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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. New shows: "events;" how to support the online edition: "works."



Desiderio da Settignano (Settignano, ca. 1430-1464, Florence). Bust of a Young Woman (Mariettta di Lorenzo Strozzi?). Ca. 1462. Marble. H. 20 5/8 in. Skulpturensammlung und Museum fuer Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Politics played a role in portraiture during the Renaissance, with women often immortalized as part of the marriage ceremony, especially when it signified the union of two ducal or wealthy houses. Potentates like the Medici commissioned portraits to consolidate & publicize their power, but fortunately all these politics are between six & seven hundred years old, and–as politics doesn’t wear as well as art–they are mostly forgotten, no matter how hard pomonian art historians try to revive them. What’s survived is the art, as seen in in the approximately 160 paintings, sculptures, medals, miniatures and drawings in “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini,” a sumptuous show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These varied works tell their own story of beauty and humanity triumphing over more trivial and worldly concerns (through March 18). Jointly organized by the Met and the Staatliche Museum zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, this show was co-curated by Keith Christiansen of the Met and Stefan Weppelman of the Gemäldegalerie, and was previously seen at the Bode Museum in Berlin. It‘s one of those great, if apparently old-fashioned loan exhibitions, with works borrowed from Queen Elizabeth, the Louvre, Pinacoteca di Brera, Frick Collection, National Gallery in Washington, Galleria Nazionale della Marche, Urbino, and ...so on and on, in addition to the rich resources of the two museums staging the show. You get the general idea: no expense has been spared to make this an unforgettable viewing experience.

Of course, even in the greatest of shows, occasionally there are teeny tiny lapses. My favorite Renaissance portrait is the one of Federico da Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca, and I guess the Uffizi couldn’t be persuaded to lend that. Still, there are two other likenesses of the famously hook-nosed & generous Duke of Urbino on view, together with such a wealth of other works that I am almost embarrassed to point out this lapse. Also, the Met’s press release — this is really nitpicking—talks about the Quattrocento as being “the first great age of portraiture in Europe...” Doesn’t anybody remember the great portrait busts of Republican Rome, and the early years of the Roman Empire? Especially when so many of the carved or modeled portrait busts in this exhibition even look like their Roman prototypes? Also, ideologically speaking, Rome was the inspiration for the Italian Renaissance revival of the art of portraiture, with the new, neo-classical emphasis on the individual and his or her life in this world, instead of the medieval emphasis on the life to come

Still, who’s counting? There’s so much to like or even love in this show, from the shiny bronze “Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore” (1425) by Donatello (in the first gallery), to the gnarled, Punch-like marble face of “Doge Cristoforo Moro” (1462-64-?) by Antonio Rizzo (in the last). The story begins in Florence, with the only known portrait by Masaccio, and a commitment to profile portraits that only gradually evolves into three-quarter views, progresses through the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna & so on, and winds up in Venice, with three Bellinis– Gentile and Giovanni, brothers, and their father, Jacopo. Elsewhere, this show is a family affair, too. Who knew that Domenico Ghirlandaio had a brother, Davide Ghirlandaio, who also painted portraits? Or that Antonio del Pollaiuolo had a portrait-painting brother, Piero del Pollaiuolo? And that the less famous relatives were also excellent? Other stars include Botticelli (with eight lovely portraits), Fra Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Pisanello, Castagno, Signorelli, Mantegna and Antonello da Messina, to say nothing of two Northern European artists, Hans Memling and Rogier van der Weyden, who are somehow shoe-horned in.

I guess that if nailed to the wall, I had to pick out a favorite, it would be the airy, impish marble bust of a young woman who may or may not be Marietta di Lorenzo Strozzi (ca. 1462), by Desiderio da Settignano. She has such style. And again, if nailed to the wall, I’d have to say that although the paintings are magnificent, the sculpture adds a fresh dimension (in the figurative as well as the literal sense). I could have done with a few less medals, and was bowled over more by the first four galleries of the show than by the last four, but even in the last four, there was lots to be wondered at. Don’t go expecting the last half of the Renaissance, the Cinquecento with Raphael or Titian (though there is a delicious little tiny drawing of Lorenzo de’ Medici (ca. 1480) by Leonardo da Vinci). This show is about the Quattrocento, the most radical stage of the Renaissance, and I was happy to re-encounter it. In college, I took a course in the Italian Renaissance, taught by Julius Held, one of Barnard’s legendary teachers. I went expecting Michelangelo and Botticelli, but instead got Giotto, Duccio, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca and Signorelli, never missing the others. We got five minutes of the Sistine Chapel right before the end of the term, but the excitement of the Quattrocento stays with me still.
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