IT is impossible to put one’s finger upon a definite date for the origin of portrait painting, or upon any single work as the first example of that art. Portraiture is but one of many branches of the great mother art of painting, and was a long time in reaching any independent status. The original purposes of painting, it must be remembered, were distinctly religious. It was solely for the glory of God, and the edification of the faithful, that the first Christian artists painted their crude pictures on the damp walls of the catacombs. Bible story and sacred allegory were the chosen subjects. It was not till the next stage of art history that something like a portrait element appears. Now we have the oft repeated figures of the apostles Peter and Paul, so strongly characterized that they seem to have been de-rived from some actual likeness. St. Chrysostom, indeed, alludes to a portrait of St. Paul, hanging in his chamber, and this was in the fourth century. In the wonderful old mosaics of S. Vitale, Ravenna, are the full length portraits of the contemporary Emperor Justinian, and the Empress Theodora, engaged in the ceremony of dedicating the church. The emperor is accompanied by the Archbishop Maximian, and many court attendants. Stiff and formal enough are these groups of splendid creatures, not very much like the originals, we may suppose, and executed in the style borrowed from the Byzantine art. We must wait a little longer for portrait beginnings of a more modern spirit.
As we pass out of the middle ages into the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, we come to the so-called founders of modem painting.
From Florence and Siena came forth a great company of painters who covered the walls of churches and public buildings with vast schemes of mural decoration. The subjects were still largely religious and allegorical, and art, under the surveillance of church or state, was slow to introduce any innovations. Yet the opportunities for portraiture gradually increased. Quite an ambitious attempt in this direction is seen at Siena, in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s great allegorical decoration of the Palazzo Pubblico. The subject is Good and Bad Government, and in the lower portion of the composition is a long procession of Sienese dignitaries illustrating the results of the former.
Religious subjects had likewise their portrait opportunities. Occasionally some bold spirit ventured to introduce among the sacred personages of his composition a portrait figure of a contemporary. A pretty compliment this, to a patron, or famous personage of the day, as when the old painter in the Campo Santo (Pisa) introduces the Ghibelline commander Uberti in scenes in the life of Job.
Dante, appearing among the blessed spirits in the Paradise of the Bargello fresco (Florence), and Cimabue, Gaddi, and Memmi, among the participants in the Church Militant that famous fresco of the Spanish Chapel, Florence are among our most precious legacies from this period.
Nor were single portraits by this time altogether unheard of. Writers of that age, or a little later, allude to portraits of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, and Petrarch himself makes a great ado over Simone Memmi’s portrait of Laura. These treasures have not come down to us, but we need not mourn them. The poet’s sonnets on the likeness of his love would be sadly discounted by any such counterfeit presentments as fourteenth century art could produce. The best the painter could do at this stage was to reproduce some peculiarity of costume, or the manner of wearing the hair or beard. He knew nothing of characterization as we now understand it. The face was almost always drawn in profile, and, like the eighteenth century silhouette, suggested the likeness by the outline of features, rather than by anything approaching expression. The nose and chin were the marks of identification, and there was a singular sameness even in the types of nose and chin. The Sienese citizens seem to have been cast in the same mould, with almond eyes, straight noses, expressionless mouths and pointed chins.
In short, the fourteenth century Italian portrait was painted like another form of the medal which came into vogue in the same period a revival of the ancient art so es-teemed in imperial Rome. Pisanello, the greatest of the medallists, was born in 1380, and worked early in the fifteenth century in the employ of the Duke of Ferrara. His portrait of Léonello d’Este shows the fine modelling characteristic of the medallist’s art.
Side by side with the medallist’s art was developed the art of the portrait bust which reached such perfection in the mid fifteenth century. Sculpture had in Italy, as in ancient Greece, outrun the art of painting, and in no way more strikingly than in portraiture.
Such works as Mino’s bust of Bishop Salutati, and Benedetto da Majano’s Pietro Mellini, uncompromisingly realistic, and consummately executed, had no contemporary match in portrait painting. But while the actual perfection of portrait painting was delayed till the sixteenth century, the evolution of the art in the preceding period is of immense interest.
The fifteenth-century Italian painting is seen in its most characteristic form in the great religious. mural decorations which converted the walls of the churches into mammoth picture books. To this work all the painters of the period devoted themselves: Masaccio, Benozzo Gozzoli, the two Lippi, Botticelli, Ghirlandajo, Fra Angelico, Signorelli, Cosimo Roselli, Perugino, and Pinturicchio, and the others of the splendid roll-call of the Quattro Cento. Following the methods first timidly adopted in the preceding century, they one and all drew largely from their friends, neighbours and patrons as models for the figures in their sacred compositions. Thus the fifteenth century Italian frescoes are a veritable historical portrait gallery.
It was a common practice of painters to sign their works with an auto portrait, so to speak. In this way we get our most interesting portraits of Masaccio, with square head and thick neck, of Botticelli, with waving hair and full curved lips, of Filippo Lippi, the portly tonsured friar, of Ghirlandajo, rather square and stolid, of Gentile da Fabriano, smooth faced and bland, of Perugino, with thin compressed lips, of honest, open-faced Benozzo Gozzoli, and of Signorelli and Fra Angelico, standing gravely together in the corner of the Orvieto fresco.
On the threshold of the century stood the Florentine Masaccio, whose frescoes were a school of draughtsmanship for his successors. Like the mosaicist of S. Vitale, Masaccio painted the ceremony of consecrating the Carmine church, with portraits of the participants. There were the artists, Brunellesco, Donatello, and Masolino, the ambassador Lorenzo Ridolfi, and other notable Florentine gentlemen, of whom Vasari tells us. The wonder of wonders was that the painter had the ” forethought to make these men not all of one size, but differing as in life; insomuch that one distinguishes the short aid stout man from the tall and slender.” It was a decided step forward to notice that all men were not made alike. The men who came after, now grew steadily in power to reproduce nature. Portrait figures were drawn with distinct characterization, and contemporary dignitaries were preserved for the infinite delight of posterity.
To begin with that great and powerful family which so long shaped the destinies of Florence the Medici. It is Benozzo Gozzoli who presents us to the family in three generations : Cosimo, the “father of his country,” Piero, the weak, and Lorenzo the Magnificent, moving in the procession of oriental kings who bring their offerings to the Christ-child. The walls of the little Riccardi chapel seem to stretch into an illimitable distance filled with the splendid pageant winding its way among the hills : gaily caparisoned horses, huntsmen and their dogs, serv ants, pages and retainers of every degree (Benozzo himself among them) accompanying the royal guests. Young Lorenzo, with richly embroidered doublet and cape, and a coroneted cap, sits his horse with serene dignity, the bright particular star of the occasion.
Again do the Medici family figure in the subject of the Adoration in Botticelli’s picture of the Ufiizi. In this case it is Cosimo, then just deceased, who impersonates the eldest of the Magian kings. But even his bared head and kneeling posture do not belie the air of haughty patronage with which he holds the Christ-child’s foot. Patron of artists, founder of libraries, builder of hospitals and churches, this powerful tyrant blessed his people with one hand while he coerced them with the other. His strong personality was felt throughout Europe. His grandsons, Giovanni and Giuliano, stand waiting their turn, as the other kings, bearing themselves with the distinction of their race. Giuliano is the subject of a separate portrait by Botticelli, presenting the striking personality of the man. The long, thin, slanting nose and lifted chin give him an air of supercilious disdain (Berlin gallery). Botticelli’s well-known ” Medallist ” of the Uffizi is supposed to be Piero, son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, holding in his hands a medallion portrait of his great grandfather Cosimo, pater patriae The long and narrow face, almost gaunt with its high cheek bones, has an expression of interesting melancholy which we suspect belonged to the artist himself more than to the subject. It is one of the rare portraits in three quarters front face beginning in this time to replace the more common profile portraits. A full front face, still rarer, is presented in Botticelli’s portrait of a youth in the National Gallery.
Two famous Florentine beauties were also among the portrait subjects of Botticelli’s work for the Medici. One of these was Simonetta, the wife of Marco Vespucci, the lady raised to the pedestal of a divinity in the romantic imagination of Giuliano. For her amusement her admirer held a splendid tournament (1475) in the piazza of Santa Croce, to her praise he wrote laudatory verses, and in her name performed many gallant deeds. Three portraits are claimed as the likeness of this paragon, but they are not only quite dissimilar but quite unlike our preconceived notions of the original. The Simonetta of the Pitti is grave and prim, with an inordinately long neck, and a Quaker-like severity of dress. The subject of the Berlin gallery is a veritable lady of vanity, with fancifully decked hair and pretty but empty face. At Simonetta’s death in 1476, all the learned Florentines were inconsolable. Sonnets were written in her memory by Lorenzo himself, there was an epigram by the famous Poliziano, and an elegy by Bernardo Pulci. Botticelli’s other Florentine beauty is Lucrezia Tornabuoni, daughter of a rich and illustrious Florentine house, wife of the elder Piero, and mother of Simonetta’s admirer Giuliano. She is described as a woman of great intellectual force and wide culture, a poet as well, and possessed of all the virtues. If the Frankfort Botticelli be really her portrait she was assuredly a charming creature in her youth, with straight, fine brows and cameo-like profile.’
The impress of his own individuality is on all Botticelli’s portrait work. His contemporary Ghirlandajo was more objective, being a close observer, and sticking conscientiously to facts. There was not so much poetry in his art, but it has solid and valuable qualities. He had a passion for portraiture, and there is a tradition that in his youthful days in the goldsmith’s shop, he drew the likeness of every passer-by. His great frescoes are filled with the notable Florentines of his day: Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, most illustrious representative of his family; Francesco Sassetti, for whom he decorated a chapel at S. Trinità; men of learning like Ficino, Landino, and Poliziano; reigning belles, like Giovanna degli Albizzi ; and even the navigator, Amerigo Vespucci. Nor did he omit himself ; Baldovinetti, his master; Bastiano, his cousin; and David, his brother. But it was the rich and illustrious Tornabuoni family in whose service his portrait skill was most lavishly expended. For them he deco-rated the choir of S. Maria Novella with illustrations of the life of the Virgin on one side, and the life of St. John Baptist on the other. To these sacred scenes the Tornabuoni lend their pompous presence. They form a solid phalanx awaiting the priest Zacharias as he tarries in the temple with the vision. Some of them stand by while the old man writes on a tablet the name of his newborn son, and others witness Joachim’s expulsion from the temple. Their women folk come to visit both mothers, Anna and Elizabeth, to see the new-born babes. All these figures are convincing as portraits, if not really interesting. Ruskin says amusingly of them, ” If you are a nice person, they are not nice enough for you, and if a vulgar person, not vulgar enough.” In short, they are hopelessly mediocre.
In Rome as well as in Florence Ghirlandajo plied his art, and the Call of the Apostles, in the Sistine chapel, is one of his noblest compositions. Here again are rows of interesting portrait figures standing as spectators of the sacred scene. This was painted in 1482 when the side walls of the chapel were being decorated under the superintendence of Botticelli. All the panels are full of portraits in what was now the prevailing custom. Perugino’s Charge to Peter and the Baptism, Botticelli’s Temptation and scenes from the life of Moses, and Pinturicchio’s Journey from Midian, abound in character studies of a most interesting quality.
Most of these painters made an occasional separate portrait study. One by Ghirlandajo of special charm is the Old Man and Child of the Louvre. The realistic painter spares us nothing in delineating the warts which disfigure the poor old face, but with a touch of real genius he reveals the transfiguring power of love, as the grandfather gazes into the wistful little face lifted to his. Again, Perugino’s portrait of Francesco delle Opere, in the Ufiizi, has been pronounced ” one of the most ably interpreted, most firmly characterized, most convincing faces, in the whole range of Renaissance art.” This certainly is extraordinary achievement for a man who was content to repeat as if by stencil the same type of face for Madonna, saint and angel. Pinturicchio’s Boy, in the Dresden gallery, is a charming portrait, with his fresh ingenuous face, and the severe simplicity of the pose.
Our study of fifteenth century portrait painting would be incomplete without noting how much the progress of the art was furthered by the patronage of rich noblemen throughout Italy. Duke Federigo of Urbino was an intelligent and progressive man of this type. Among the artists in his employ was Pietro della Francesca, whose portraits of his patron and his good wife, Battista Sforza, are now in the Uffizi gallery. The faces are drawn in sharp profile, with firmness and precision. Federigo’s strong features lend themselves admirably to the treatment, and the deep indentation above his large nose identifies him unmistakably. Battista, undeniably bourgeoise, regards her lord and master complacently. A worthy pair whom the artist’s gift has preserved as an example of domestic contentment. The duke is also seen in the rôle of donor in a large altar-piece of the Madonna and Saints. He kneels in full armour in the foreground, his helmet on the pavement, his hands reverently clasped. This work is in the Brera, at Milan, and it is thought that Carnevale may have had a hand in it, though it appears to have come from Pietro’s workshop. Another important portrait by Pietro della Francesca is that of Malatesta of Rimini, in a fresco in the church of S. Francesco, in that town. The stern despot kneels before his patron S. Sigismund, and the portrait is executed with the simplicity, dignity and force which give character to the work of this remarkable painter.
Among other commissions Pietro worked at Ferrara for the Duke Borso d’Este in the decoration of the Schifanoia Palace, but no traces of his handiwork are now to be found there. What remains to us of the original scheme of decoration is the joint product of Cosimo Tura and Francesco del Cossa, with their pupils. Cosimo Tura was court painter for two dukes of Ferrara, from 1458 to his death in 1495. The duties of such a post were manifold, from the designing of furniture and the management of pageants, to covering the palace walls with paintings and turning out portraits on demand. The lasting monument of Tura’s ceaseless activity is the series of compositions showing the Duke Borso in. various episodes of his career, riding to the hunt, receiving a messenger from Bologna and exchanging courtesies with the ambassador of Venice. It is all a most interesting picture pageant with the portrait figure of the duke moving through the scenes.
Of the innumerable detached portraits which Tura must have made, not one remains to us. Little value seems to have been attached to such work, which was often done under pressure, and perhaps not very creditably, to serve some temporary purpose. The fortunate nobleman of this period who could command a court painter, regarded a portrait almost as we do a photograph. It was not kept as a piece of decoration for one’s house, but was sent to some absent friend or relative, a suitor, or a husband at the wars.
The court of Mantua enjoyed a practical monopoly of the great painter Mantegna, from his appointment in 1459 to his death early in the next century. There is a list of a dozen lost portraits belonging to this time against two which remain. One of the latter represents the seventeen-year-old son of the Gonzaga house, Francesco, just made a cardinal (Naples). The other portrait subject is the Cardinal Mezzarata (Berlin), a remarkable man who was successively physician, soldier and priest, and whose luxurious living won him the soubriquet of Lucullus.” In both works Mantegna showed himself a psychologist of extraordinary insight. The subjects are taken off guard, ‘unconscious of observation, absorbed in their own thoughts, purely and entirely themselves. The young Francesco is done in profile, in the fashion of the primitives, the Cardinal Mezzarata, in the rare three-quarters view, which shows the strong lines of his hard face, the mouth of the iron will, and the keen eyes of self seeking under the heavy beetling brows. There is a plastic quality in the modelling which allies it to the portrait busts of the same period.
Mantegna was not altogether free from the limitations of his day, but his insight into character was a distinct advance in the art of portrait painting.
Another new thing which Mantegna introduced was a portrait family group. The Marchese Lodovico had commissioned him to decorate the walls of a room (Camera degli Sposi) in the Castello with scenes of a domes-tic character. On one side the painter represented the patron and his wife, the Marchesa Barbara, surrounded by children and relatives in a typical family scene. The composition anticipated by two hundred years a Dutch fashion of the seventeenth century. Another subject in the room was the Meeting of Lodovico with the Cardinal Francesco, representing an actual episode, as was not an uncommon practice at the time.
It was some years later, after the death of Lodovico, that the succeeding Duke, Francesco, brought as his bride to Mantua the famous Isabella d’Este. Under the direction of this gifted and critical lady, the painter did other fine things to add to his fame. Unhappily, we have no more portraits from his hand, having lost what would have been an inestimable treasure to us the likeness of Isabella, painted to send to the Countess d’Acerra. Of the Marchese Francesco, a man of unprepossessing appearance, we have Mantegna’s portrait in the splendid Madonna of Victory, where he kneels as donor at the foot of the throne.
Another painter pressed into the service of the indefatigable Isabella, was Francia, the Bolognese. In the course of the Marchese Francesco’s warlike adventures, he had been taken prisoner by the Venetians. The pope Julius II had intervened for his release, but by way of hostage his little boy Federigo was to be sent to Rome. The mother longed for a portrait of her son to console her in his absence, and Francia received an order to make one. This picture, after long being lost sight of, has recently been identified as a beautiful little work owned by an English gentleman who has allowed it to be photo-graphed. The little fellow is as pretty and romantic looking as a mother could wish. Of Isabella herself, Francia also painted a portrait which has unhappily been lost.
Evangelista Scappi, and Bartolommeo Bianchi, were others of Francia’s identified sitters, men well known in their day, and admirably preserved for posterity by Francia’s work. In the Pitti are two portraits of unknown men attributed to Francia, and again one especially interesting is in the Lichtenstein gallery at Vienna. All these show certain common mannerisms. The hair is massed in two evenly divided locks which conceal the ears, the mouth drawn in an exact Cupid’s bow, the face smoothed out of expression, the hands without articulation, and the finish as careful as goldsmith’s work. Francia appears to have been a leader in the movement towards popularizing portrait painting. Many of his sitters were middle class people. The art was no longer to remain in the possession of the privileged few. The character of the painter’s work was, however, less progressive than his spirit. He was modern in giving his sitters a full front face, but primitive in craftsmanship. So while the span of his life extended some years into the new century, his place is still in the old.
The decorations of the Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, and the Schifanoia Palace in Ferrara, were not the only historical portrait compositions of the period. Another example is the work of Melozzo da Forli for the library of the pope Sixtus IV. The subject was the pope conferring the charge of his library upon Platina, in the presence of various dignitaries. We have here strong and well characterized portraits of Sixtus IV, of Platina, of Giuliano della Rovere (after-wards pope Julius II), and of Pietro Riario (afterwards Bishop of Treviso). The fresco was eventually transferred to canvas and now hangs in the Vatican gallery.
One of the most brilliant courts of the fifteenth century was that of Lodovico Sforza, Il Moro, at Milan. He drew to his employ the greatest painter of the age, Leonardo da Vinci. So varied were the demands upon the painter during the sixteen years of his service, from decorating a ball room to directing an irrigating canal, and modelling an equestrian statue, that his portrait works were few and far between. It is on record that he painted likenesses of both Lodovico’s mistresses, Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli, but these are lost. The former was so much ad-mired by Isabella d’Este that she borrowed it to compare with Bellini’s work. It seems pretty certain that the great Florentine did not paint any panel portraits of the duke himself, or his charming young wife, Beatrice d’Este. The portraits which he made on the wall of S. Maria della Grazie, opposite the Last Supper, have long since perished.
Another painter in Lodovico’s employ was Ambrogio de Predis, whose work shows so plainly the influence of Leonardo that some of it has been taken for the elder master’s. There is a pair of portraits in the Ambrosiana, at Milan, attributed by recent critics to his hand, and most plausibly regarded as Lodovico’s daughter, Bianca Sforza, and her husband, Giangaleazzo di San Severino. The delicately cut profile, the netted head-dress edged with pearls, the jewelled fillet and the pearl necklace, are parts of the quaint charm of the lady. The handsome young man with thoughtful eyes and bushy, curling hair has the romantic air we associate with the gallant cavalier.
It seems a great pity that neither Ambrogio nor Leonardo left us portraits of the great duke and his girl wife. For authentic likenesses we must turn to Zenale’s Madonna, painted in 1495 for the church of S. Ambrogio at Nemo, but now in the Brera gallery. Lodovico kneels at the Madonna’s right, with his little boy, the Count of Pavia, beside him. Beatrice kneels vis-à-vis, with her baby Francesco. All the faces are in profile, stiff, wooden and expressionless, much more interesting for costume than for physiognomy. Comparing them with the beauty of the Ma-donna, and the excellence of the attendant saints, one realizes fully that with the average craftsman, such as Zenale, even at this late date, portraiture was still greatly behind ideal and devotional figure painting in Italy.