia Simons argued that
it’s historically more accurate to think of 15th-century
Florentine portraits– especially female ones– as gendered items
of cultural display, socially conditioned
and mediated, rather than as indicators
of private subjectiveness or of individual personality. And I think
this viewpoint permeated studies of portraiture in…
some studies of portraiture. For example, was felt now
and then in the exhibition, marvelous exhibition,
“Virtue and Beauty,” held at the National Gallery
in Washington in 2002, which originally prompted
many of the reflections I want to explore today. Leonardo’s “Ginevra de’ Benci,”
the main focus of my talk today, was there exhibited
as an example of the supposed type
of marriage portrait. But the notion of private
subjectiveness in portraiture is much less anachronistic
when viewed in the context of the poetry about portraiture
in the period. Patricia Simons herself has written most eloquently
about this in a more recent study, and I think that some of the
most valuable contributions made to the study
of Renaissance portraiture have pursued this line. Elizabeth Cropper’s
marvelous articles about the influence
of the Petrarchan tradition, John Shearman’s chapter
in his book “Only Connect,” and, most recently, Lina
Bolzoni’s illuminating book, “Il Cuore di Cristallo”–
“The Heart of Crystal”– which focuses on the literary
side of the relationship between portraiture, especially
double portraits, and poetry. And some of you may have heard
her talking on the subject here a couple of weeks ago. The ancient tradition, the epigrammatic
poetic tradition, transmitted
through the Greek anthology– which was really rediscovered
in the 15th century– engaged with the notion
that painting and sculpture could convey only the outer
appearance of the person, not their character or mores, while a more optimistic view
saw the visual arts through their immediacy
and their verisimilitude as having other possibilities– for example,
to arouse desire in the viewer. I’m showing you here
a commemorative portrait, famous one
of the late 15th century, of Giovanna degli Albizzi
by Ghirlandaio, where the… inscription in the background
refers directly to a famous epigram by Martial, adapted to say, “Would that art “could represent the character
and mind of the sitter. No portrait would then be
more beautiful.” Another strand, the animistic
tradition of speaking sculptures or works of art coming
miraculously to life also runs through these poems, which were so eagerly emulated
in the Renaissance. Central to these questions are
Petrarch’s famous and incredibly influential poems about his dead beloved Laura
in the “Canzoniere.” I’m showing you here a mid-15th
century page in the Bodleian, with portraits of Petrarch on
the left and Laura on the right. In particular, the two poems
which Petrarch wrote about the lost portrait
of Laura he commissioned from Simone Martini, some people
don’t believe this portrait ever existed, some people don’t
think that Laura ever existed, but I do that think that
Petrarch did commission a portrait of Laura. And that we saw in Tony
Grafton’s marvelous slide, the frontispiece to his
manuscript of Virgil with that incredible image of
the “Georgics”and the “Aeneid.” In the first of his poems, Petrarch sees Simone’s portrait
as transcending, with divine aid, traditional
difficulties explored in ancient poetry. Polykleitos, he says, and other
famous artists of antiquity would never have been able
to encompass Laura’s beauty. If Simone’s portrait succeeds, it must be because he had
painted it in paradise. The second poem reverts
to the pessimistic view. In Simone’s “Laura,”
in this portrait, voice and intellect
are forever lacking. When the poet tries to talk
to his portrayed beloved, she appears to listen,
but will never reply. It’s generally agreed that
in his Milanese portraits, recently seen so memorably in
the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery
in London, Leonardo da Vinci set up
programmatically to exemplify the belief expressed in his
writings on the paragone on the comparison between
painting and poetry. But paintings can more
successfully than poetry represent “the very image
of the beloved object, or more generally convey
the motions of the mind,” this memorably seen, perhaps,
in his miraculous portrait of Cecilia Gallerani in Krakow. By this stage in his career, Leonardo had the
materiative conception, as well as the technical means
to make what Shearmans calls the two frames of reference– the poetic and the artistic–
conjoined. But the foundations for such an
ambition were laid in Florence, and in this talk,
I want to focus on examples where 15th century Florentine
artists and patrons can be seen to invoke conscious aspirations
to engage with the expectations aroused in the viewer by knowledge of the poetics
of representation. Sometimes this can be explicitly
shown through inscriptions or emblematic reference, but even where such evidence
is absent, intended meanings
can be extrapolated. There are certainly intimations
of this later on… earlier on in Florence, as Keith Christiansen’s
pointed out in his marvelous catalog entries
on the Castagna portrait in Washington, and the double
portrait by Filippo Lippi here in The Met. But it was really in Florence
in the 1470s that one saw the real flowering of the poetically driven
likeness, especially of females, but also, as I’ll try to show
later, of masculine sitters. The 1470s saw the confluence
in Florence of various essential
cultural strands. First of all, an elite culture
steeped in the poetry of the great Trecento poets, and especially
in Petrarch’s love poems. Secondly, a self-conscious
revival of ancient poetry playing with notions
of life-likeness as we’ve seen in painting
and sculpture. Third, the particular Florentine
take on the conventions of idealized
courtly love often, but not always, of an
unattainable married woman expressed in the verbal and
visual rituals of jousts and triumphal processions. This involved the cult of
exceptionally beautiful young women, the focus of
Petrarch in adoration, usually without hope or
expectation of fulfillment. These were real, live,
breathing Florentine girls, but they became objects
of idealized desire. Sometimes they died young, and the cult grew up around
their memory. Sometimes, even more oddly, they survived as virtuous
matrons into old age and into a completely different
cultural environment. So we encounter an intriguing
and paradoxical intersection of fantasy and actuality. In artistic terms, the means
to achieve a greater degree of poetic intimacy
and vividness, not necessarily
a literal likeness, was spurred from several
new springs, of which one was the
availability of examples of Netherlandish portraits by
artists such Petrus Christus and, above all, Hans Memling. I’ve just plucked two examples
at random here. An extraordinarily large number
of the portraits by Memling that survive are actually
of Italian sitters. These portraits, with their
sitters turned toward the viewer rather than in profile and their
mastery of the oil medium, Netherlandish illusionism,
indeed, had long been admired by Italian humanist writers. Another important strand was
the flexible and non-restrictive Florentine workshop structure, where artists could
simultaneously practice sculpture, painting,
and goldsmithery, where painters were used
to the third dimension by working from models, and sculptor-goldsmiths were
masters of design. One can argue that it was
in stony marble that Florentine artists
first attempted to convey vivid effects, a fleeting,
emotional sensibility. Such paradoxical effects were,
as we’ve seen, the stuff of lyric poems about
sculpture in Greek anthology. The key artist here surely
was Desiderio da Settignano, whose miraculously living and
breathing female portrait bust from Berlin is in
the exhibition upstairs. Note the slight, provocative
tilt of her head, the almost quivering of her
upper lip, the tender fleshiness
around her eyes. Nothing is certain
about this bust. Even the attribution
has been queried, but I would like to agree
with Francesco Caglioti, his restatement
of the traditional view that this could indeed be the
portrait of Marietta Strozzi by Desiderio, which has been
mentioned several times in the 16th century sources. Marietta was a famous teenage
beauty and heiress, granddaughter of the great
humanist patrician Palla Strozzi, who’d been exiled
in 1434 by the Medici regime. She was brought up in Florence
by her mother, Alessandra De Bardi,
and attracted many suitors. In 1464, she was the dedicatee
of a sumptuous spectacle with a procession of knights,
pages, and musicians for the Bardi palace,
during which she looked down from a balcony at a
Petrarchan triumphal float with cupids armed with bows. In fact, political crises meant
that she didn’t find a husband in Florence, but was married
in 1471 to a wealthy courtier and soldier at the Este court
in Ferrara, Teofilo Calcagnini. And we see in the exhibition
the way these currents flow out from Florence
to northern centers. Although it would be very nice
to be certain about this connection between
the bust and the sitter, it doesn’t really matter for our
purposes whether the Berlin bust is truly of Marietta or not. The poetic qualities assayed
in it are surely not in doubt. Beautiful young Florentine women
were even more likely to be eulogized in verse
if they died untimely deaths, as was the case with
Albiera degli Albizzi, betrothed to
Sigismondo Della Stufa, who died at the age of 15
in 1473. Her fiance commissioned
a posthumous bust of her, and she and her portrait, which
hasn’t yet been identified, were commemorated in an
anthology of Neo-Latin poems. The title of one of these
by Alessandro Braccesi, “A Busta Memoriam,” is fascinatingly one of
the very earliest examples of the term “bust” to designate
this type of representation of a head on a neck
and part of the chest. It means something completely
different in classical Latin. Alessandro Braccesi’s poem, clearly inspired
by ancient poetry, invites the passerby
to pause and ask himself whether the great Greek
sculptors Polykleitos or Praxiteles had ever extracted
such images from marble. In another of the poems, the marble bust itself
speaks to the viewer, and Alison Luchs of the National
Gallery in Washington has explored these poems and is working on possible
identity of the sculptor. As you can see in this show, painted portraits of Florentine
women before the 1470s were always in profile,
and this has been analyzed in terms of social decorum
and the depiction of virtue that women were discouraged
from engaging the male gaze. I’m showing you on the left
the wonderful profile portrait by Baldovinetti in
the National Gallery in London. And on the right,
a trio of busts I photographed during the Desiderio exhibition
in Washington to show how similar
the profiles are if you take the busts
from the side. The profile was, of course,
associated with modalic commemoration, and this is abundantly
seen upstairs, and it also enabled a full
appreciation of the aesthetic of the sinuous line and throat
we find in assessment of potential brides
at this period. The gola is frequently
a subject of comment. But in the 1470s– I’m showing
you here, of course, the two great Pollaiuolo
profile portraits, which, the one on the right,
in Milan, is not, unfortunately, in this showing
of the exhibition. But in the 1470s,
encouraged by sculpture, by Netherlandish painting, and by a quest for
intimate interaction between sitter and viewer, female sitters begin to turn
towards us. And here, a trio of
extraordinary representations from the middle of the decade,
one of them a sculpture, challenge and transform
the seemingly settled norms of female portraiture. Botticelli’s early portrait, the
so-called “Smeralda Brandini,” has been lent to the show from
the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is an exceedingly
unusual image. I’ll call her Smeralda
for convenience sake, although the inscription which
identifies her as such is a piece of fake genealogy
from considerably later on. The lady is distinctively
posed and dressed. She wears a red underdress with the sleeves visible
at her wrists, and over it, a fine,
transparent overgarment with a gold-embroidered border. The fine stuff is delicately
gathered in and sewn to the gold-edged neckline. The sleeves are ample
and flowing. This seems to be a garment
known as aguarnello, similar to one worn 30 years later
by Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, as we can now see
much more clearly in the recently
cleaned Prado copy. You can see this
transparent overgarment, and in the Madrid version,
the red sleeves visible under the gauzy material. We can assume that
this is a dress worn only inside the house,
but it looks very rich, and this must surely be
a lady of high status. She looks at us from a window. She’s opened a wooden shutter,
visible on the right, and she stands between it
and the window opening, holding the frame
with her right hand. The perspective
of the room’s architecture is implausibly steep,
used to create strong compositional lines. For example… …this line here, which
echoes the line of her arm. On the left is another opening,
divided by a central column, but there’s little point
in trying to work out the room in detail. This is an architecture
constructed to box in the figure and to evoke
rather than to imitate a specific palazzo interior. It reminds us that
the 15th century woman’s place is in the home, but this woman
doesn’t appear confined or hemmed in. Indeed, she gazes
steadily out at us. How, then, are we to interpret
this lady’s stance and her calm, outward gaze, so different
from the virtuous profiles of most Florentine female
sitters up to this date? Some have seen this
domestically. Sitter and viewer are
constructed as friends. Patricia Rubin wrote
in her wonderful catalog written with Alison Wright,
“Florence in the 1470s,” “that the viewer,
an intimate visitor “to the household who is
received into a private “and well-ordered realm
by the dutiful manager of the household.” Stefan Weppelmann, in his entry
to this catalog, is tempted by the idea of a
memorial for a deceased woman, life-likeness here
making absence manifest, giving added poignancy to
the fiction of real presence. But I don’t think she’s dead. Contrast her with
Ghirlandaio’s celebrated image of the deceased
Giovanna degli Albizzi, seen in medallic profile
and frozen to the spot. Here, instead, the sitter
seems to be engaging with us. My question is whether
the intimate relationship set up between the subject
and the viewer implies a poetic reference. Fascinatingly, the painting
was owned in the 19th century by the English painter-poet,
the Italian-born Dante Gabriel Rossetti. As Mark Evans at the V&A
has pointed out to me, Rossetti himself, who translated
the Italian poets, was clearly reminded
by the picture of a passage in Dante’s “Vita Nuova” where,
filled with terrible sorrow after Beatrice’s death,
Dante sees a kind lady, a gentile donna, at a window,
looking at him with eyes full of compassion,
so that the very sum of pity seemed in her
to be gathered together. And this is quoted
on the label upstairs. The poet is tempted
to fall in love with her, but a vision of Beatrice makes
him repent of his new desire. Rossetti depicted his lover,
Janie Morris, as theDonna della Finestra
in a painting now at the Fogg. Her loose garment
and the loggia-like setting are clearly derived from
the Botticelli portrait. Botticelli became, of course,
in later life the illustrator of Dante’s”Divine Comedy.” And it would be very nice
to think that the reference to”La Vita Nuova”
was intended here. I’m not sure we can go this far,
but it does seem to me that this,
if somewhat embryonically, is a poetic portrait,
certainly very far removed from the familiar notion of the
Florentine lady as trophy bride. And it wouldn’t be far-fetched
to suppose that an educated Florentine viewer
might be reminded of Dante’s lines
when he looked at it. I say “somewhat embryonically”
because I feel that the painting, although brave
and in some ways revolutionary, is not a complete success. It seems not to have had
much influence, although Botticelli himself
used the architectural ideas in his commemorative portrait
of Giuliana de Medici, and, of course, the front gaze
does appear now very often in works by later artists. Botticelli himself arrives
at more successful strategies, especially for male portraits,
which we’ll look at in a minute. While to my mind,
one of his very finest female portrait images,
this wonderfully sober lady in the Palazzo Pitti, reverts
to the traditional profile, but with such a perfect sense
of placement and interval, looking forward, I always think,
to the great portraits of horses by the 18th century
English artist George Stubbs. (laughter) Just as innovative as Smeralda
and more successful as a work of art
is Verrocchio’s portrait bust of a lady with a posy of flowers
in the Bargello in Florence. When this was shown
in Washington alongside the bust in this exhibition
from the Frick, I’m afraid I was immediately convinced
that the Frick lady couldn’t be by Verrocchio. And I’m sorry if I’m
offending sensibilities here. The Frick bust is delightful. It has taken up
some of the alertness and liveliness
of Desiderio’s Marietta, but it completely
lacks the gravitas, the powerful poetry,
as well as the brilliance of the marble working
of the lady with the flowers. And yet, to my mind, they must
be of very much the same date, because of the hairstyle
of the bust in the Frick, so I didn’t think it can be of
the 1460s, as has been claimed. Of course, what’s so exciting
and novel here in Verrocchio’s bust
is the inclusion of the hands, itself an extraordinary
technical tour de force not to be repeated
in this period, using the hands to convey
a degree of expressivity which is almost denied
to the face itself, which remains
somewhat impassive. The bust has been beautifully
analyzed by Andrew Butterfield in his book on Verrocchio,
and I agree with him– this must be a portrayal
of the patron’s beloved lady. Alas, we have no idea who
that patron or that lady was, whether newlywed wife
or unattainable mistress. What we need to get right, first
of all, I think, is her dress. The first layer is
straightforward enough. She wears something
called acoverciere– this skimpy, completely
transparent little garment, almost like a scarf
fastened with a pin. One can see also clearly
at the back of the sculpture. It is often said that over that
she wears a guarnello, the kind of transparent
overgarment we’ve seen in Botticelli’s Smeralda, but
this is definitely not the case. Verrocchio’s lady is shown
in a very particular state of undress which enhances
her mysterious ambiguity. She’s wearing the fine
lawn shift, or chemise, which is the universal Italian
Renaissance undergarment. If you compare it
with Botticelli’s Smeralda, you can see
that Verrocchio’s shift is just about
as basic as it can be. No borders, just a simply
gathered neckline, and the sleeves made seamlessly
of the same piece of material. Here’s a surviving
late-16th century chemise. And above it,
a modern reconstruction. You can find examples
of these now, wonderfully, on the internet, because there
are millions of people constructing Renaissance
garments busily and posting their results
on the net. Verrocchio’s lady is naked
under her shift, and as Jeanette Kohl
has recently pointed out, her middle finger even seems
to point directly to her nipple. Clearly, this is not
the kind of outfit a respectable Florentine
would wear to stand at a window and be seen,
like Botticelli’s lady. The nosegay of flowers she holds
gently between her breasts is swathed in one end
of the white sa… is swathed in one end of the white sash
she wears around her waist. I believe the flowers
to be wild roses, which have particularly
sharp briars, so she’s protecting herself, as Eleanora Luciano
nicely suggested, from the thorns of the rose. And all of this, of course,
suggests the imagery of love. So what exactly is going on? If this were an image
from 16th century Venice, you might assume that you were
looking at a mistress or a courtesan,
but in 15th century Florence, such images are
completely unknown, and the lady’s stony gaze
forbids the interpretation. We can only conclude
that this is a tribute from a husband to his wife,
and that the imagery points to married love
and fecundity. I said that the combination
of sculpture and painting in Verrocchio’s workshop
was vital for the emergence of the poetics of portraiture. Alas, no painted portrait by
Verrocchio actually survives, but we know that he made one,
and its loss is especially tantalizing,
because it must’ve been central to our subject. In the famous list of works
Verrocchio executed for the Medici family
is itemized, “a wooden panel with the representation of
the head of Lucrezia Donati.” Now, Lucrezia was the youthful
Lorenzo de Medici’s inamorata, the wife, young wife,
of Niccolo Ardinghelli. And the picture was perhaps
made around 1469, the year of Lorenzo’s joust, of which Lucrezia
was the dedicatee. Thanks to a new document,
we now know that during the dispersal of the property in
1495 after the Medici expulsion, it was sold to Lucrezia’s son
for 23 florins, described as a figure or image
or picture of his mother. And I’ve rather obsessively
listed this evidence on the left, for want of
having the sculpture itself. There’s the deliberation
of the Medici trustees. The painting inspired
one of Lorenzo de Medici’s Petrarchan sonnets in which
he initially invokes the portrait as his constant
source of comfort and strength, until he realizes
that words addressed to a painted image are in vain. What a terrible loss
this painting is. We desperately want to know
how Verrocchio went about the depiction, in paint,
of a beautiful but inaccessible inamorata for the benefit
of her platonic lover. Only the Bargello bust
can give us any clue. It would be very nice
to think that the portrait was in three-quarter view rather
than a traditional profile, making its muteness
for Lorenzo still more poignant. As the painting was acquired
by Lucrezia’s son as a picture of her mother–
his mother, sorry– we may have seen that it was
a recognizable image of an actual person,
rather than a fancy portrait, such as Botticelli’s
two profiles in the show from Frankfurt and Berlin. These have been
romantically associated since the 19th century with
another married inamorata of a Medici, and dedicatee
of a joust, Simonetta Vespucci, who died suddenly in 1476. And I must emphasize that
there’s absolutely no evidence that these are idealized
portraits of Simonetta. To me, they don’t look as though
they’re even intending to be of the same person. And while we’re at it,
many of you must’ve been struck, as I was in the show,
by how much more brilliant the Berlin portrait on the right
is than the Frankfurt one on the left, even though that’s
such an interesting image, and so huge in comparison to
most 15th century portraits. And I think that the date
of these is much later than is said on their labels. Fascinatingly, though,
we know Simonetta was portrayed in her lifetime, but certainly
not in this idealized guise. We know from
an extraordinary letter written by her father-in-law,
Piero Vespucci, that the distraught
Giuliana de Medici, her platonic lover,
after her death, was actually given her clothes
as well as a portrait of her, showing that the relationship
between these platonic lovers and their in-laws
and their relations by… and the… with the in-laws
of their inamoratae was a completely accepted one,
and that there was no social discomfort
about such a relationship. The Botticelli profiles
certainly are poetic images, there’s no doubt about that,
but of a quite different sort, and I haven’t got time
to do them justice here. Instead, I want to focus
on the third of my revolutionary female portrait images
of the 1470s– Leonardo’s Ginevra de’ Benci
in Washington, painted at a time when Leonardo was still a member
of Verrocchio’s workshop. As we shall see, it’s an
intriguingly hybrid work, with important elements
derived from outside Florence. The identification
of this melancholy, moon-faced beauty as the
Ginevra de Amerigo de’ Benci, whom the young Leonardo is known
from his early biographers to have portrayed,
was established from style and iconography
at the beginning of the last century by the great
German art historian Wilhelm Von Bode. Her name, of course,
is reflected in the dark juniper thicket against which
she shines out. Jennifer Fletcher showed
brilliantly over 20 years ago that the reverse of the panel
incorporates the device of the laurel and palm personal
to the Venetian humanist and diplomat Bernardo Bembo,
found on the manuscripts here, and such as this one in
Cambridge, and the works of art, other works of art
he commissioned, like the tomb of Dante
in Ravenna. Since then, since Jennifer’s
article, further evidence has come to light
making the Bembo commission even more certain. Or the connection
even more certain. As has long been known, the
platonic but intense devotion avowed by Bembo to
the young and chaste wife of Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini
during his two embassies to Florence in 1475 to 1476
and in 1478 to 1480, was celebrated in another series
of Neo-Latin poems, like the one we saw earlier on
to Albieri degli Albizzi, written by Cristoforo Landino,
Alessandro Braccesi, and Naldo Naldi. The poems don’t specifically
name… mention the portrait, but one of them,
by Landino, talks of Ginevra in very similar terms
to the portrait’s inscription. And the way that the picture
is referred to in Leonardo’s biographies
suggests that it was discussed at the time in terms of the
rhetorics of verisimilitude. For example, one of the
manuscript biographies says “Leonardo, portrayed
in Florence from the life, Ginevra de Amerigo Benci,
which seems so… which was so well finished
that it seemed not a portrait, but rather the real Ginevra,
la properGinevra. Despite excellent studies
of the painting, a number of
central questions remain. Who commissioned the portrait? When was it painted? Why is the reverse apparently
painted in a different medium from the front? Why was the motto on the
reverse, as we shall see, changed? Given the Bembo connection,
why and how did the portrait remain in Florence
after he went back to Venice? A number of different proposals
have so far been put forward, some of them
very complicated indeed. But I shall put to you
a very simple story to cover the phenomena. Whether or not it is right, it
in no way exhausts the interest of this work in terms of
looking for meaning and, indeed, for beauty. Leonardo’s painting certainly
had an afterlife in Florence. There’s a portrait derived
from it by Lorenzo di Credi here at The Met and on view
in the show upstairs. Most confusingly, this has
an inscription on the back identifying it as
Ginevra de Amerigo de’ Benci. I’m very grateful
for this image of the back. The inscription is up there,
but this doesn’t convince me as being an early inscription. X-rays of the painting, which
you can see in the catalog, I think, show that the face and
clothing were initially closer to the Washington picture. Everett Fahy concluded
in his catalog entry that this does indeed
portray Ginevra de’ Benci at a date shortly after
the Washington portrait. But I really don’t think
this can be the case. The two sitters
don’t look at all alike, and although Lorenzo di Credi’s
sitter must be a woman called Ginevra, she’s surely
not the same person as the one
in Leonardo’s portrait. And the syle of the dress, and
perhaps especially of the jewel, to me indicate a later date. This rather elaborately framed
jewel hanging from her… around her neck looks
more like later jewels, like the ones
designed by Holbein in his book of designs
in The British Museum, than anything you find
in a 15th century portrait. Like this detail from the Ghirlandaio
Giovanna degli Albizzi. I suspect that
the inscription on the back may actually be
a fraudulent attempt to identify the work
with Leonardo’s painting as recorded in the sources
before the original was actually identified,
which, as we’ve seen, was not all that long ago–
only a hundred years ago. The Washington picture is
clearly cut down at the bottom, and the Credi portraits,
as well as Verrocchio’s bust of a woman holding flowers,
raises the question, which I think is still open,
of whether or not the Ginevra originally
included the sitter’s hands. It has been reconstructed
to show this by the National Gallery,
incorporating hands from Leonardo’s
wonderful drawing at Windsor, which we’ll look at
in just a second. But to my mind,
this gives a rather overtall and thin a result. Where’s it gone? Lost the back. It’ll come up in a minute. With a rather unlikely gap
at the bottom of the reverse. Yes, there were are– sorry. You can see that
to reconstruct it like this, there’s this funny gap
at the bottom, and the whole thing
looks as it ought to end more like this
than lower down. In any case, some scholars now
think that the Leonardo drawing should be dated much later,
to Leonardo’s Milanese period, and it’s quite possible
there may never have been hands in the Washington portrait,
and that the hands in Lorenzo di Credi derive
instead from the Verrocchio. But I’m not insisting
on this at all. It’s often been assumed
that Leonardo’s portrait is a betrothal
or a marriage portrait. But Ginevra, who was married
in 1474, isn’t shown as a bride in rich clothes and jewels, but
rather as a virtuous housewife, the most beautiful of matrons,
as Bembo later described her in a touching marginalium
to one of his manuscripts, wearing a demurely simple
brown dress laced with blue over a transparent veil-like
covercierefastened with a pin. It’s just like that garment that
we saw on the Verrocchio bust. Only one element of the dress
remains to be explained, and that’s the black stole
over her shoulders. Ginevra is shown in more than
three-quarter’s view, her pallor and her almond eyes
close to a portrait by Petrus Christus
which was probably in the Medici collection. Bembo himself surely possessed,
although he didn’t commission, a diptych by Memling,
later owned by his son Pietro, listed in his collection. I’ve put it together– it’s in
two different collections now. Indeed, Bembo
had himself portrayed… It’s been suggested that
Bembo had himself portrayed by Memling during his time
as a diplomat in Bruges in the early 1470s,
and that he might be the pensive young man
holding a coin of Nero, lent from the museum in Antwerp
to the show upstairs, where a sprig, possibly of bay
laurel, appears at the bottom, and a palm tree
in the middle distance– so the two elements
of Bembo’s emblem. This is a tempting idea,
not least because the mood of the Memling
seems so similar to Leonardo’s Ginevra, but the
sitter of the Antwerp portrait is surely younger than 40,
as Bembo would then have been, and it may be that he’s simply
a young Italian called Neri. Ginevra’s placement
within a landscape is certainly close to the format
of Memling’s portraits of male Italian sitters. But Leonardo has given movement
to her pose by placing her on the diagonal, and has avoided
the kind of high-toned, plein-air effect we know he
disliked from his own writings by screening her off
with the prickly juniper that stresses
her indomitable virtue. Though she seems
to turn her face slowly around towards us,
she scarcely engages our gaze. Her eyes are veiled,
giving off only the faintest
reflections of light. Leonardo’s command of technique
and foreshortening is still imperfect–
the oil paint has crinkled in the background,
and the right-hand side of Ginevra’s face
is alarmingly wide, her nose surprisingly straight. But nonetheless, this is
an extraordinary achievement for an artist in his 20s,
rightly described by David Alan Brown
as the most complex portrait thus far attempted in Florence. and I’m very grateful to David,
who’s in the audience this afternoon,
for his tolerance of my heterodox views
about the Ginevra. The landscape is by no means
a pastiche of Memling, as we saw, for example,
in the Lorenzo di Credi and in other Florentine
paintings of the period, but rather a quite new
and successful attempt at shimmering
atmospheric effects. The emblematic reverse
seems to be painted in tempera, not in oil, as would appear
from the minute hatched lines of the bottling, which you can
see on the side. And the National Gallery
at the moment are undertaking tests to see
whether it is indeed in tempera as it seems to be. On the reverse,
branches of laurel and palm encircle a juniper sprig
against a background of simulated porphyry. The scroll is inscribed
in beautiful humanistic capital letters
“Virtutem Forma Decorat” which we can
provisionally translate as “Form Adorns Virtue.” However, infrared reflectography
has shown that the reverse was painted in two stages. In the first, Ginevra’s sprig
was already encircled by Bembo’s branches
of laurel and palm and connected to them
by the inscribed scroll. But the motto on the scroll
was a different one, one can see most clearly
in this enhanced image, corresponding exactly
to Bembo’s own Virtus Et Honor. As a second amendment,
the mottos was changed to Virtutem Forma Decorat, expressing an entirely
different concept. According to
my simple storyline, Bembo would have commissioned
the portrait during his first embassy in
Florence in 1475 to 1476. He was very lucky
to obtain that rare thing– a finished portrait by Leonardo,
who must have been anxious to prove himself
as an independent artist while emerging
from Verrocchio’s studio. But we must remember
that Leonardo was also a friend of Ginevra’s brother,
Giovanni Benci, and this may be relevant
to the whole story. Perhaps Bembo
took the painting back to him, back to Venice with him,
when he left in 1476, and there commissioned
a gifted local painter to perfect its identity
as a personal and precious object. And here I’m venturing
on treacherous ground. The reverse was painted with
devices which… as we’ve seen, the reverse was painted
with devices referring to Ginevra’s name,
the juniper sprig, her and Bembo’s enduring
strengths of character, the porphyry background,
as well as his moral qualities and his ownership
of the picture, the motto, Virtus Et Honor. Allusion was also made
to his restraint as a lover. The virtuous and honorable Bembo
is seen to embrace chastely without touching
the impeccable beloved who is encircled, but left free
by his scrolling presence. The emblematic reverse
is yet another example of the influence of northern
painting on Bembo’s patronage. Netherlandish portraits
often have painted reverses with mottos, an interesting
early example being this one here
in the Courtauld Institute by a pupil of Campin,
with its branch of holly and its motto,
“I hate the thing that bites.” John Shearman was
the first to suggest that the exquisite reverse
of the Ginevra might have been painted
not by Leonardo but by Jacometto Veneziano, who later painted several
similar portrait reverses with humanistic references. For example, here
in the exhibition, the emblematic chained deer
with the Greek inscription for “always,” aei, against
a porphyry background. And perhaps closest
to the Ginevra: a portrait of a man in
The National Gallery in London with crossed laurel branches
and an inscription from Horace on the reverse. We know that
in the Bembo house in Padua, there were portraits by Epimeteo
of Bernardo’s sons, and the one of Carlo
as a tiny baby– he was born in 1472– must have come from earlier
in the decade than the Leonardo portrait. All this might suggest
a non-Florentine context to the reverse,
and certainly it’s in Venice that we find
this type developed. But I have to say
that David Brown is still convinced that
the reverse is by Leonardo, and he knows a great deal
more about Leonardo than I do. But it’s worth asking ourselves
whether it’s possible that either Jacometto
or perhaps a very gifted Paduan manuscript illuminator
might’ve been responsible for this reverse. Seems very odd
that it’s done in tempera, unless this is simply
a change of technique to mirror the change of subject. Instructed by
the Venetian government to undertake another embassy
to Florence in 1478, Bernardo could’ve decided
to take the portrait back with him
and give it to Ginevra. Such a transfer of ownership
would require a change of motto. The picture was no longer
to belong to Bembo, and it would be indecorous
for it to carry wording specific to
his personal identity. The new inscription,
Virtutem Forma Decorat, carries much richer connotations
than the old. It’s no longer
an assertion of ownership, but rather
a philosophical statement. It encourages the viewer
to meditate on the metaphysical and pictorial relationship
between outer and inner beauty and virtue. Decorat is usually translated
as “adorns” or “decorates,” but it can also carry
the more elevated notion of honors and distinguishes,
related to words like “decorum.” The inscription closely
matches the sentiments of Landino’s poems
about Bembo’s love for Ginevra, and an added enrichment
brought about by the reworking of the motto is the way
that the word Forma now encircles Ginevra’s
alter ego, the juniper sprig. It was a wonderful touch, this–
first three letters, and then the last two
encircling the juniper. Bembo’s presence in words
has now been effaced– he remains only vestigially
in the laurel and palm, which, in fact, are just as
appropriate to Ginevra herself. She, too, was a poet. It’s also interesting
to note that the second motto is painted in more
refined lettering than the slightly clumsy
capitals of the first inscription. Of course, it may be the case
that Bembo had this change of mind, this
decision to give the painting to Ginevra, which he must
surely have done at an earlier stage
than I’m suggesting. But the sequence and motivations
for change would be the same. In Leonardo’s Ginevra, it’s
the exceptional sensitivity and subtlety of the painting
as much as the inscriptions on the reverse that map this out
as a work intended to challenge the claims of poetry. As Elizabeth Cropper has
finely observed in this work, “The poet’s denial
of the validity “of painted appearances
is refuted through painting itself.” I’m sure she’s right. To situate the picture
in the context of the Petrarchan tradition, the punning deployment
of the juniper bush echoes Petrarch’s
constant equation of his Laura with the noble bay tree. This was accepted
poetic currency, both in the Florence
of Lorenzo de’ Medici, himself a Laura, of course,
and in Bembo’s Venice. Bernardo’s son Pietro was
to oversee the published edition of Petrarch’s sonnets. Thus, we can surely agree
that all Renaissance portraits of beautiful women,
including Ginevra, operate, as Elizabeth Cropper has said,
to a greater or lesser degree in a Petrarchan context,
and assume knowledge of it on the cultivated viewer’s part. I wanted to add in
a brief comment on a picture in Berlin which was shown
in the Berlin version of the portraits exhibition, but
isn’t present here at The Met. A young woman by the artist
we used to call The Master of Santo Spirito,
who is now identified as Agnolo di Domenico
di Donnino del Mazziere. My poor reproduction of it here
must be before cleaning. It turned out to be one of the
Berlin show’s surprising stars, and it’s a much more
refined image than it appears to be at first sight. For example, this rather
beautiful gilding in the hair. Clearly it’s inspired
by Leonardo’s Ginevra, even in the choice of costume. The subject looks
dead straight out at the viewer, but her gaze is frank
rather than provocative. What’s fascinating here,
apart from the quality, is that the panel is covered
front and back with inscriptions. It’s kind of over-determined
as a poetic image, leaving the observer no choice
but to engage with the text it displays. These are not just
the Noli Mi Tangere on the parapet, but quotes from
Petrarch’s “Triumph of Chastity” on the reverse, and from
a Florentine herald portrait, and also a proverbial comment: “It was as God wanted,
it shall be as He wants.” Is this a betrothal portrait,
or is this an image of a beloved matron? She is simply dressed,
but has a rich necklace. Whatever the case,
she’s indubitably Petrarchan. Noli Me Tangere is not just
a risque citation from Saint John’s gospel, but it
relates to Petrarch’s poem “Una Candida Cerva,”
which describes a stag wearing a collar inscribed,
“Let no one touch me.” There’s a further ambiguity,
perhaps an injunction not to touch
the painting itself. But, of course,
you have to touch it and pick it up
and turn it round in order to get the complete
series of messages it relates. Finally, it should be remembered
that Florentine poets at portraiture is not confined to
the depiction of female sitters, as we can see above all
in the work Filippino Lippi and Botticelli. And I should add in here
the very interesting Botticelli portrait upstairs
of the poet and Condottiere Marullo. It has to be said also, however,
that relationship with poetry doesn’t necessarily produce a
suggestively poetical result. This double-portrait
in the art museum in Denver must truly truly be,
as has been suggested by Jill Burke
and Patrizia Zambrano, the image of Filippino Lippi and
his patron, Piero Del Pugliese, about which we know
of several Neo-Latin poems, including two
by Alessandro Braccesi. The poems are
entirely conventional, not to say banal in content. Piero Pugliese is scarcely
so similar to himself, as the painted panel
is similar to Piero, from noblesse
expressed as marvelous art. So you would be able to say
that it was a work of Appelles, and at the same time,
he has painted himself in the same panel
so that he differs not at all from the painted image. I often find that Braccesi’s
tropes are rather banal. And it has to be said
that even the picture, with its odd composition
and awkward changes of scale is much less fascinating
as a work of art than it is as a social
and cultural phenomenon. And it’s not helped
by a very fuzzy slide here, which was all I could get. Nonetheless, it is not
just a painting calculated for poetic reception,
but an extraordinarily interesting testimony,
evidently, of friendship between the artist
and his patron. Much more evocative is the
beautiful if damaged portrait by Filippino Lippi in the
National Gallery in Dublin of a musician stringing
his lira da braccio and gazing back in a melancholy
fashion at the viewer. The portrait’s inscribed
at bottom left with a line of poetry: “e’le cominciar non fia per
tempo omai,” “Beginning now may not
be soon enough.” Jonathan Nelson was able
to identify this as a quotation
from the long poem “I’ vo pensando” which opens
the second part of Petrarch’s “Canzoniere.” It’s a very remarkable,
introspective piece in which the poet expresses
competing desires for spiritual immortality,
literary fame, and erotic fulfillment,
his love for Laura continually paralyzing his
resolve and pulling him back. Three inner voices
argue with him, the line here being from the first,
who urges him to erase the image of Laura
from his heart, and to spring into more worthy action,
for delay is dangerous, and beginning now
may not be soon enough. So although the Petrarchan line
has almost certainly been chosen for its punning
reference to musical time, or tempo, it signals too
that this picture is in some sense
the male equivalent of the female portraits
of ideally beautiful beloveds which evoke the image of Laura. Here instead a melancholy youth
listens to his Petrarchan inner voices, and seems
visibly tormented by conflicting desires. The inscription here
functions as a kind of emblematic prompt
to interpretation. But we may imagine
that discussion of the picture’s meaning
among friends, for example, might have been as open-ended
as Petrarch’s poem. We don’t know who the sitter is,
but we may be sure that the iconography
was worked out with Filippino’s active
collaboration. We know that he had
a copy of the “Canzoniere” along with vernacular works
of Dante and Boccaccio listed in his
postmortem inventory. Given the explicit
poetic reference in the Filippino portrait,
it’s hard not to feel that the images of young men
by Botticelli, which so directly
address the viewer, the one in the National Gallery
on the left, and especially
the outstanding example in the National Gallery
in Washington on the right, presuppose similar
expectations and responses. But here and in other cases,
for the moment we simply don’t have the clues necessary
to work out exactly what that poetic meaning
is intended to be. Other pertinent examples
I would suggest by Botticelli of the young man with
the medal of Cosimo de’ Medici in the Uffizi on the left. Is this a member
of the Medici family, or a goldsmith, or simply
a Medici loyalist? Whatever the case,
the use of an actual stucco cast of the posthumous
medal of Cosimo pressed to the sitter’s heart
creates intriguing contrasts between sculptural relief
and painting, a kind of paragone,
while giving the illusion that the actual medal, just
contained by the sitter’s hands, is much larger
than it is in reality. You can see upstairs
that you can easily pick it up in one hand. Even more fascinating
and perplexing is the portrait on the right
of a young man holding a roundel with the head of a saint
cut out from a trecento Siennese picture. Some people have claimed
that the 14th-century painting was inserted
at a much later date. But I don’t agree
that this needs to be the case. And it’s fascinating, I noticed this only when I
saw the picture every day when working in Washington,
that the medium of the portrait is in tempera with greenish
terre verte underpainting, a technique which is not
normally employed by Botticelli. And yet I feel convinced
that Botticelli did indeed paint the portrait. Seems to me that he may have
adopted it here in order to fit in with the material
facture of the inserted fragment whose history and meaning
remain to be deciphered. I began this lecture
with a homily about the danger of making assumptions
that 15th century portraits may be classified into
readily recognizable, functional types. You may feel by now
that I’ve fallen into this trap myself with my
overreliance on the word poetic to characterize such a number
and range of different examples. Certainly such richly
contingent images reward consideration
as individual works of art, each with its own
genesis and context. But such evidence as we have inscribed on the works
themselves and recorded in the literature
of their reception strongly suggests
that the cultural context of poetic imagery
was a central aspect of these portraits’
intended meaning. And in the very rare cases,
such as the Ginevra de’ Benci, where we can piece together
an almost complete array of different types of evidence,
the argument for the poetics of painting becomes compelling. Thank you very much. (applause) Well, I just want to thank
our two speakers for a truly exceptional
afternoon. And, of course, after hearing
two talks like this, makes me wish that
we were back again reorganizing the exhibition,
making different choices, emphasizing different things…

Stephen Childs

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