Marble Bust of a Man - An Example of Verism in Roman Art
Roman, 1st Century A.D.
© Metropolitain Museum of Art
Portraiture was another subject that emerged as a genre during the Renaissance. Very few painted portraits had survived from Antiquity so artists looked to Roman and Greek sculptures for their inspiration. Portraiture in Ancient Rome was a ‘warts and all’ realism called ‘verism’ (from the Latin word ‘verus’ meaning ‘true’) whereas Classical Greek portraiture was an idealized art searching for a perfection of the human form. Both styles were influential in the development of Renaissance portraiture.
Portraiture in Ancient Rome was a highly naturalistic art form based on humanist ideals and used to celebrate military and civic achievements or as propaganda in support of Republican values. The Romans looked on a furrowed brow or a wrinkled skin not as imperfections, but as humanistic features of distinction, a kind of facial road map of experience and wisdom that only comes with age.
Piero della Francesca (1416-92)
'The Duke and Duchess of Urbino',
(tempera on panel)
Some Renaissance artists, inspired by Classical humanism, adopted a Roman 'verist' approach to portraiture. In Piero della Francesca's commemorative portrait of The Duke and Duchess of Urbino (Federigo da Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza) the artist does not disguise Federigo's disfigured profile. This is his badge of honour, the result of an injury sustained during a tournament in which he lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose. Continuing the Classical influence, the strong profiles in this work echoes the profiles found on Antique medallions and coinage, popular among collectors at this time.
LEFT: Hellenistic Female Head, c.150 BC
RIGHT: 'La Belle Ferronière', 1490 by Leonardo da Vinci
Other Renaissance artists absorbed the influence of Classical Greek art into their portraits. Leonardo's 'La Belle Ferronière' reflects the idealized beauty of a Hellenistic carving of Aphrodite to create an image which is both introspective and graceful. The self-absorption of the subject mirrors the serenity that arises from the harmonious balance of form in Ancient Greek sculpture.
'Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de’Medici and Luigi de’Rossi', c. 1518
(oil on panel)
All patrons of Renaissance art, both religious and humanist, commissioned portraits. Having your portrait painted was a symbol of your power and success and a method of recording that for posterity.
Leon Battista Alberti, the architect and contemporary writer on Renaissance art, states in his essay 'On Painting' of 1435, that portraiture ‘makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. . . . . the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting.’
ANDREA MANTEGNA (1431-1506)
'Madonna della Vittoria', 1496
(tempera on canvas)
Renaissance portraiture often had a two-fold function with a built-in insurance policy against the collapse of humanist values. On one hand the ruling classes and prosperous merchants had their portraits painted to display their fame and fortune; on the other, they commissioned donor portraits as an endorsement of their religious faith. Donor portraits were paintings of the person or family who commissioned the work, usually kneeling to give thanks to a patron saint or the Holy Family. They were presented as gifts to the Church and acted both as a memorial of the donor and as a petition for prayers for their immortal soul.
Humanism may have revived during the Italian Renaissance but it never quite managed to shake off that restless need to find a meaning to life outside of ourselves.