February 2012


The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini
Metropolitan Museum of Art
December 21, 2011--March 18, 2012

Picturing the Individual


Listed below are but a few of the most engaging works in this outstanding exhibition. We urge you to view the images to form your own impression before reading any reviews, including ours below, or visiting the Met's website. Works cited in our review are marked *. Images marked + can be enlarged, as can details in some cases. Adjust the position of the image by using sliding bars at the bottom or right; to enlarge, click on the image or a detail. (For visitors to the exhibition [see below], the gallery number for each work is indicated in brackets after the title.) Enjoy!

* Donatello, Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore + [1]

* Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Portrait of a Lady + [2]

* Piero del Pollaiuolo (Piero di Jacopo Benci), Portrait of a Woman + [2]

Botticelli, Ideal Portrait of a Lady ("Simonetta Vespucci") + [2]

Botticelli, Ideal Portrait of a Lady + [2]

* Andrea del Verrocchio, Bust of a Young Woman [2]

* Desiderio da Settignano, Bust of a Young Woman (Marietta di Lorenzo Strozzi?) [2]

Workshop of Antonio Rossellino, Cosimo de' Medici [3]

Benedetto da Maiano, Filippo Strozzi (terracotta) [more] (In the gallery, this version and the next are displayed alongside each other--which do you prefer?) [4]

Benedetto da Maiano, Filippo Strozzi (marble) [4]

* Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy + [more] [4]

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Sassetti (1421-1490) and His Son Teodoro [more] [4]

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Young Man [more] (Though the subject of this painting was probably a Florentine, Memling was a pre-eminent Netherlandish painter.) [4]

Leone Battista Alberti, Self-portrait (Click on the "information" link for interesting background on Alberti and this bronze. At the exhibition, this small bronze relief is on the left wall.) [5]

Pisanello (Antonio Pisano), Borso d'Este (contrast with this profile painting of Borso by another artist and this bronze medal, by yet another, from the Met's collection) [5]

[Attributed to] Savelli Sperandio of Mantua, Eleonora of Aragon [5]

* Pietro di Spagna, Federigo da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo [6]

[Attributed to] Gian Cristoforo Romano, Bust of a Young Boy About Four Years Old [6]

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man [more +] [8]

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Young Man [more] [8]

Visiting the Exhibition

Suggestion: Take a quick tour through all the galleries for an overview of the exhibition, then head back to the beginning for closer viewing. The introductory wall texts for each gallery are worth reading, but skip the audio guides, and look at the works before reading the labels!

The galleries are titled as follows:

1 - Origins: 1425-40
2 - The Female Portrait in Florence -
3 - The Medici [more]
4 - The Male Portrait in Florence: 1450-1500
5 - The Court Portrait: 1430-70
6 - The Court Portrait: 1470-1506 [includes several sculpture busts of children]
7 - Northern Italian Portrait Drawings
8 - Venice and the Veneto


Delving into a fertile period in the early development of the art of portraiture in Italy, this outstanding exhibition includes many of that golden era's landmark works. Ironically, however, the arresting work that is the centerpiece of the exhibition's first gallery--Donatello's gilded-bronze Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore [more] (c. 1425)--is not, strictly speaking, a portrait at all, certainly not one of that third-century saint. It is, instead, a likeness of an unknown contemporary of the sculptor's--evidently modeled from life, and imbued with great dignity. Yet it paved the way for countless portrait busts to follow, and inspired painters as well.

In a totally different vein, but no less marvelous, is Domenico Ghirlandaio's painting Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy, surely one of the tenderest of all depictions of the bond between generations. Though the identity of the figures is unknown, an extant deathbed drawing [more] by the artist of the old man (who suffered from a condition known as rhinophyma) strongly suggests that the painting was a posthumous memorial to him. The child, who seems touchingly oblivious of the old man's deformity, may have been a grandson, or he may have been envisioned by Ghirlandaio as a means of revealing the man's character. In either case, the man's gentle expression as he gazes down and seems to embrace the wistful-looking boy offers the viewer a sense of his innermost thoughts and feelings. (For more on this aspect of portraiture, see the portraits listed in Louis Torres, "Thomas Eakins: Painting Pure Thought" [Aristos, 2003] and the discussion of The Writing Master (Portrait of Benjamin Eakins) in the article itself--as well as the two final sections, "The Late Portraits" and "If I Had to Choose. . . .")

Not surprisingly, female portraits tended to be more idealized than those of men. But they often displayed captivating touches of individuality, such as the faintly amused hauteur of Verrocchio's Bust of a Young Woman or the pert expressiveness of Desiderio da Settignano's closely contemporary Bust of a Young Woman (Marietta di Lorenzo Strozzi?). Among the female painted portraits, a sure highlight of the exhibition is Antonio del Pollaiuolo's exquisite Portrait of a Lady--a clear-eyed, ivory-skinned beauty gorgeously attired and set in profile against an azure sky. A similar work, albeit in less vibrant hues, is Portrait of a Woman by Antonio's brother, Piero.

Finally, one of the most remarkable works in the show is the nearly lifesize full-length portrait of Federigo da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo (ca. 1476-77), attributed to an artist known as Pietro di Spagna. Here Federigo, sovereign of one of the greatest of all Renaissance courts, not surprisingly chose to have himself depicted in the full regalia of his multiple guises as soldier, bibliophile, Knight of the Golden Fleece, enlightened ruler, and father. Yet he elected to be painted by an artist schooled in the Flemish realist tradition, rather than in the more idealizing vein of Italian masters such as Piero della Francesca. In contrast with Piero's noble double portrait of the Federigo and his wife--which subtly transformed the ruler's craggy features--Pietro represented them in all their homely candor. (For more about Federigo and Piero's great double portrait, which is not in the present exhibition, see "Piero della Francesca's Uffizi Diptych" by Michelle Kamhi [Aristos, 2007].)

We have omitted much in our brief coverage of The Renaissance Portrait, not least discussion of the many medals on view, whose cultural currency was inestimable. Among them is this one of a resolute Federigo [click on "full screen"]. Visit the exhibition if you can. If you can't, we trust that the information, images, and commentary offered here serve as a welcome substitute. Sadly, we must report that the Met's website provides little of substance on that score--not good news for readers who cannot see the exhibition in person, or for those who want to relive the experience or learn more.

-- The Editors

For further reading and viewing:

"Renaissance Portraits on Museum Monday" by Mary Jo Gibson, This Write Life, January 9, 2012. Informed and appreciative commentary.

"At the Met: The Power of Portraits," by Altoon Sultan, Studio and Garden, February 13, 2012. Personal responses to some of the works in the exhibition by a painter whose own subject matter and style differ markedly from those of the Renaissance masters he clearly loves.

Renaissance Faces Document a Society's Values by Betsy Kim, The Epoch Times, February 16, 2011. Excellent review by a former lawyer and TV reporter.