Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Quick Visit to the Renaissance

Elizabeth Zelvin

If you’re within range of Manhattan, and if you hurry, you might make it to the exhibition of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The huge show closes this weekend, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it.
The Met is a ten or fifteen minute jog across the park for me, though I don’t get there as often as I would like. I particularly like portraits, which feed the fascination with people, the curiosity about what they’re really like inside, that led me to my two careers of writer and therapist.

Getting your portrait painted was serious business back in the quattrocento, much like Victorian portrait photography, though more expensive, I imagine. No spontaneous poses, no “Say formaggio!” In the early portraits, both men and women were invariably shown in profile (“Do you think they were familiar with Egyptian art?” my companion asked), unflattering as that view was to some of the sitters’ aquiline or otherwise generous noses.
Instead of wedding photos, couples of means had their portraits painted together to commemorate a marriage. I can imagine all sorts of stories about them, especially the gentleman in red and what must have been his much younger wife.

If you think 21st century hairstyles are weird, look at what the Florentine gentlemen were doing with their hair.
The blurbs at the museum said this fetching style was called a zazzera. The glossary of the website defines zazzera as “a tuft or lock of hair on a man's head, especially in front.” In this case, I think a couple of pictures are worth a lot more than thirteen words of definition. The glossary makes up for its understatement by informing us that “a man with such a notable tuft or front lock” was called a zazzeruto. Notable, yes, that’s more like it. And “a very vain person, especially of his hair,” was called a zazzeatore.
The older gentleman’s more conservative haircut makes him look, to my eyes, Roman—or almost modern.

Portraits have survived of some of the celebrities of the day.
Here’s Giuliano de’ Medici, one of the family of merchant bankers who ruled Florence for three generations, painted by Botticelli. Considered a playboy compared to his brother Lorenzo, civic leader and patron of the arts, Giuliano was assassinated in the Cathedral (the Duomo) at the age of 25.
And here is Simonetta Vespucci, considered the most beautiful woman of her day and believed to be the model for Botticelli’s Venus on the Half Shell (no, that’s not what they really called it). Or perhaps it’s Simonetta, but not what she really looked like—the Met’s curators hedge their bets.

One of the most remarkable paintings in the exhibit was this one of an old man and his grandson, almost modern in the way it conveys their affection.
While the expression “warts and all” would not be applied to portraiture for another three hundred years or so (it’s attributed to Oliver Cromwell in the seventeenth century), they’re such a prominent feature that if the artist had left them out, the painting would not have resembled the old man at all. The Met’s blurb kindly explained that he suffered from the disease of rhinophyma.

Wonderful as the paintings are, the portrait that fascinated me most, in a creepy kind of way, was a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, he was the most brilliant and celebrated member of a family that had it all: wealth, power, patronage of the arts. To whom can we compare them? The Kennedys? The Rockefellers? No, there’s no comparison, because the Medici weren’t hampered by electoral politics or income tax or the media. So here’s a man whose name and achievements are still remembered five hundred years after his death, and this is not a painting. It’s Lorenzo himself. It’s what the guy really looked like, stubble on chin and all.

Not only did I find this intimate glimpse of Lorenzo mesmerizing, but it also raised a lot of questions. Have we killed celebrity by glutting the market? Has the flood of new information and constantly emerging personalities made it a lot less likely for people’s reputations to live on? Would you want the world to be interested in what you look like five hundred years after you die? Would you want them to see you dead? How long a shelf life do you think today’s photographs will have? How about the planet?

Some more faces of the Renaissance:


Anita Page said...

I wish we could make the show this weekend. Thanks for the tour, Liz.
I love the Simonetta Vespucci. I can see her resemblance to the Venus.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love the art from that era. The women's clothing is so gorgeous. Of course, I realize only the privileged classes could dress that way, but they're also the only ones who could afford to, or would have any reason to, have their portraits painted.

lil Gluckstern said...

Beautiful post. Like a visit to the Museum!

Sandra Parshall said...

The National Gallery of Art in DC has a beautiful collection of art from that era. The National Museum of Women in the Arts has a special exhibit right now of work by female artists. Anyone coming to Malice might want to make time to go into the city and see it. (Metro -- subway -- is easily accessible.) Here's the description from the museum's website: Royalists to Romantics: Women Artists from the Louvre, Versailles, and Other French National Collections
February 24, 2012–July 29, 2012
Featuring 77 paintings, prints, and sculptures from 1750 to 1850—a tumultuous revolutionary era—Royalists to Romantics celebrates these rare works, many of which have never been seen outside of France.

Chris Verstraete said...

Wish I could see this in person. Love this art and your post was fascinating. Thanks for the glimpse.

Jeri Westerson said...

Well, you've hit two of my all time favorite things: Museums and portraits. As an artist, I always examine paintings as closely as I can to see how the artist applied the brush strokes before I stand back and take it in. (I've made plenty a guard edgy.) We have quite a few museums here in Los Angeles with Renaissance and medieval art.