art of portrait-4
The Functions of Portraits
Ancient Roman statue of Marcus Aurelius
Portraits painted between the fifteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century must be seen in connection with the advent and development of empiricism, a tendency which had been making itself felt in the arts since the late Middle Ages. Their execution therefore seems guided by an underlying rationalistic impulse, an impression reinforced by demands that they should be true to life and their subjects verifiable — criteria, in other words, derived from the practicalities of «rational» Roman Law. Paradoxically, however, portraits from this era still exhibit many magical or fetishistic characteristics. These were expressed in the «substitutive» or «vicarious» properties of the portrait, qualities which had been attributed to the likeness since the dawn of civilisation.
It had long been customary — and indeed remained so until well into the Age of Enlightenment — for likenesses of criminals who continued to elude the authorities’ grasp to be «executed» in place of their real persons («executio in effigie»). The law stipulated in such cases that the painting should be an accurate representation of the delinquent, and that the chastisement be applied symbolically to the picture as if to the parts of a real body. A similar phenomenon, based on ideas of sympathetic magic such as those sometimes witnessed in shamanism, was the scratching out of a portrait’s eyes. The practice is found to this day, as evidenced by hoardings, often of a political nature, with figures whose eyes have been erased. At the time, however, the vicarious disfigurement of an enemy’s or opponent’s features was still widespread. Atavistic behaviour of this kind included the public display of likenesses of outlawed persons in order to proclaim their disgrace. These portraits usually caricatured their subjects and were designed to provoke the spectator’s scorn and derision.
The examples cited above are almost all related to matters of jurisdiction or politics. Their attitude towards the person portrayed is dismissive, or negative, driven by the desire to punish or enact revenge. However, the talismanic or fetishistic quality of a portrait could equally express a positive attitude towards its subject.
An early eighteenth-century description of diplomatic protocol informs us that «the likeness of the Sovereign… is usually displayed in the form of a raised half-length portrait between the baldachin and chair of state in the audience chambers of his envoys. The painting represents the person as if he were actually there, for which reason those seated may not turn their backs towards him, nor may any person, ambassadors ex-cepted, leave his head covered when entering a room in which the likeness of a ruling potentate hangs» (1733).
This passage shows that one of the «vicarious» properties of the portrait was its «representative» function (which it has to this day). The purpose of most likenesses was the more or less frank demonstration of power, hegemony or prestige. This was of course equally true of the «executio in effigie», only here the purpose was to destroy the power held by the adversary.
Jacopo Pontormo. Lady in a Red Dress. 1532-1533
This elegant lady, sitting with dignified, upright posture before a conche-like recess and absent-mindedly gazing towards the spectator, wears a vermilion dress whose large, bright, evenly-lit surface contrasts with the olive-green sheen of her sleeves. Her lap-dog symbolises conjugal fidelity. Her rosary signifies piousness.
Portraits of ruling princes were particularly candid demonstrations of the will to power. Among these, however, the equestrian portrait has a special place. Following the example of the equestrian sculpture of Marc Aurel (161-180 A.D.), the equestrian portrait was generally intended to awe the spectator into submission. Its use during the Renaissance and Baroque was not confined to demonstrations of pathos by feudal princes who wished to reinforce their claim to power. It is indicative of the resourcefulness of the ascendant bourgeoisie that parvenu-usurpers such as the mercenary commanders of the day — the condottieri — were capable of appropriating this means of displaying their power. However, since the power of their pockets was not always sufficient to afford a sculpture in stone or marble, some condottieri had to make do posthumously with the illusionistic — but nonetheless imposing — impression created by a commemorative fresco (Andrea del Castagno Monument of Niccolo da Tolentino).
Counterfeits of humanist scholars, however subtle or discrete, were also displays of power and social prestige. Competing for status with the rich merchant class and nobility, they demonstrated with proud restraint the superiority of their erudition, spiritual values and ethical independence.
In general, therefore, it may be said that all portraits were intended to impress. They sought to command respect for the authority of the sitter, however extended or limited the scope of his influence might be.
Roman patrician carrying busts of his ancestors. c. 30 BC
«Commemoration» was a particularly important function of portraiture. Durer’s well-known dictum on the ability of paintings to preserve the likeness of men after their deaths was an expression of faith in the magical victory of art over time, as if painting could overcome death. It is significant in this respect that the portrait itself is descended from the tomb effigy, or at least was originally associated with this art form. Examples of likenesses of deceased persons — usually members of the high clergy — in the form of reliefs or sculptures on altar tombs date from as early as the high or late Middle Ages: the tombstone of Archbishop Friedrich of Wettin (c. 1152) at Magdeburg cathedral, for example, or that of Siegfried III of Eppenstein (Mainz cathedral), shown crowning two reduced-scale kings.
Links between the portrait and the cult of the dead may be traced back to antique art. In Roman times wax masks were taken of the dead and kept in a shrine in the atrium of patrician villas. «These likenesses were taken for commemorative purposes and were not considered works of art. Owing to the ephemerality of wax, they probably did not keep longer than a few decades. The wish to recreate them in marble is therefore understandable, unfulfilled as it remained until early in the first century B.C. During this period the patricians saw their hegemony threatened. It is therefore possible that their desire to exhibit their ancestors publicly was combined with a need to reassert their claim to power.»
These bust portraits, the «imagines maiorum», held here by the Roman patrician and usually carried at the head of public processions, evidently served as models for the sculptors of the quattrocento, as perhaps can be seen in Donatello’s painted clay busts of Niccolo da Uzzano. Contemporary paintings attempted to imitate the plasticity of the bust portrait, the artist employing illusionistic devices, such as the application of realistic colouring, to make up for a lack of real plasticity.
Sandro Botticelli. Young woman. c. 1476-1480
The functions of the portrait mentioned above, together with their concomitant archetypical ideas, norms and expectations, may be seen as examples of mental structures whose emergence can be traced back to the early stages of civilisation. They had endured (in the sense of Fernand Braudel’s «longue duree», or extended duration) the vicissitudes of time and the passing of several different types of societies.
Their universal character and usefulness as a frame of reference make it necessary to see the modern portrait in relation to these structures. Our purpose shall be to elucidate the specific historical significance, the purpose, allusiveness and relation to the history of ideas, of the symbolic forms manifested in various styles and subjects. Since all forms of aesthetic expression occur within specific cultural and social contexts, it is necessary to expose them to iconological analysis.
This book sets out to analyse some of the major works of early modern portraiture. The portraits themselves have been selected on the basis of their subjects’ rank and profession (e.g. portraits of popes, princes or humanist scholars), or gender (portraits of women). The value of this method of selection is its proximity to both the painters’ intentions and their patrons’ requirements. While neither can be said to have considered the formal aspects of portraiture insignificant, they nonetheless saw them as the compositional means of reaching a pre-defined, figurative goal, although this, in turn, was conditioned by certain aesthetic expectations with specific historical roots.