“Lovely, misleading Renaissance visions”, The Baltimore Sun, Dec. 16, 2001, p. 2E.
Portraits enchant the viewer but fail to suggest the difficulties of women’s lives.
By Jason Edward Kaufman
WASHINGTON – Wandering through Virtue & Beauty, the exhibit of Renaissance portraits of women on view at the National Gallery, is a lot
like attending a fashion show.
Dozens of smooth-skinned, fabulously coiffed youths show off clothes rich beyond imagining as they glide serenely in their own fabulous
worlds. Who are these goddesses, these queens of chic, these splendid ladies? One imagines them dashing about town, their every wish attended
to by flocks of adoring servants. Ah, to be a stylish young woman in Renaissance Italy!
But the lives of these ladies, mostly Florentines, were far less liberated than one might imagine. It’s true that it is in the 15th
century that women first appear in art as independent subjects, rather than alongside their husbands. But don’t think for a moment that this
reflected newly elevated status for the fair sex. Females were subordinated by the patriarchy and the church, whose tenets held that
woman was but a weak, flawed version of man, a temptress like Eve whose foolishness and lasciviousness caused mankind’s fall from grace.
A maiden’s life went pretty much like this: Perhaps as young as 12, she was locked into an arranged married with a stranger twice her age. The
match had nothing to do with love. It was a corporate merger between two families for financial and social benefit. The groom showered her with
extravagant clothes and jewelry as a public demonstration of status and wealth. But his “gifts” remained his property, and after a few years he
was free to sell them.
Though she was likely to survive her older partner – about one-quarter of Florentine women were widows – inheritance was through the male line
only, so wealth remained within his family. In any case, she was barred from public life except to attend church, remaining at home where, as
several portraits show, looking out the window was the extent of her freedom.
Her primary function was childbearing, a dangerous business that often resulted in death. And since half of all children died before 2, and
only a quarter lived past 16, she was kept constantly pregnant, a veritable “walking womb” whose purpose was to carry forward the family
line. (One Florentine woman died in 1459 at age 57 having given birth to 36 children.)
Keep this in mind as you admire the beautiful, gold-embroidered, velvet dresses, the pearl-studded hairdos, the gem-encrusted brooches and
necklaces that adorn these ladies, one more sumptuously clothed than the next.
The 41 portraits on hand date from 1410 to 1550, when Florence was a leading center of commerce and culture. Most are paintings, but there
are a few superb marble busts, drawings and coinlike medals as well. About half belong to the National Gallery’s collection, and the rest are
lent by European and American museums, including the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (about which, more later).
The National Gallery had to use some clout to borrow so many fragile paintings on wood – which rarely if ever are allowed to travel – and to
get so many works by giants in the history of Italian art, including Botticelli, Ucello, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Raphael,
Bronzino and their northern European contemporaries van der Weyden and Memling. The result is a smashing selection of many of the greatest
female “fashion shots” of the Renaissance.
It is believed that many of these portraits marked weddings, capturing the richly attired brides as trophies glorifying dynastic unions and
their husbands’ wealth. Others were probably commemorative images dedicated to a beloved daughter or wife who had died. But even these
tend to be stiff iconic profiles, like the heads on Roman (or American) coins, elegantly tracing the curvilinear contours of the woman’s face,
but conveying nothing of her inner life.
A theme of the show is the evolution from this profile format to a more relaxed and engaging three-quarter or frontal view, one that celebrates
a woman’s beauty and allure as much as her expensive finery. Not until the 16th century did artists routinely paint women in this informal
manner. But there were 15th-century exceptions, like Leonardo’s moody portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, a prize of the National Gallery’s
collection and the master’s only work on this side of the Atlantic – America’s “Mona Lisa,” if you will.
If you’ve ever wondered why Leonardo is so revered by painters, consider Ginevra’s pale round face framed by delicate ringlets and haloed by a
juniper tree (ginepro in Italian) playing on her name. Consider the texture and swell of her flesh, the soft modeling of her cheeks and
neck, and the pensive character of her gaze. Even though this is not the best preserved of the artist’s works, some of its superlative naturalism
Leonardo’s revolutionary face-to-face portrait reveals a less demeaning role of woman in Renaissance Florence – that of idealized lover. Though
Ginevra was already married, the Venetian ambassador adopted her as the object of his platonic love. This kind of chivalric gesture was
perfectly acceptable at the time, and probably a shrewd political move as well. It is believed that this extramarital admirer, whose symbolic
crest appears on the back of the panel, ordered the portrait from Leonardo. Thus, Ginevra appears not as an impersonal vehicle for the
trappings of family wealth, but as a self-possessed individual at one with nature.
The exhibition takes its title from a scroll in her admirer’s crest, which reads “Beauty Adorns Virtue.” The idea is that physical beauty was
merely the external counterpart of inner virtue. Earlier Florentine poets such as Dante, Petrarch and Boccaccio praised female beauty as
guiding men to love and Christian salvation. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but somehow spiritual bliss is a wasp-waisted blond with long
legs, firm breasts, short teeth, and a high forehead – the preferred female characteristics of Renaissance Florence.
We see the type in the Botticelli on the cover of the exhibition’s sociology-packed catalog: an idealized portrait of a young woman
believed to represent Simonetta Vespucci, a celebrated beauty who died in 1476 at 23. We see it also in the opulent Ghirlandaio portrait of
Giovanna Tornabuoni, daughter-in-law of the papal treasurer and Medici bank manager. Probably commissioned upon the 19-year-old’s death while
giving birth to her second child, a decade later the painting was recorded still in her husband’s bedroom, suggesting that not every
arranged marriage was loveless.
The quality trails off in the last part of the exhibition’s chronology, but of special interest is the Walters’ double portrait of a woman and a
babygirl, painted by Pontormo around 1538. When Henry Walters purchased it in1902, the light-skinned infant with the full lips, broad nose, and
curlyhair had been covered over. In 1937, restorers removed the overpaint, revealing the little girl. Recently identified as Giulia de
Medici, herfather Alessandro de’ Medici was the illegitimate son of Pope Clement VII and Simonetta, a Moorish woman whose North African features
she clearlyshares. The somber woman’s protection of the child is virtuous indeed.
But what stays with us from this exhibition is less the virtue, and more the beauty, especially of those magnificent over-the-top portraits from
theearlier part of the show. Those eye-dazzling fantasies of fashionable style and boundless wealth may not tell us much about the difficult lives
of theRenaissance women they depict. But they still have the capacity to captivate a spectator. Pay these ladies a visit — you won’t be
Jason Edward Kaufman ©