Italian Portrait Painting In The Sixteenth Century

HISTORY seldom accommodates itself to chronology, but, by a curious coincidence, a portrait was begun in the year 1500, marking as by a milestone, the transition from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This was the famous Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci. One after another the steps had been taken to make a real portrait. Masaccio had distinguished the fat man from the thin, or, in other words, had given individuality to a figure. Ghirlanda j o had faith-fully reproduced the characteristic features. A few bolder spirits had turned the portrait head from profile to front face, adding a sense of intimacy to the likeness. The historical’ portrait composition had given animation and some expressiveness to pose and gesture.

Mantegna had made a beginning of character study, and had suggested the manner of man behind the facial mask. At length came Leonardo, and the portrait revealed a living soul.

Master of all the technical processes with which his predecessors had struggled, he had, besides, the analytical mind of the psychologist, and the imagination of the seer. The human face possessed an endless fascination for this singular genius. If he encountered on the street some interesting physiognomy, he would follow the person about all day, and, returning home at night, would draw the portrait from memory. One evening he gave a supper party, convulsing his guests with merriment by his amusing stories. Then he retired and drew the faces as he had observed them in the contortions of laughter. For caricature, too, he had a leaning, and made many drawings with exaggerated features and grimaces, as grotesque as gargoyles. The taste for the bizarre was but one phase of his love for the transient and subtle in expression. The fleeting loveliness of a woman’s smile was his obsession. He spent his life in the pursuit of this vanishing beauty. Some-times the smile is pensive, sometimes, merely happy; sometimes it is enigmatic, sometimes purely mischievous; sometimes it is treacherous, sometimes alluring. Always it has the charm of momentariness.

The restless curiosity of Leonardo’s genius drew him in so many directions, that he had neither time nor energy to accomplish large results in any. Sculpture and architecture, poetry and music, science, mathematics and engineering occupied him by turns. Though his fame rests upon painting, this art really filled but a small part of his life. The Mona Lisa is his only existing title to the name of portrait painter. There is no slightest doubt of its authenticity, while the several other so-called Leonardo portraits have all been questioned. Other portraits which he is known to have painted, mentioned in a previous chapter, have been lost. It is on the multitude of his drawings, collated with the Mona Lisa, that we base our knowledge of his portrait art. It was as easy for him to draw, as for most men to talk. A pen, a pencil, the silver point, the crayon, was almost always at hand, to throw off an idea. As we gloat upon these precious sketches in the museums of Europe, or pore over the reproductions which modern publishers have made available, the wonder grows that one hand could have compassed such a range. Old age and infancy interest him alike; strong and muscular men, soft and beautiful women. In play of muscle, attitude, gesture and facial expression he is master. His special passion — after the smile – is for hair, the waving tresses of a woman, the disordered locks, or curling beard of a man. The dexterity with which he drew each separate hair was almost Flemish in minuteness.

One of the most interesting and charming of the portrait drawings is the sketch of Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua. As we have seen in a previous chapter her portraits by Mantegna and Francia are unhappily lost. More is known of this lady than of any of the grandes dames of the Italian Renaissance. Her wit and beauty, her learning and connoisseurship, and above all her passion for art, made her a conspicuous figure in all the great courts. She gathered about her poets, painters and scholars, and her patronage was an immense stimulus to culture. Hers was decidedly a dominant personality. Of all this, however, Leonardo’s sketch gives no inkling. The master surprised her in a mood of simple gaiety of heart. There is a piquancy and girlish charm in her smile, as remote as possible from any pose of the woman of affairs. This sketch was made in a short visit at Mantua, in the period of Leonardo’s connection with the court of Milan. The promised portrait for which it was a beginning was never forthcoming, though Isabella was anxious to have it. Leonardo, it appears, did not regard the great lady with the awe she inspired in others.

Another interesting portrait sketch by Leonardo is the likeness of himself in his old age. His heavy overhanging eyebrows meet the hair which mingles with the beard in long flowing locks. The eyes peer out with the glance of the acute observer. The mouth, with upper lip shaven, is shut in a firm line which is almost stern. There is something in the apostolic grandeur of the head which suggests the preacher’s cry that ” all is vanity.”

The portrait of Mona Lisa was four years in the making, for Leonardo would paint only when the impulse moved him, and was never satisfied. The lady was the wife of a Florentine gentleman, Francesco del Giocondo, and was regarded as a great beauty. To secure the evanescent charm of her expression, some one was employed at each sitting to entertain her with music, or jest or story. Of the completed portrait, now hanging in the Louvre, more perhaps has been written than of any other picture in the world. Mona Lisa is a siren, attractive and repellent by turns, al-ways fascinating, and always elusive. She is an image of the eternal feminine. The technical excellence of the work, the modelling of face and hands, the colour of the flesh, the moisture of eyes and lips, have elicited unending praise from Leonardo’s day to our own.

Though the other portraits once attributed to Leonardo must now be regarded as the work of other hands, they are still his in character. It was his influence which made them what they are. Of these the Belle Ferroniere is the most closely akin to Mona Lisa in conception. The bust is set against a ground of solid colour, instead of against a landscape, as is usual with Leonardo, and the handling differs from his in colour and modelling. It is in the psychological insight that the portrait shows the master’s leading — in the speaking eyes, and the expressive mouth. The ” Nun ” of the Pitti Gallery is posed like Mona Lisa, but here the resemblance ends. Her gentle timidity suggests perfectly the cloistered life. Since this picture was taken from Leonardo’s list, it has been attributed by differing critics to Perugino, Franciabigio, and Ridolfo Ghirlandajo. The ” Gold-smith,” in the same gallery, once assigned to Leonardo, is now given to Ridolfo Ghirlandajo. The young man holds in his hand a beautiful object of his craft, which he regards with a smile of satisfaction. This, too, who-ever may be the artist, shows the new spirit of character study which came into Italy with Leonardo, and the new century.

Of Leonardo’s followers, Andrea Solario is one whose few portraits show that he fell in readily with the new movement. The most remarkable is the Christoforo Longono, in the Louvre, represented in half-length and full front view; painted with no shirking of difficult problems, and with the assured touch of a craftsman. The partial closing of the eyes gives the introspective look of the sitter unaware of the observer. Charles of Amboise, also in the Louvre, has again the half-closed, sleepy eyes, imparting a meditative air which is enhanced by the droop of the head. These works show a curious kinship with the Flemish portraits of the same period.

Luini is doubtless the most conspicuous of the Leonardesque painters, but his tastes did not often incline him to portrait work. To him, however, we owe the noble piece of decoration which contains the Bentivoglio portraits. It is in the church of S. Maurizio, at Milan, covering the eastern wall. Alessandro and his wife Ippolita Sforza kneel with their patron saints, on opposite sides of the altar. They are grand and impressive figures, tak ing high rank among the portraits of donors in sacred art. Among Luini’s Saronno frescoes, in the subject of the Disputation in the Temple, is a portrait figure said to represent the artist himself. It is an old man with long, white beard, turning his deeply seamed face towards the spectator with an almost wistful look. ” La Columbina ” is also supposed to be a portrait, but the subject is treated so fancifully that it is probably the idealization of a beautiful model. The smile with which the lady regards the flower comes certainly direct from Leonardo. It was he who taught painters how to crystallize a passing mood.

Even Raphael felt the influence of Leonardo’s portrait work. Coming to Florence in 1504, when Mona Lisa was fresh from the painter’s hands, the young Urbinate fell under the magic spell of her smile. Having an order for the portraits of Angelo and Maddelena Doni, he made bold to pose the lady precisely after the Mona Lisa manner. Two women could scarcely be farther apart than the placid Maddelena, and her fascinating prototype, but the portrait was an interesting beginning of a new line of work. It was also during this visit in Florence that Raphael painted the portrait of himself, which gives us a charming image of the gentle imaginative youth on the threshold of his great career.

In the twelve years of Raphael’s Roman period, demands multiplied upon him so fast that he had little time for portrait painting, even had his tastes inclined him in that direction, as they plainly did not. A brilliant figure at the papal court, the favourite of two popes, the friend and intimate of the richest and most influential officials and noblemen, handsome, amiable, and supremely gifted, his happy career reads like a fairy tale. The amount of work he accomplished was prodigious, but it lay chiefly in the direction of mural decorations and altar-pieces. His predilection seemed for purely ideal and imagina tive composition. Certain portrait orders, however, he could not decline, when they came from his papal patrons, or his own intimates. In the end he produced a group of pictures which would be remarkable from any source. Coming from Raphael, they astonish us in showing the prince of idealists as a dispassion-ate realist.

The pope Julius II is the dominant personality among these portraits, as fiery in the papal chair as on the field of battle. ” Why represent me with a book? ” he had once said to Michelangelo, who was making his portrait bust, ” Give me a sword.” Age might enfeeble his body, but not the spirit. His mood is thoughtful, but he broods less upon the past than upon the future. Even while he rests, he is alert for action. The picture in the Uffizi is now generally regarded by critics as the original of the several paintings. It is curious that Michelangelo’s bronze bust of Julius was melted in after years to make a cannon, while Raphael’s portrait has proved a ” monument more lasting than bronze.”

Still another portrait of the Pope by Raphael is the splendid figure introduced into the Chastisement of Heliodorus in the Vatican hall known by that name.

Julius II was a handsome old man; any artist would have liked such a sitter. But Leo X was fat and coarse and greasy; it would seem that nothing could be made of such a subject, except by idealizing him out of all recognition. This was not Raphael’s way. He was as unflattering as a Fleming in his veracity, and, like a Fleming, too, he painted the pope’s gold embroidered satin cope, the illuminated breviary, and the richly engraved altar-bell with utmost care. His special triumph was in seizing upon an expression of refinement and thoughtfulness which redeems the face. The pope is seated at a table, with two cardinals, his nephew and cousin, standing in the shadow behind the corners of his chair, and properly subordinated to the principal figure. Such a group was quite unique at the time, and this fact with the fine scheme of colour, and the unusual attention to detail, give the picture pre eminenc among Raphael’s works. Another portrait of the same pope was introduced by Raphael into the composition of the Rout of Attila, the companion fresco of the Chastisement of Heliodorus.

Among the important figures at the papal court in Raphael’s time Cardinal Bibbiena was very influential. He had in his youth been a protégé of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in Florence, and was a connoisseur in art and letters. He performed various good offices for Raphael, and finally arranged a marriage between the painter and his niece. Raphael’s untimely death, however, defeated the plan, but he had in the meantime painted the portrait of the cardinal, which is now in the Madrid gallery. The thin face with pointed features has all the marks of culture and intellectuality. But the painter revealed more than he perhaps divined himself, of the cunning and ambition of the man. Bibbiena indeed finally proved too cunning, and, losing favour with Leo. X, he met a mysterious death such as was gruesomely common in those days, attributed to poison.

Inghirami was another favourite of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who had by learning and eloquence won a position as secretary of Julius II. Leo X was also his liberal patron, under whom he might have risen higher had he not died. There are two accredited portraits of Inghirami by Raphael, one in the Pitti, Florence, and the other at Fenway Court, Boston. The secretary sits at a table, writing, and lifts his head as if for inspiration, with eyes rolled up in a seraphic manner, somewhat at variance with his stout heavy featured face.

Of all Raphael’s later friends none was of greater service to him than the Mantuan poet, Baldassare Castiglione. It was not by worldly influence, or by great wealth, but by advice, criticism, suggestion, and inspiration, that this good man helped the artist forward in his career. In the midst of a corrupt and self-seeking generation, Castiglione was singularly high-minded and disinterested. In his many visits in Rome he was always warmly welcomed. In behalf of Isabella d’Este he entreated Raphael to paint some picture for the great lady, but the busy young artist never found time to fill the order. It is interesting to notice, however, that he introduced a portrait of Isabella’s young son Federigo (Whom Francia had once so charmingly painted) into the composition of the School of Athens. Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione is one of his most beautiful colour harmonies, as well as a character study of profound insight. In the open countenance, turned frankly to ours there is a genuineness which we should hardly imagine possible to a courtier. Yet the author of ” Il Cortegiano ” knew well all the intricacies of social life in the great world. It seems to have tact and real kindliness, rather than cunning or diplomacy, which made him a general favourite.

Our list of Raphael’s Roman portraits must include at least two whose subjects were women. The regal pose and raiment of Joanna of Aragon belie the childish little face with the hair falling to the beautiful shoulders. There is little but doll-like prettiness in the lady herself, but the picture is charming in decorative quality. The Donna Velata is the beautiful model for the Sistine Ma-donna. Her face is of the perfect oval, loved of the painter. Though wearing the dress of the Roman matron, the painter could not resist the temptation to give a Madonna-like touch to the picture by throwing a veil over her head. The eyes, set wide apart, have the peculiar far-sighted look which gives saintliness to the expression.

Upon Raphael’s death in 1520 his followers strove to imitate him in religious and historical composition rather than in portrait work. Out of the vast output of Raphaelesque pictures of the next quarter century there are extremely few portraits. These few, it must be said, are far more creditable than the insipid dilutions of the master’s religious motives.

In the meantime Florence continued to show a growing interest in portraiture. Pontormo stood at the head of this work in the middle of the century, and passed the leader-ship on to his pupil Bronzino, who lived fifteen years beyond him. Both men were liberally patronized by the Medici, and did for the later generation of this great house what Botticelli and his fellows had done for the elders. Pontormo took an important part in preparations for the triumphal procession in Florence which celebrated the accession of the Medici Pope Leo X. His portrait work was conscientious and dignified, and not in-frequently vigorous. In general there was not much fire or charm in it. How different is the young Ippolito Medici of his handiwork, heavy and ordinary, from the romantic-youth of Titian’s canvas. Much better than the Medici portraits is the picture of a sculptor in the Uffizi, where the artistic temperament is well indicated. There is also a pro-file portrait of a fine old man in the Pitti, quite out of the ordinary in interest.

The affection between Pontormo and his pupil Bronzino was proverbial in Florence. The older man introduced a charming figure of the youth in one of his cassone pictures, and the younger reciprocated by placing his master in a religious composition, Christ in Limbo. Bronzino first came into notice during the festivities in honour of the marriage of Duke Cosimo to Eleanor of Toledo. The duke was so delighted with some decorations executed in the palace that he gave orders for a chapel to be decorated. Then followed a series of all the family portraits : the duke and duchess and the several children, some of them often repeated. A number of these are now in the Florentine galleries, interesting both as portrait and historical studies. Duke Cosimo himself illustrates the decadence of his house, in the bullet-shaped head, with close-cropped hair, and hard plebeian countenance. The refined tyranny of the ancestors has now become a coarse brutality. The Duchess Eleanor is described in Vasari’s fulsome flattery as ” a lady excellent above all that ever lived, and whose infinite merits render her worthy of eternal praise.” In truth she seems an amiable and placid person, with her hair parted smoothly and decorously over her wide brow. She wears a brocade of huge pattern, and sits with conscious dignity. The little boy at her side (Fernando) is utterly charming. He has no princely finery, but looks as if called suddenly from the nursery in his pinafore, and, nestling against his mother, looks out with bright-eyed merriment at the caller. There is nothing so spontaneous in child portraiture up to this time. Don Garcia is equally a child, a fat little fellow, laughing outright as he holds a bird in his pudgy hand.

He wears a pretty satin tunic as a prince should, but is not at all concerned with his dignity; There is also a serious little girl of the family, not pretty, but sweet and wistful. Though one could multiply the list of portraits by Bronzino, whose number exceeded even the patience of Vasari in enumerating, we need go no farther to see that the new spirit in portrait painting has fully arrived, when the child has come into his own.