Art of portrait-3
Problems of Portrait Interpretation
Most art historians continued to see the portrait in the light of Hegel’s views until well into the twentieth century. The Expressionist aesthetic continued in this vein, giving metaphysical presence to the «essential being» of the subject portrayed. It was thought that this quality could be ascertained directly from physiognomic expression.
Antonello da Messina. Smiling man. C. 1470. Cefalu
Philosophical and scientific interest in psychological questions increased, especially in Italy, during the second half of the quattrocento.18 It had become a matter of compelling urgency to gain a clearer picture of the «pathological» significance of certain mimic or gestural manners of expression, since emergent capitalist trade relations demanded the ability to «read» the intentions of business partners and to seek protection against fraud. A similar situation had arisen in the political sphere, where exposure to the new economic conditions made it essential to establish some means of orientation in a world of increasingly unstable and opaque interrelations. It was therefore not surprising that many of the early physiognomic handbooks were composed specifically for merchants and statesmen.
Giovanni Battista Moroni — Portrait of Don Gabriel de la Cueva. 1560
Writers such as Michele Savonarola, the grandfather of the famous Dominican preacher, or the scholar Pomponio Gaurico committed themselves to the interpretation of bodily expressions. They analysed the expressive force of different parts of the face, the eyes for example, which even today’s characterological studies regard as the «mirror of the soul». In so doing, they would frequently allow themselves to be guided by the notion of the humours found in earlier, medical theories of the temperaments. Studies undertaken by Leonardo da Vinci, too, attached separate meanings to different parts of the body. The various grotesque figures which resulted from his work on the classification of anatomical and physiognomic aspects of the human face have rightly been seen as precursors of the modern caricature (Leonardo da Vinci Grotesque Heads).
Titian. Ranuccio Farnese. 1542
Ranuccio (1530-1565) was the son of Pierluigi Farnese (1503-1547), whose own father, Pope Paul III (his real name was Alessandro Farnese), had made him Duke of Piacenza and Parma. Ranuccio was in Venice in 1542, and it is thought that Titian painted the young nobleman’s portrait during that year. The cross decorating his robe identifies him as a Knight of Malta.
However, most physiognomic tracts were highly schematic in approach. Often, as with Giovanni Battista della Porta, they drew psychological parallels from what appeared to be physical resemblances between animals and human beings, much in the tradition of the medieval «bestiarium humanum». Such sources are unlikely to help us understand the Renaissance or Baroque portrait, unless, of course, we assume the artists also sought advice from them, or translated them into their own visual medium. From a cultural and historical point of view it may be quite correct to see portraiture and physiognomy as deriving from related needs and interests. However, the mechanistic application to contemporary portrait-painting of classifications found in such compendia can easily lead to misinterpretation. Indeed, it is doubtful whether today’s spectator can interpret the sitter’s gestures correctly at all. Would it be correct, for example, to attribute a «fixed» gaze to Antonello da Messina’s so-called Condottiere (Antonello da Messina «Il Condottiere»)? According to Pomponio Gaurico, this was a sign of insanity — a reading which the portrait as a whole hardly serves to corroborate. His gaze and protruding lower lip have led various critics to attribute to the sitter a firm strength of will, indeed almost ruthless defiance. Thus he has come to be seen as cold-blooded and inhuman, a power-hungry usurper and commander of mercenaries.
The most well-known object of psycho-diagnostic projection, however, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa), whose smile has attracted almost every interpretation imaginable. It is prudent to be wary of the diagnostic interpretion of expression. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg penned a well-known warning against the dangers of pseudo-scientific attempts to discern the personality on the basis of arbitrary physiognomic characteristics.
Giovanni Battista della Porta. Physiognomic comparison between a human and an animal. From: De humana physiogno-mta. Vico Equcnse 1586
It remains open to debate whether the psychological aspect of portrait-painting — though undeniably intended by artists and patrons — really was quite as important as art critics, influenced by a later aesthetics of empathy, continued to propagate. Instead of attempting — in an entirely unhistorical manner — to determine the personality of the sitter through diagnoses that can be affirmed or rejected according to each spectator’s perception of the painting, a process amounting to little more than a Rorschach test, it would surely be more productive to examine the relationship between psychological aspects and the social function of portraits (or their genres).
Sitter and Setting
It is important to remember that portraits are always the products of composition. They are the result of an agreement between the artist and the sitter, between an aesthetic conditioned by the relatively autonomous precepts or traditions of the genre and the patron’s individual requirements. Although relations between the artist and his patron might have been strained to the breaking point, they generally provided a framework in the form of a contractually underpinned consensus within which the patron — at least during the period we are considering here — was able to formulate his own wishes and thus go some way towards determining how his «imago» would be perceived. However conscious the use of psychology in a portrait might therefore be, to view its subject solely in characterological terms would be to expect the naive spontaneity of a fleeting, everyday scene from what is essentially an aesthetic construct.
Melozzo da Forli. Pope Sixtus IV appoints Platina as Prefect of the Vatican Library. 1475
Melozzo shows Pope Sixtus IV (1414-1484) in a quadratura hall of pillars, painted according to the rules of centralized perspective. The pope is shown in the company of his nepotes Giovannino and Giuliano della Rovere (who later became Pope Julius II), and two other courtiers (Girolamo and Rafaele Riario). Before him kneels Bartolommeo Sacchi, known as Platina, whom the pope is shown appointing to the position of Prefect of the Vatican Library.
The intended effect of a portrait was often revealed in its setting, which generally consisted of a spatial environment by means of which the sitter sought to define his role in society and to tell the spectator something about his interests, intentions and values. Backgrounds, whether landscapes or interiors, were compositional devices consisting of several different elements which would sometimes combine to form an integrated, atmospheric whole. These elements converted ideas into objects, into symbols representing types of social practice.
Settings, however, were not merely symbolic ensembles, but referred the spectator to two main fields of worldly activity which were increasingly thought to be diametrically opposed. Landscape backgrounds thus often referred to the public sphere, much as the very notion of different landscapes (Ital. paesaggio, Fr. paysage) was for a long time associated with the division of land into jurisdictional and administrative territories, each representing a socio-political, cultural unity. This is well illustrated by the landscape backgrounds in Piero della Francesca’s Montefeltro-diptych (Piero della Francesca Federigo da Montefeltro and his Wife Battista Sforza), which show us the territory ruled over by the sitters, the Duke of Urbino and his wife.
David Teniers the Younger. Archduke Leopold Wilhelm’s Gallery at Brussels. 1651
The background of Luca Signorelli’s so-called Lawyer (Luca Signorelli Middle-Aged Man) -showing a detail of an urban landscape, presumably intended as ancient Rome — consists of various ancient monuments and ruins, perhaps suggesting that the sitter was interested in archaeology. Beyond documenting what may possibly have been a contribution to the preservation of monuments — for he lived during, or shortly after, the era in which ancient Rome was restored under Pope Sixtus IV — the background may be a reference to the man’s interests and humanist erudition, expressed by two scenes, probably taken from ancient history or mythology, painted at either side of his head.
Background scenes often assumed the character of a so-called «impresa». This was a motto expressing a resolution or lifelong pledge. It might also be described as a personal emblem or badge (see Giovanni Battista Moroni Don Gabriel de la Cueva). The «impresa» first emerged as a medieval heraldic device at the Burgundian court, but its underlying principle was soon taken up by the ascendant bourgeoisie. It was not unusual for a sitter to use the device for purposes of identification with some figure in ancient history or mythology.
By the late fifteeenth century, the «impresa» had often become obscure and mysterious, sometimes presenting an insoluble riddle. Ideas inspired by the cabbala or by alchemy joined «hieroglyphic» symbols and pictorial cryptograms said to be based on the Alexandrian scholar Horapollo’s (4th century A.D. ?) reading of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The «hieroglyphica» were sometimes invented by the artists themselves, however.
Hans Holbein d. J. — Portrait of Nikolaus Kratzer. 1528.
Besides the landscape, the interior (bare or furnished) was a second type of background by means of which the sitter might give symbolic expression to his norms and values. This may be seen in portraits by Hans Holbein the Younger (see Hans Holbein the Younger Georg Gisze, Erasmus of Rotterdam). The portraits of the merchant Gisze or humanist scholar Erasmus demonstrated a desire for privacy, a wish to withdraw from the public sphere. The sitters are nevertheless shown engaging in types of activity whose effect carried well beyond the private realm. Their desire to perfect their knowledge of the world is illustrated by the objects which surround them, instruments of technological progress and symbols of «modern» civilisation such as the telescope, the planisphere or the globe. Books symbolised the spread of knowledge and assumed a central position in portraits of Erasmus. Many symbols have nothing to do with knowledge, however, referring instead to the sitter’s moral or ethical beliefs, or adhesion to certain notions of virtue. The latter played a particularly important role in early modern portraits of women. These portraits almost always showed married women, brides or fiancees, and occasionally courtesans. The objects surrounding them were allusions to certain qualities attributed to women, or expected of them by society. The settings of these portraits were therefore almost exclusively concerned with the social and artistic definition of the female gender role.
Giovanni Battista Moroni. Taylor. C. 1570