Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Metropolitan Museum

Desiderio da Settignano portrait bust
Described by the Met as “a landmark exhibition,” this comprehensive exploration of 15th-century Italian portraiture -- 160 artworks from some 60 institutions and private collections -- sounded like a sure winner.  And it is.  It's magnificent, often in unexpected ways.  It opens tomorrow.

Filippo Strozzi by Benedetto da Maiano
The Met and Berlin’s Bode Museum, the co-organizers, have used their combined heft to obtain substantial loans, from Donatello’s reliquary of St. Rossore, which, putting contemporary features on a long-dead saint, laid the groundwork for the Renaissance portrait bust, to one of the most famous 15th-century portraits, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait of an old man and a boy.

Attr. to Uccello
A rarity for the museum-goer these days, there’s a lot to take in.  It’s hard to believe anything could be more splendid than the array in the first gallery of three paintings of men in profile -- one by the revolutionary Massaccio (the only portrait solidly attributed to him), one attributed to Paolo Uccello, and one attributed to Domenico Veneziano -- until you enter the second gallery, with its lively marble portrait of a young woman by Desiderio da Settignano, and then walk on to encounter Verrocchio’s terracotta of the haughty Florentine bigwig Giuliano de’ Medici, a fierce, screaming face on his armor.

The curators have organized the show by both geography and subject – Florentine women and men shown separately, the powerful Medici family, court portraits, Venice.

The organization is brilliant. For painting it reveals -- in the century when Italy was discovering the autonomous portrait and exploring what creates identity – how limited and persistent portrait types were, and how difficult it was for artist or patron to conceive a change, let alone a transformation.

Mantegna, Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan
We see idealized portraits commemorating marriage, where all women are young and beautiful, and others commemorating the dead; and aggrandizing portraits of the already powerful -- even a cardinal is depicted as a Roman emperor, in a great painting by Andrea Mantegna.  With few exceptions, it’s image projection at the expense of personality.

A new twist that worked might be seized upon. In mid-century, for example, Andrea Castagno hit upon what became a new formula – a man with a defiant expression who looks at the viewer, his face in three-quarters, dressed in red, and grasping his cloak. All around the Castagno are other paintings that in some way mimic it – the defiant expression, the three-quarter view, a red garment, a grasping hand.

Mino da Fiesole, bust of Niccolo di Strozzi, with Castagno painting
Sculpture, too, has its types and image projection – men with ennobled shoulders, for one – but displaying sculpture and painting together reveals the latter as almost invariably more animated (hard stone is no obstacle) and artistically leading the way. The contrast between the sculpture that seems to breathe and the paintings that seem stylized is vivid nearly everywhere you look.

Antonello da Messina
Judging from this show, it was mainly in Venice, which came to portraiture late, where personality was explored in painting.  A beautiful example is the portrait of a young man by Antonello da Messina, a tiny 8-by-6 inches that makes a huge impression.

Some other highpoints in this exhibition filled with them:  the jowly marble sculpture of  Niccolo di Strozzi by Mino da Fiesole; the excellent terracotta portrait of Filippo Strozzi, wonderfully introspective, placed next to the more formal marble bust of him, both by Benedetto da Maiano; and a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.

And for those interested in portrait medals, there are a mess of them by court artist Pisanello, a famous artist in his time who should perhaps be on more people's lips today.

Donatello reliquary bust

Cast of death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici
Verrocchio, armor detail

"The Renaissance Portrait," Metropolitan Museum, 5th Ave. and 82nd St., through March 18, 2012

Benedetto da Maiano and Antonello photos from Bode Museum website.  Other photos and text Copyright 2011 Laura Gilbert.