It’s hard to over praise this landmark exhibition. It’s so filled with ravishingly beautiful portraits – paintings, drawings, sculpture, manuscript illumination and medallions – by the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, that upon completing my first visit, I couldn’t wait to return.
You don’t need to be a scholar to appreciate this exhibition, packed with more than 160 works by such artists as Donatello, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Pisanello, Mantegna, Messina and Bellini. But the more one understands the context, meaning and pioneering nature of these great works, the richer the experience.
15th Century Italy, according to cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt, was “the place where the notion of the individual was born.” It’s not surprising, then, that early Renaissance Italy was a key contributor to the first great age of portraiture in Europe. As we move through the exhibition, which spans eight decades, we see how portraits evolved from stiff profiles of commemoration to three-quarter and full-frontal portraits of people who gaze and gesture at us. At the same time, we observe the increasing complexity and subtlety of detail in commemorative medallions and busts.
Florence is where we begin, where a handful of female beauties reign. Botticelli’s portrait of the cult figure, Simonetta Vespucci, is not only ravishing but, to my eyes, amazingly contemporary. Those blond tresses and braids look like fancy weaves created for a Vogue model, and the face possesses a distinct, almost modern personality. The other two portraits also depict highly individualized profiles and clothes of extravagant detail, richness and beauty. Just these paintings alone are worth the trip. But Much more awaits us.
Fra Lippi’s portrait of a Woman and a Man – almost within kissing distance – probably created to commemorate a betrothal, is delicious for its dual portrait as well as its glimpse of intimacy within a formal Renaissance setting. Such a portrait is distinctly different from the sober Botticelli rendering of a Medici with downcast eyes, open door behind him and a bird, lower left, that suggests this painting commemorates a Medici who died. Yet it radiates the power of the family that controlled Florence with an iron fist and was a great patron of artists and the arts. The charcoal drawing of a sorrowful man, by Signorelli, is as lifelike as any contemporary portrait, but may be a likeness of Dante.
And who can resist the informal gesture and direct gaze of the handsome young man in a red jacket, by Ghirlandaio? There is a touch of pride, almost insolence in his expression. Is this not a psychologically astute and penetrating portrait? And isn’t the Old Man and Boy depiction by the same painter, both touching and shockingly fresh in its warts-and-all frankness?
This monumental exhibition is the result of a collaboration and partnership between the Staatliche Museen zu Berling, Gemaldegalerie and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Keith Richardson, John-Pope Hennessy Chairman of European Paintings at the Met and Stefan Weppelmann, Curator of early Italian and Spanish painting at the Gemaldegalerie, were both on hand for the press preview. Richardson’s passion for the works in this exhibition, especially the exquisite sculptural details to be found, was infectious. Don’t miss the back of Beatrice d’Este’s bust. The artistry is truly breathtaking.
The exhibition moves dramatically from commemoration to the exploration and celebration of personality. Whether to be found on a Romano medallion of Isabella de’Este or Veneziano’s Portrait of a Man with his distinctive Zazzera hairstyle, these memorable portraits capture the character of individuals and the times in which they lived.
At the Bode Museum in Berlin, where this exhibition first appeared (though with fewer pieces), there were lines around the block to view it. I expect the same enthusiastic response here. Run, don’t walk, to see it.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Metropolitan Museum of Art
December 21, 2011 to March 18, 2012