Category Archives: History Of Art

The Paintings of Masaccio as a Starting Point of Italian Renaissance Art.



Adoration of The Magi (1425-1428). Now in Berlin. Public domain.

The question of whether the art of Masaccio can be seen as the starting point of Italian Renaissance art can be construed as misleading. Masaccio’s art has to be considered against the background of his close association with Donatello and Brunelleschi. All three were closely connected with the innovations of the Florentine literary humanists. The earliest known achievement of art in fifteenth century Florence is its realism. The roots of this achievement are found in the sculpture of Donatello and the perspective developments of Brunelleschi. In this sense, if the origin of Renaissance art is to be found with Donatello (and the sculptors led the way) then the sculptural influences in Masaccio’s painting, his perspective advances and humanist expression define him as the first true Renaissance painter.

The frescoes of Giotto (1266-1337) show a great leap forward in realism, especially his creation of rounded form by directional light and creation of shadow, as well as his expression of emotion by facial and bodily gesture. Similarly, the work of the Pisani (active around the same time) set in motion a trend towards realistic representation in sculpture. However, even though these masters made great strides in technique and representation, they are best described as precursors of rather than as Renaissance artists.

Between their work and that of the Renaissance, the Black Death intervened with the result that Giotto’s advances passed into abeyance in the aftermath of the grim passage of the plague itself in one direction and the emerging international Gothic style lyrically in the opposite. The swathe cut across Europe by the Black Death stimulated an art characterised by detailed, elegant and courtly style, characterised by a chivalric occupation with a stereotyped, fairy-tale landscape which masked the ravaged reality of the actual landscape and its town, cities and population.

Italian Renaissance art is inseparably linked with the intellectual humanism of mercantile Florence and other major Italian city states, as well as the movements’ renewal of interest in classical antiquity. This power of patronage of, and impetus to, the arts provided an atmosphere which was not available to precursors such as Giotto and the Pisano’s. The world of Giotto was still a medieval world whereas the world of Masaccio possessed the ambience of renewal, a world where the necessities of trade widened man’s horizons of exploration.

It is the humanist background of Donatello and Masaccio that inspired them to portray “…human beings and the natural space in which they lived more nearly as the appeared to the common sense observer…”, furthermore “…with regard for their human emotions and less for their symbolic significance.” (Holmes, 1969). By looking at the work of Masaccio we can examine why his art is in fact the start of Italian Renaissance painting, rather than the broader concept of Renaissance art as a whole.

Masaccio, born near Florence in 1401, and dead in Rome in 1428, was admitted to the Florentine Guild at the age of 22. His achievement was within six or seven years. From Brunelleschi he acquired his sense of mathematical proportion and understanding of perspective. From Donatello he drew knowledge of classical art forms. Yet his painting style owed little to other masters except the work of Giotto. The humanism and emotion in Masaccio’s painting are his own achievement and is why he can justly be described as the first great painter of the Renaissance and inaugurator of the modern painting era. Only four great and definite works by Masaccio survive. His earliest is the panel Madonna with St Anne


Virgin and Child and St. Anne (1424-25), with Masolino de Panicale.

painted around 1423. In this work the influence of Donatello can be seen in the solidly rounded forms of its figures with their realistic features and skin tones. It is possible that some elements of the painting were the work of Masaccio’s associate Masolino di Panicale. In this early work Masaccio already demonstrates clearly his realistic technique combined with his accuracy of showing forms in three-dimensional space. From this time he is more and more absorbed with his quest for a correspondence between painting and reality – feeding his enormous appetite to imitate from life.

Masaccio’s fresco in Santa Maria Novella painted around 1425 and known as The Trinity, can be regarded as the benchmark of Renaissance painting. Known for its use of golden


Holy Trinity (1425-28) in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

light and soft shadows the work used full perspective in Western art for the first time. The use of classical architectural themes shows the influence of Brunelleschi and the growing revival of the antique. This fresco of Masaccio’s, like his others, demonstrates unity of style and content by avoiding the international Gothic because its details detracted in his view from the narrative. In other words Masaccio aimed at a clear and uncluttered relationship between details and the whole. A clarity of exposition not just of figures in space but of their emotions as well. In this respect Masaccio strove for homogeneity, not just of the narrative but also the spatial framework within which his theme is portrayed.

A monument to the heritage bequeathed by Masaccio are his fresco series in the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, and painted around 1427. It is here that he demonstrated his great development of painting – the use of light and shade to define form and drapery. He thus created displays of light and shadow, using this technique of chiaroscuro to achieve a realistic and natural quality in his imagery. Masaccio painted six of the frescoes, of which the Expulsion from Paradise and The Tribute Money are regarded as his masterpieces. Other frescoes in the same series were done by Masolino and later by Filippino Lippi. The figures in these frescoes show rounded solidity with a maximum of emotion shown in facial features and gestures.

In the Expulsion from Paradise Masaccio represents very realistically the figures of Adam and Eve overcome by grief and shame. The scene depicts accurately the intense drama and sorrow of their predicament, the figures have definite attitudes with further gravity imposed by the cloud bound angel pointing the way to exile. The style of the works is austere and


The Expulsion from Paradise (1426-28). Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

the figures are drawn with a masterly degree of realism. Masaccio’s figures are bulky and solid, sculpturesque as well as emotive in the style of Donatello. In this Masaccio contrasts with the lithe and lissom figures of Masolino in the opposite fresco concerning the temptation in the Garden of Eden. Again, the directional light source not only describes form but also adds to the dramatic narrative of a slow moving human couple, leaving a merely suggested Gate of Paradise in despair.

In The Tribute Money Masaccio shows his classical influences. The figures are shown in Roman attire but the tax gatherer in contemporary Florentine dress. The tax gatherer is also shown clean shaven according to local custom. The apostles are all bearded (though Roman fashion reviled at body hair) but one individual shows an obvious clean shaven and

Tribute Money

The Tribute Money (1425).  Brancacci Chapel, Florence.

classical profile. The scene is mathematically proportioned with a panoramic sweep, the characters presented as a continuous narrative. Masaccio uses colour to great effect with a directional light source. The result is that his figures have a credibility and depth as well as human character. In perspective terms the classically inspired buildings relate to the size of the figures. This fresco is the most famous episode in the cycle.

Although Bernard Berenson described Masaccio as Giotto reborn this can be regarded as somewhat enthusiastic. To regard him simply thus is to risk overlooking the novel in Masaccio’s achievements. Masaccio has been described as the father of Renaissance painting with his influence on contemporaries far more extensive and enduring than that of Giotto. Masaccio took the best of Giotto’s art and took it further by imbuing his own with a humanism that Giotto for his time could not achieve. The main influences on Masaccio came from Donatello, Brunelleschi, and the impetus of Florentine enlightenment and humanism. However, the innovations of Masaccio in painting were those of originality – his debt to Giotto being in those elements whereby Giotto searched for ways to express more exalted human emotions.


 Virgin Mary (1426). National Gallery, London.

Masaccio did not have long to live and this adds to his achievement – his Brancacci frescoes serving as a source of inspiration for succeeding generations of painters. Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo all acknowledge their indebtedness to him. Masaccio, born Tomasso Cassai, nicknamed ‘sloppy Tom’. ‘clumsy Tom’ or ‘hulking Tom’ by Vasari, and thus the first great painter of the Renaissance who developed a highly original style, a new naturalistic approach that earned him during his few creative years the honest admiration of his contemporaries. The simplicity and unity of Masaccio’s painting can be regarded as the starting point of Italian Renaissance painting which, in combination with Donatello and Brunelleschi, was a component of the starting point of the Italian Renaissance as a whole.

November 5th, 1996.


Holmes, G.  (1969).  The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400-1450.












Leave a comment

Filed under History Of Art

Patrons and Artists of the Renaissance

Painted portraits were often donor to sitter. Renaissance man was now the centre of interest. Paintings reflected his world and buildings were planned to his measure. Literature celebrated his achievements, his qualities and his activities. There was a growing awareness of human beings and an increased sense of individualism.

The donor was no longer painted humbly outside the holy event – the patron himself was now placed firmly in the centre of the picture. For example, Jan van Eyck’s  Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin,  (1433-1440), Louvre, Paris. Rolin kneels, taking position vis-a-vis the Virgin. Staring more than adoring, his powerful personality projected from strong features with penetrating eyes and stubborn lines between eyes and nose. The Virgin is suave, precious and beautiful. However, she still belongs to the world of Gothic imagery. Rolin, though, is wholly within the realistic world of Renaissance portraits. He is no longer simply the donor – he is the subject.


Jan van Eyck.  Madonna and Child with Chancellor Rolin (1433-

After the second decade of the 15th century portraiture blossomed in Flemish  painting in a series of masterpieces that paid close attention to realistic details kept in check by sober backgrounds. For example, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban (1433), National Gallery, or his Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436), Bruges, ­both of which are examples of the early realism.

Red Turban

Jan van Eyck.  Man in a Red Turban (1433).

Eyck madonna with canon

Jan van Eyck.  Madonna with Canon van der Paele (1436).

Contemporary works by Rogier van der Weyden and Petrus Christus include Rogier van der Weyden’s Portrait of a Lady (1435-40), Berlin, and represent more idealised ‘classical realism’. The term ‘classical’ in its general meaning means a composition based largely on horizontals and verticals so regularly presented as to achieve serenity and equilibrium.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Portrait of a Lady (1435-40).

Rogier van der Weyden’s  Portrait of a Woman (c. 1430), National Gallery, is a wood panel measuring 36.2 x 27.6cm. Each natural shape is represented with its perfect geometric equivalent. The picture is endowed with a more detached, almost abstract, quality, than Jan van Eyck’s works, which does not undermine its realism. From the horizontal of the woman’s red bodice to the triangular and pyramidal folds of her headgear and camisole, all frame with geometric  precision the mobile oval of her face and forehead. There is a sense of volume so strong that one wants .to touch it. Her features all balance perfectly around the centre of the picture to give it serenity and timelessness.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Portrait of a Woman (c. 1430).

The Flemish School of portraiture presented – for the first time in the history of art – images of men and women which focussed more and more on their aesthetic, spiritual and physical qualities.

Artists and Patronage

It is axiomatic that Renaissance art and culture flourished in an atmosphere of patronage. This remains a vague notion without qualification. Not only does the function of cultural patronage – clientage being regarded as social and political ­remain inadequately charted its nature is still obscured by misleading glamour. There are three forms of cultural patronage. These are: (1) paying for a specific object because convention called for it – a painting, Latin verse set, grander house – and which was a simple, discriminating shopping operation; (2) the deliberate support of an individual’s career because he represented a potential accomplishment – that might otherwise be stultified; and (3) support of some form of cultural expression because of a belief in its value for its own sake.

Giovanni Rucellai (1475-1525) was a Florentine courtier and dramatist noted for his tragedies Rosamunda and Oreste who also wrote Le Api (The Bees) a version of Virgil’s Georgics. As a patron he was an active employer of painters in Florence with noted works in his house by Domenico Veneziano, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Pollaluolo, Andrea del Castagno, and Paolo Uccello, In 1457 Filippo Lippi painted a triptych for Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici as an intended gift for King Alfonso V of Naples as a minor ploy in Medicean  diplomacy. Filippo Lippi worked in Florence and kept in touch by letter. Lippi repeats the stipulations for the triptych and refers to the gold and silver required. He states he received 14 florins of the calculated 30 for expenses due to the painting’s rich Ornament. He asks for 60 florins to cover materials, gold, gilding and painting. Lippi asks for Bartolommeo Martell’ to act as Cosimo’s agent. He promises to finish by August 20th and sends his drawing of how the triptych will look and further asks for 100 florins for the labour to make it. The letter is written and dated 20.7.1457.

Painters often differed from sculptors in their relationship with patrons. Sculptors worked for large communal institutions or enterprises. For example, Donatello worked for a long time for the Wool Guild’s administration of the Cathedral works in Florence – where lay control was less personal and less complete. The painter was more exposed than the sculptor.

There was no fixed form to contracts but one less typical was between Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Prior of the Ospedale degli Innocenti at Florence. This was the contract for his Adoration of the Magi of 1488. The contract contained three main themes and which both parties signed: (1) it specified what the painter was to paint; (2) it is explicit about how and when the client is to pay, and when the painter is to deliver; and (3) it insists on the painter using good quality of colours, especially gold and ultramarine. Commitment was usually a serious matter. For example, Fra Angelico’s altarpiece of 1433 for the Linen Makers Guild – the Tabernacle of the Linen Makers and now in the Museo di San Marco, Florence. He was bound not to deviate from his drawing.


Domenico Ghirlandaio.  Adoration of the Magi (1488).

Filippino Lippi painted the Life of St Thomas (1493), for Santa Maria sopra Minerva at Rome. Cardinal Caraffa gave him 2000 ducats for his personal part and paid for assistants and ultramarine separately. The two headings of expenses and of painter’s labour were the basis for calculating payment. Again, there was contractual flexibilty. Ghirlandaio was paid 115 florins for his predella for the Innocenti Altarpiece but received an extra 7 florins.

The Early Medici as Patrons of art

A patron according to the OED definition is “…one who offers his influential support to advance the interests of a person, cause, art etc…also, in tradesmen’s language, a regular customer.” Patronage was one of the chief instruments of Medici policy during the century when they had no legal right to authority. They were always expected to “…offer their influential support to advance the interests of a person.” – according to Marcello del Piazzo in his Protocolli del Carteggio di Lorenzo it Magnifico, Florence, 1956.

The Medici rarely refused to intervene on behalf of anybody who might be won over to their camp. Nobody felt too humble to ask for intervention. The emergence of the patronage of ‘art is impossible without an idea of art. There were three types of patronage offerred by Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo de’ Medici. The first appearance of the Medici in their role as patrons was their activity that fitted into the age old traditions of communal religious life.

Cosimo de’ Medici (1389-1464) called Pater Patriae (Father of his country) first appears as a patron in a collective exercise – the erection of statues to patron saints of the Florentine guilds. In 1419 wealthy bankers felt it necessary to act on this scheme. Another pious foundation of the Medici brothers was the commissioning from Ghiberti to make a shrine for the martyrs Hyacinthus, Protus and Nemesius. About the same time Cosimo saw to the restoration of the Franciscan church of San Francesco al Bosco – a traditional design with rural simplicity. Vespasiano wrote about Cosimo’s foundation and rebuilding of the monastery of San Marco. In some respects – to escape the  stigma of usury – it was attempted to return it to the poor. There is evidence that this is what Cosimo tried to do. It had nothing to do with the  direct patronage of art. Of Cosimo’s spending all monies remained within the economy of the city. Therefore Cosimo was under economic and moral arguments and pressures to act. Not everyone was appeased by Cosimo’s donations. In his monasteries and churches Cosimo modelled his magnificence on divine excellence. The Medicean coats of arts were displayekl on all Cosimo’s ecclesiastical foundations and resemble more a lust for glory than divine worship.

It was Cosimo who founded the Platonic Academy in Florence in 1450. He also patronised the painters Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, the sculptors Donatello, Luca della Robbia, and Ghiberti, as well as the architect Brunelleschi

During the 15th century the work of art belonged to the donors. For example, the Coronation of the Virgin by Filippo Lippi. In the painting an angel points to a kneeling mink with the words ‘iste petfecit opus’. It is now accepted the angel points to the donor and not the artist’s self-portrait.This situation changed during Cosimo’s lifetime. Filippo Villami and Alberti, amongst others, were busy propagating the `liberal’ status of painting. In the Renaissance only one humanist included the names of artists among Cosimo’s beneficiaries – thus Antonio Benevieni in his Encomium said Cosimo thus “…bestowed both honours and countless rewards on Donatello and Desiderio, two highly renowned sculptors.”

Another example is the San Marco Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, of around 1438-40. This was a Medici commission for the main altar and is a wood panel measuring 220 x 227cm and now in the Museum of San Marco in Florence. Ordered in 1438 it was completed in 1440. Its elaborate predella is now separated from the main panel and amongst other collections.


Fra Angelico.  The San Marco Altarpiece (1438-40).

The altarpiece is called Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels and Saints Cosmas and Damian, Lawrence, John the Evangelist, Mark, Dominic, Francis, and Peter the Martyr. in the picture the doctors ­e.g., Cosmas and Damian represent the Medici with St Cosmas a thinly veiled portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici. The Convent of San Marco was rebuilt under Medici  patronage after 1437 by the architect Bartolommeo Michelozzo. The cloisters and cells were painted with frescoes by Fra Angelico and others.

Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-1492) was called II Magnifico – The Magnificent ­and was the grandson of Cosimo and most famous of all the Medici. The son of Piero de’ Medici he wrote Petrarchan and other verses, sacred drama, and literary criticism, as well as being a leading patron of art and scholarship during the  Renaissance. Lorenzo was the patron of the humanist philosophers and scholars Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico delta Mirandola, Luigi Pulci, and the humanist poet Angelo Poliziano known as Politian. He patronised the artists Botticelli, Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo da Vinci, Filippo Lippi, and Verrocchio amongst others.

On the death of Lorenzo in 1492 the centre of patronage shifted from  Florence to Rome – in particular pope Julius It was adept at employing artists on projects that both advanced the cause of religion and helped the Church compete with the growing power of secular government. Julius II is best known for his patronage of Michelangelo. Two of the most celebrated Renaissance popes – Leo X and Clement VII – were members of the Medici family. Giovanni de’ Medici (1475­-1521) the youngest son of Lorenzo reigned as pope Leo X between 1513 and 1521, and Guilio de’ Medici (1478-1534), nephew of Lorenzo was pope Clement VII between 1523 and  1534. Clement VII  patronised  the  sculptor and writer Cellini.

Leave a comment

Filed under History Of Art

Renaissance Portraiture

During the Renaissance, portraiture flourished as a manifestation of humanism. Thus it revived the ancient classical interest in human affairs and emphasised the development of the individual. During the 15th century in Italy the Florentine sculptor Donatello revived portrait sculpture in stone, a style that was continued by Desiderio da Settignano and others. Pisanello struck fine portrait medals.

Early Renaissance portrait painters of realistic murals and panels included Benozzo Gozzoli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Piero della Francesca. Celebrated masters of the High Renaissance, such as Leonardo, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Giorgione, and Titian, carried formal portraiture to new heights of refined perception and rich colour and light.

Portraits by Northern Renaissance painters show a preoccupation with realism and precise detail of physiognomy and costume. This approach is characteristic of panels by the Flemish masters Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, and Hans Memling and the drawings and paintings of the later Germans Albrecht Durer and Hans Holbein the Younger.

Mannerist portraits tended to exaggerate colour, proportion, light, or expression in reaction to the balanced classicism of the High Renaissance. They include works by Agnolo Bronzino and Tintoretto in Italy and highly personal interpretations by El Greco in Spain.

In the late Middle Ages realistic portraits appeared in works in which the identity of the subject was particularly important – tomb figures and donor portraits. An example of the latter is the portrait by Giotto (c.1305) of Enrico degli Scrovegni, donor of the Arena Chapel at Padua. Donor portraits, incorporated into religious scenes, were common in Italy for another 150 years, a period in which portraiture for  its own sake developed in the North.

The first great northern Renaissance portraitist was the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, who endowed his subjects with life and personality and introduced the  portrait as a secular art form to Europe. In the 15th century, Italian portraiture was influenced by this Flemish approach, which confirmed the realist tradition based on ancient sculpture, as in the portraits by Piero della Francesca of Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465), and in the Uffizi, Florence.


Piera della Francesca.  Frederico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (1465).

The conflict between idealism and realism was characteristic of High Renaissance portraiture. Many of the great 16th century masters treated portraiture as a side-line, e.g., Raphael, or submerged individuality in atmospheric effects, e.g., Leonardo da Vinci, or ignored likeness altogether, e.g., Michelangelo. An alternate approach was practised by the Venetian painters led by Titian. Using a suggestive rather than a detailed technique, they achieved a dramatic  portrait style that became popular throughout Europe and influenced generations of artists.

Portraits were introduced into narrative compositions thereby figures from the past could be given the features of contemporaries. Vasari said that he could identify many portrait heads in 14th and 15th century narrative compositions. For example, Ghirlandaio filled his religious subjects with portraits of contemporaries, who intruded upon, rather than participated in the scene. Again, Hubert and Jan van Eyck may be two of the Just Judges in the Ghent Altarpiece. Jean Fouquet, in his Virgin and Child with Angels, portrayed according to tradition Agnes Sorel – La Belle Agnes – as the Virgin. A woman who was mistress to Charles VII of France.

Various pictures of beautiful women form another particularly difficult category  to distinguish between paintings that are portraits and those that are not. For example Titian’s La Bella is not a true portrait but rather a painting of a professional model. It was commissioned by Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino whose interest lay not in her identity but in her beauty. The model herself posed nude for Titian on a number of occasions – e.g., his Venus of Urbino, and Girl with a Fur.


Titian.  Venus of Urbino (1538)

Therefore, La Bella is not really a portrait but a fancy picture based on studies from life. Similarly with Giorgione’s picture Laura. It is taken as a portrait of a poetess ­part of a marriage betrothal diptych or idealised representaion of Petrarch’s Laura. Thus Giorgione’s Laura of 1506 may be a portrait of a lady in the guise of Laura ­Petrarch’s mistress. More likely it is a representaion as Giorgione imagined her, having made studies from a professional model.


Giorgione.  Portrait of a Woman – Laura (1506).

Again, Jan van Eyck’s Man in a Red Turban is probably the artist himself, with the lighting and clothes bringing attention to the face. Botticelli’s Young Man (1480’s) displays a reasonable proportion of the head to torso but exaggerates the sitter’s features.

Red Turban

Jan van Eyck.  Man in a Red turban (1433).

botticelli young man

Sandro Botticelli.  Young Man (1480-85).

A tendency to idealisation  explains why portraits by the same artist share a sort of family likeness. Therefore, idealisation means unsigned, undocumented portraits can be assigned to specific painters. Some artists could not abandon their idealised facial types. Also fashions in beauty played a part. The degree of idealisation is measurable when two approximately contemporary portraits of the same sitter exist by different artists. For example Nicolas Rolin the Chancellor of Burgundy – Jan van Eyck’s The Virgin of Autun of the late 1430’s and Rogier van der Weyden’s Nicolas Rolin of about 10 years later. Rogier’s is the reverse of an altarpiece, The Last Judgement at Beaune. The features in both portraits correspond fairly exactly – but where Jan van Eyck faithfully recorded Rogier van der Weyden imposed a stylised and hugely personal vision upon the subject.


Jan van Eyck.  The Virgin of Autun (late 1430’s).

Memlinc’s portrait of Maria Portinari may be compared with another likeness produced at the same time, the 1470’s, by Hugo van der Goes. Memlinc’s is from a half-length triptych and was painted for private use around 1470 when she was 14- to 15 years old. That by Hugo van der Goes is from the wing of a very large altarpiece for a Florentine church and dated 1477 to 1478 when she was in her early 20’s.


Memlinc.  Maria Portinari (c. 1470).

She now looks older, prematurely aged by constant child-bearing. In both portraits she is similarly dressed and wears the same intricate necklace. Memlinc uses a diffused  and flattering illumination whereas Van der Goes uses a stronger, more dramatic  lighting. Both artists referred to fashionable details of feminine beauty that they could interpret more directly in their images of female saints.

In 16th century Italy the enchantment of the theorists and artists with the Platonic idea  and with concepts of absolute beauty led to some confusion over the desirability of idealisation in portraits. According to Vasari, for example, Michelangelo “…abhorred drawing anything from life unless it was of the utmost beauty.” Indeed, Michelangelo executed only one portrait and that of his friend and patron Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. The enhancement of likeness inevitably idealises. However, characterisation shows the personality of the sitter. Their are two facets to characterisation – the expression of the sitter’s public identity and status, and the analysis of the private self. In certain portraits the sitters can be cast in the roles of gods, saints, and heroes. In other words – visual parallels. The personality being expressed by pose and facial expression. As Leonardo wrote “…painting considers the working of the mind as reflected in the movements of the body.”

Most facial expressions are fleeting. Giovanni Bellini’s portrait of Leonardo Loredan (probably painted after the sitter became Doje of Venice in 1501, is a static official image with the armless rigidity of a Roman bust. Whereas Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione shows  mobility of expression by contrasting sizes and shapes of eyebrows and eyes with catchlights in the pupils. Again, Holbein for example, individualised his sitters by exaggerating the assymetries of their features.


Giovanni Bellini.  Leonardo Loredan (1501).


Raphael. Portrait of Baldasarre Castiglione (1514-15).

Characterisation is taken to an unusual degree of penetration in two portraits by Quentin Metsys in the 1510’s. One of an unidentified man and the other of an unidentified woman. Thought of as an original pair they are now separated. The man nervously fingers his beads whilst looking up at his wife. The woman presents as an unassailable solidity and Metsys suggests she is an impervious, uncharitable and uncompromising individual. However, Rogier van der Weyden was not an objective portraitist. All his sitters are idealised in the same way, similarly posed and have similar expressions of noble piety. Whereas Metsys’s portraits are honest expressions of his sympathetic and critical reactions to his sitters.

Contemporaries disagreed on the value of portraits. In 1570 Catherine de’Medici said of her son – Charles IV of France – that “…no painter is good enough to represent him to our satisfaction.” The opposite view has Aretino writing a sonnet in 1537 in praise of Titian’s portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (1493-­1550). In his Eleonora Gonzaga the sitter is the daughter of Gianfresco Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, and Isabella d’Este. She married Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1509. Titian’s portraits of the Duke and Duchess date from 1536 to 1538.

Portrait types – series

Almost all types of portrait of the 16th century were already being painted in the 15th century. Portrait series were of ruling princes, famous men, and were found in most parts of Europe. The Ypres Series comprised several portraits to which were added those of Philip the Bold, Duke of Brgundy and his wife Margaret of Flanders between 1390 and 1404. Broederlam added to the Courtrai Series in 1406. in the Low Countries genealogical portrait series became a common form of decoration. Nobility and gentry followed their rulers by commissioning series of ancestor portraits.

Various 15th century Italian sets of heads appear in family series and Church authorities commissioned ecclesiastical series. In a series of famous men persons of the remote past were placed alongside recently dead or still living celebrities. According to Vasari it was Giotto who painted such a series in Naples. Castagno painted 9 frescoes circa 1450 for the Villa Carducci outside Florence, and Justus of Ghent provided 28 panels, circa 1475, for the Studiolo of the Ducal Palace at Urbino. Mantegna’s frescoes in the Camera Picta at the palace in Mantua (1474-75) show Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, his family, courtiers and guests ­which included Emperor Frederick III, Christian I King of Denmark. Of narrative interest rather than an actual assembly.

Group portraits

These occurred in some dynastic series. In Italy mural paintings often served as substitutes for tapestries (e.g., Burgundian). An example of a dynastic mural is the Pavia Castle series (1469) for Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan. Another example is by Francesco del Cossa – the Borso d’Este, Duke of Ferrara and his Courtiers which is part of the Month of March fresco (painted circa 1470) at the Palazzo Schifanoia, Ferrara. Again, Justus of Ghent painted, circa 1480 and now in Hampton Court, his Frederico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, his son Guidobaldo and others listening to a discourse. It records the intellectual pleasures of life at the court of Urbino, though perhaps not a specific event. Mural cycles also include Giotto’s fresco Pope Boniface VIII Proclaiming the Jubilee of 1300. A mixture of court activities and actual events. Similarly his now lost John II of France Receiving a Diptych from Pope Clement VI.

Masaccio’s lost fresco of the Consecration of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence took place in 1422. It included many portraits including some of whom were not present at the ceremony. Therefore, like scenes of court life, narrative paintings were easily falsified. They thus included portraits of people whom patrons thought should have been there. By the year 1500 half-length group portraits were popular throughout Europe and full-length double portraits were more frequent than believed. For example Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife (1434).


Jan van Eyck.  The Arnolfini Marriage (1434).

Another example is Hans Memlinc’s An Old Man and and Old Lady of circa 1480 and now sawn in two. Half-length double portraits were produced in Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries by the mid-15th century.

Single portraits

Full-length potraits of persons standing, seated or lying, or mounted on horses occur throughout the period. For example Botticelli’s frescoes representing Lorenzo Tornabuoni and his Wife, which include various allegorical figures. Now in the Louvre but originally in a villa near Florence. An equestrian example is Titian’s Charles V on Horseback and painted at Augsburg in 1548. The picture represents a combination of northern and classical prototypes and set the standard for subsequent development of equestrian portraits.

An example of the below the waist portrait is Leonardo’s Lady with a Ferret painted at Milan between 1485 and 1490. [Note the below the waist pose of the Mona Lisa of 1503-1506]. The sitter is identified as Cecilia Gallerami the mistress of Lodovico it Moro, Duke of Milan.

Lady with a ferret

Leonardo da Vinci.  Lady with a Ferret (1485-90).

Similarly Raphael’s Pope Julius II – 1511-1512. Giulio della Rovere (1443-1513) was elected Pope in 1503 and the portrait was presented to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome. According to Vasari it was “…so wonderfully life-like and true that it inspired fear as if it were alive.” The portrait is an example of the seated to the knees composition.


Raphael.  Pope Julius II (1511-1512).

Again, another seated to below the knees by Raphael is his Joanna of Aragon of 1518. The sitter was Joanna of Aragon (1500-1577) the grand-daughter of Ferdinand I of Naples. She was betrothed in 1518 to Ascanio Colonna, the Constable of Naples. She was celebrated for her supreme beauty and intellectual accomplishments. The portrait was commissioned by Cardinal Bibbienna as a gift for Francis I of France. The picture was reputedly painted from a cartoon prepared by a pupil – there being no evidence Raphael ever saw Joanna the sitter.

joanna of aragon

Raphael.  Joanna of Aragon (1518).


In the Netherlands painted fictive frames and parapets were rarely employed. They were more popular in Italy where some preferred stepped parapets. A parapet or ledge was often used to support an arm. An example being by Titian in his The Man with a Blue Sleeve of 1511-1512, and thought to be the artist himself. A parapet used by a northern artist was often to carry an inscription.


Andrea del Sarto.  Man with a Blue Sleeve (1511-12).

Thus Jan van Eyck’s Leal Sovennir of 1432. The sitter may already be dead and the portrait possibly painted to resemble an ancient Roman tombstone. Again, Rogier van der Weyden painted his Lady in 1435 to 1440. Here the sitter rests folded hands on an unseen ledge or horizontal surface.

Leal sovvenir

Jan van Eyck.  Leal Sovvenir (1432).

Similarly Titian in his La Schiavona of 1511 shows a parapet with a relief giving a profile of the sitters head. An unidentified woman who rests her hands on what is an example of a stepped parapet. An example of using a frame as a parapet on which to rest hands is that by Raphael in his unidentified sitter entitled La Muta of circa 1507. The use of a table, or part of a table, gave a horizontal accent to the composition. An example is by Titian in his Frederico Gonzaga painted circa 1529. Frederico Gonzaga (1500-1540), and one of Titian’s most important patrons, was the son of Isabella d’Este. A visible chair of a seated subject enabled the arms of the chair to be used to cut the figure. This is seen in Andrea del Sarto’s Young Man painted in the late 1510’s. The unidentified sitter holds a book in his hands.

Profiled portraits maintained popularity in Italy until about 1500 when they rapidly fell out of favour. Most 14th century northern portraits were not profiles which were exceptional after 1420. For example Pisan&Ids Ginevra d’Este – a lady of Lionello d’Este’s (1407-1450) family and painted in the 1430’s. A full three-quarter view is shown by Antonello da Messina in his Condottiere of 1475. A fanciful title for an unidentified sitter and painted during his Venetian stay and showing Netherlandish  influence. The face does show forceful determination. Three-quarter views are also seen in the Master of Flemalle (Robert Campin) portrait pair of 1430 – Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Lady. Man and wife they are simply dressed and not of elevated status. The varied lighting has allowed stress of physical bulk and enables emphasis of contrasts between facial expressions.

Rogier van der Weyden had problems compressing sitters hands together at the lower edges of portraits. For example his Lady of circa 1464. The unidentified sitter presents with a geometric composition.

Lady 1435

Rogier van der Weyden.  Lady (1434)

Gestures in portraits can have meaning, especially of affirmation or insistence, and some add a becoming touch with the hand held near the chest or face. An example is Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti, circa 1515. The sitters pose was also affected by choice of background which related the sitter more securely to the background rather than the frame. Curtains  could serve as frames. Often flat areas of one colour were used as a background ­easy to paint and the cheapest to commission. Expensive interiors are admirably shown in Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage.

In Florence, Fra Filippo Lippi’s idea of displaying a sitter against an elaborately carved window frame opening onto a distant landscape may have been inspired by Netherlandish pictures. His Lady is dated around 1440 to 1450 and shows an unidentified sitter in profile. The idea was taken up by Botticelli who sometimes placed his sitters between two windows – e.g., his portrait of Giuliano de’ Medici exploits the pose against an open doorway into another room.

medici botticelli

Sandro Botticelli. Giuliano de Medici (after 1478).

The generalised rendering of the face suggests the portrait was done after Giuliano’s murder in 1478 at the age of 25.


Antonello de Messina.  St Jerome in his Study.

Again, many objects within a composition held symbolic significance, for example Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage or Antonello de Messina’s St Jerome in his Study.

The Sitters, Patrons, and Painters

The sitter and patron were often the same person or the patron’s wife or family member – a market for the beautiful, the heroic, the important, or the famous. It was easier to paint the beautiful or the handsome rather than the dowdy or insignificant. When a portrait was commissioned the artist and patron must normally agree on size, appearance, and price. Formal contracts were rare. Price depended on size, detail, costume, background and accessories. Some artists used a sliding-scale to agree a price for a commission according to its complexity.

The  patron held the ultimate sanction of withholding payment. In a position therefore to exercise complete control over the painter and many did indeed dictate to artists. For example Felipe II of Spain complained of Titian’s haste in painting his portrait wearing armour – perhaps fearing a reduction in quality.

Most painters exoected to, were prepared to, execute portraits. Some specialised. Few Low Countries artists specialised. Mantegna was not thought a good portraitist by the Marquis of Mantua, and was similarly criticised by Isabella d’este. Also speed in execution and early completion was a desirable quality. Pisanello was criticised for taking 6 months to paint his portraiot of Lionello d’Este.

Portrait method

By the second half of the 15th century recognisable portraits were being produced. Portraits were expected to be extremely accurate likenesses. Emperor Charles V was not happy with one of Titain’s posthumous portraits of the Empress. It was in 1517 that Erasmus commissioned his portrait from Quentin Metsys as a gift for Sir Thomas More. After Erasmus had foolishly taken some purgative pills he complained to Metsys his appearance had altered and after further suspension and delays the picture finally arrived. Some portraits were actually painted from meticulous drawings. Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Cardinal Albergati – painted in 1438 – was preceded by meticulous silverpoint drawings.


Jan van Eyck.  Cardinal Albergheti (1438).

Similarly, Jean Fouquet’s picture of Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins – circa towards 1460 – was done from a drawing of black and coloured chalks  on grey paper.


Jean Fouquet. Guillaume Jouvenal des Ursins (c. 1460).

Painting from life was far from unknown. Some portrait heads were executed separately and then glued to the panel. This was the case with Tomasso Portinari and his Sons Antonio and Pigello presented by Saints Anthony and Thomas by Hugo van der Goes. Painted after 1477 as the left wing of his Portinari Altarpiece.


Hugo van der Goes.  Saints Antony and Thomas (c. 1477).

At a much later date Titian painted his portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542) which was admired “…especially since he executed it partly in the presence of the sitter and partly in his absence.” according to the catalogue of the National Gallery, Washington. Posthumous portraits might be executed from corpses. For example Ghirlandaio prepared preliminary drawings of a dead man for his Old Man and Child of circa 1490. The portrait, whose preliminary drawings show a turned down mouth and closed eyes of a corpse, exhibit in the painting a stylisation and modification. The nose is portrayed with clinical exactitude – the condition rhinophyma (nodular congestion and enlargement of the nose) is quite apparent.

The functions of portraits

The basic function was commemorative. Durer saw in portraiture one of the principal purposes of art because it “…preserves the likenesses of men after their deaths.. Durer immortalised Erasmus in an engraving in 1526. Some portraits were mementos of loved ones. Raphael painted his Baldassare Castiglione in 1514-1515 when the sitter was in Rome as the Duke of Urbino’s ambassador. Castiglione wrote a sonnet imagining his wife separated from him with the companionship of his portrait. Leonardo wrote that “…the painter…can place the true image of the beloved before the lover, who often kisses it and speaks to it.”

Italy and the North

We have been conditioned to look at Renaissance works of art with the eyes of a 16th century Florentine. The ideals and values of Vasari and his contemporaries have been accepted with suprising readiness by succeeding generations. Italian Renaissance theorists were led by their infatuation with the pursuit of ideal beauty to take a patronising attitude to portraiture. In the 15th century, many Italians clearly took an intense interest in northern art. French and Netherlandish portraits were reaching Italy in fair numbers.

In the 1470’s Federico da Montefeltro employed at Urbino the Netherlander Justus of Ghent and who painted portraits there. During the same decade Antonello da Messina was in Venice where he would have helped familiarise the Venetians with his knowledge of portraits and oil painting from the Low Countries. Rogier van der Weyden’s lost triptych Descent from the Cross was at Ferrara by 1449. In the 1450’s a triptych by Jan van Eyck of the Annunciation was at Naples. The Portinari Triptych by Van der Goes arrived in Florence in 1483.


Rogier van der Weyden.  Descent from the Cross (1449).

It is an oversimplification to say that every Italian three-quarter view portrait was due to Netherlandish influence. Two of the earliest surviving three-quarter Italian portraits are Castagno’s Portrait of a Man (circa 1450) and Mantegna’s Cardinal Ludovico Trevisan of circa 1460. They had probably seen Netherlandish portraits similar to Rogier van der Weyden’s 1449 work Antoine, the ‘Grand Batard’ of Burgundy. The sitter was one of the numerous illegitimate offspring of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. By the end of the century it can be seen that some Italian  painters were imitating specific Netherlandish portraits. For example Perugino’s Self Portrait of 1482 is based on a Memlinc portrait seen in Florence.


Perugino.  Self-portrait (1482).

The composition and landscape of Perugino’s Francesco delle Opere (1494) is very close to Memlinc to suggest Perugino followed another of Memlinc’s portraits. In Raphael’s early portraits borrowings from Netherlandish art may be found. For example in his portrait Pope Julius he adapted the composition of Pope Sixtus IV by Justus of Ghent His portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals clearly follows the tradition of Fouquet’s lost portrait Pope Eugenius IV with two of his familiars ­Raphael would have seen these at Rome.


The Roman  portrait bust survived in the form of life-sized reliquaries of saints, but it was in 15th century Florence that the individual features and character of a contemporary sitter were accurately recorded by sculptors such as Donatello, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole and Rossellino. A similar degree of realism occurs in 15th century tomb sculpture.

The equestrian portrait, based on antique statues such as Marcus Aurelius Rome, Campidoglio, was revived in the 14th century. An example in fresco is the posthumous portrait of Sir John Hawkwood by Uccello in Florence Cathedral – this gives the 3-dimensional illusion of a statue seen from below. The Venetian Republic ordered an imposing monument from Donatello – the 1447 Gattamelata in Padua. Also the 1479 Colleoni monument by Verrocchio in Venice itself. Another form of political portraiture derived from antiquity was the commemorative portrait medal  designed by artists such as Pisanello.

The carved or painted profile portrait became popular in the 1450’s. The realism of the clear, flattened image, painted under the influence of Flemish  examples by the Pollalolo brothers, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli, was superceded by the three-quarter and frontal portrait. These were psychologically more complex such as Leonardo’s enigmatic Mona Lisa with her momentary smile, or Andrea del Sarto’s arresting Portrait of a Man. The 16th century portrait became generalised – Lorenzo Lotto’s Andrea Odoni of 1527 being an idealised concept of a collector rather than an individual.

Group portraits, decorating whole rooms, include the narrative scenes of the Gonzaga court painted by Mantegna for the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua and completed in 1474, and the elaborate scenes commissioned by the Farnese family in Rome from Vasari for the Palazzo della Cancellaria in Rome, and completed in 1546. Portraits were also incorporated into religious narratives, such as Ghirlandaio’s fresco cycle painted for Giovanni Tornabuoni in Santa Maria Novella, Florence between 1486 and 1490.

Leave a comment

Filed under History Of Art

Titian as a Painter of Portraits


self portrait intro

Imaginary Self-portrait of Titian by Pietro Della Vecchio (1602-78).

Born Tiziano Vecellio in Preve di Cadore in the Dolomite region in the 1480’s Titian (c.1477-1576) became the most famous painter in 16th century Venice and the greatest member of the Venetian School. Dominating for sixty years painting in that city and northern Italy and influencing Tintoretto and Veronese. European kings and princes competed for his services and his stature was as great an Michelangelo’s. Apprenticed to Gentile (c.1429-1507) and Giovanni Bellini (c.1430-1516) Titian then imitated the style of Giorgione (1477-1510) with whom he worked for some years. Titian became painter to the wealthy Venetian intellectual circles and close friend of Pietro Aretino (1492-1556) whose writings advanced Titian’s reputation. Titian, along with Aretino and the sculptor Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570) formed the triumvirate which ruled artistic matters in Venice.

Titian’s career can be divided into phases from which an understanding of his development as an artist can be obtained. The period of his Beginnings and Training (1484-1520), the years of apprenticeship when he absorbed the achievements of the past. His Artistic Development (1520-1540) follows the deaths of Giorgione (1510), Giovanni Bellini (1516), and Raphael (1520), leaping beyond his contemporaries with a seemingly miraculous outburst of inventive power. His period of Celebrity and Power (1540-1555), when he crested another wave of innovation. His late period, his Final Achievement (1556-1576), where in the loneliness and isolation of old age he was able to reject all artistic current compromise. Not a time of decline or decay, but a time of fulfillment when he was able to ignore the tastes of patrons and his art became one of pure intentional expression. The Summary and Conclusions will show how Titian carried forward and developed the art of portrait painting as part of his own continuous developmental process.

 2. First Period: Beginnings and Training (1484-1520).

Titian’s turbulent youthful mood was not appropriate to portrait painting. Only a few small, subdued portraits are ascribed to his early Giorgionesque period. Later Titian developed a larger portrait format but his early portraits still possess the solemn rigidity that characterise donor portraits in his religious paintings.
Giorgione’s compositions elevated landscape, including man, to the status of central role player. Giorgione was not a monumentalist, preferring a more intimate, informal, lyrical and poetic style. Giorgione tried to rise “…above the dualism of man and environment to achieve the harmonic unity of man and ature.” (Fasolo, 1980. p3) by focussing his attention on a landscape and the figures in it. Titian was less whimsical than Giorgione but it is within this context that we must view Titian’s early art.

Titian continued to develop the Giorgionesque idyll during the 1510s, and his earliest works show Giorgione’s influence. Even then an essential difference between the two is present. Titian showed a power of dramatic expression (not found in Giorgione) coupled with a drawing style with an analytical grasp of structure and form. A contrast with the simplification of Giorgione. Titian introduced a powerful human presence, a scenario with man including nature in his actions. Titian charged situations with dramatic pathos, people at specific moments, a style giving his work a universality, a vision of harmony.  In Giorgione’s studio Titian produced his first Portrait of a Man (not now extant), a picture of one of the Barbarigo family. Giorgione died in 1510, and the death of Bellini in 1516, left Titian (in full command of his powers by 1511) in undisputed supremacy amongst Venetian artists.

The Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman (1507) and also known as Portrait of a Man [Fig 1] shows his developing artistic personality, but still clearly Giorgionesque. Compositionally this picture is connected with the Portrait of a Woman (1508) or La Schiavona [Fig 2]. The Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman shows development from small head and shoulders portraits normal for the late 15th century towards half-length and full-length portraits — the important innovation of 16th century painting. The picture shows a young man seated behind a parapet.

Titian Venetian

Figure 1.  Portrait of a Venetian Gentleman (1507).  Public domain.

Flanders portraits rarely employed painted fictive frames and parapets. They were more popular in Italy where some artists preferred stepped parapets [Figure 2]. A parapet was often used to support an arm as in Titian’s Portrait of a Man, 1510.

Late Bellini portraits such as Doge Loredan (1501) show the sitter behind a ledge as a recessional device. In his 1507 portrait Titian shows greater surround with the Doge’s palace seen a window. Similarly Giorgione in his Virgin and Child (The Tallard Madonna) of 1477-1510 (Ashmolean Museum), shows the Doge’s palace through a window. Possibly borrowed by Titian from Giorgione. The sitter is moustached and bearded suggesting a teenager with eye direction indicating a self-portrait. The Portrait of a Woman (La Schiavona) of 1508 [Fig 2] is step-parapeted with profiled relief in grisaille of the sitters head. An unidentified

la schivona

Figure 2. Portrait of a Woman (La Schiavona) 1508. Public domain.

woman of comely proportions wearing a vibrant crimson dress resting her hand on the parapet (Gould, 1975; Hope, 1980). Using a frame as a parapet on which to rest hands is that by Raphael in his La Muta (1507). Titian signed this portrait with TV (Tiziano Vecelli) being dated by some around 1511 (Campbell, 1990) rather than 1508 (Fasolo, 1980).

The Portrait of a Man in a Blue Sleeve, 1510 [Fig 3] is also known as the Ariosto or pseudo-Ariosto. Of Titian’s formative period Giorgione’s pictorial language is still present but now transformed by greater creative power. Initialled by Titian and dated around 1511-1512 (Campbell, 1990; Steer, 1995) instead of 1510 (Fasolo, 1980; Murray, 1995). The sitter’s nose appears straighter than in the portrait of 1507 but the eye direction suggests a self-portrait (Hope, 1980).

blue sleeve

Figure 3.  Portrait of a Man with a Blue Sleeve. (1510).

The picture’s mood is of generalised inner mystery, and therefore Giorgionesque, is thus important as individual likeness. A new element is concern with character for its own sake shown by the forceful manner in which the sitters personality is projected. The sitter appears to have shaken off a rustic uncouthness. Titian was an earthy, extroverted, sensual, ambitious individual, imbued with a peasant shrewdness and hardworking peasant toughness (Gould, 1971) and this portrait (as does the 1507 picture) shows one. The sitter has now acquired a degree of polish and sophistication and is acknowledged as the inspirational source for one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in the National Gallery. The figure in the textured, padded and silvered blue sleeve presents an extraordinary physical presence with textures and light adding to his aura of self-confidence, thereby reflecting the arch-competence of both sitter and artist who are possibly one and the same. The sleeve indicates evidence of expense, fashion and accompanying status.

There is an intense richness of colour in Titian’s early portraits and an especial grace in his female figures. For Titian beauty was an everyday qualitative phenomenon that had an unfailing charm. Whether in his early female portraits or later nudes and ‘Venuses’ we always find the same female beauty to which he remained faithful all his life. For example – the Woman at her Mirror [Fig 4] painted between 1512 and 1515.

woman at mirror

Figure 4.  Woman at her Mirror (1512-15).

Various meanings have been attributed to this work but perhaps it is only a figure study rather than a true portrait. With the picture Violante, 1515 (Fasolo, 1980) we have a fine portrait of a young woman [Fig 5], the daughter of Titian’s artist friend known as Palma Vecchio (1480-1528).


Figure 5.  Violante (1515).

Titian is clearly paying homage to womanly beauty, but the picture is also attributed to Palma Vecchio as an idealised portrait of a courtesan, dated 1507-1508 (Steer, 1995). Whatever the date and whoever ‘Violante’ really is the style resembles more that of Palma Vecchio’s A Blonde Woman (1520) and Portrait of a Woman of 1520 [Fig 6]. The style indicates that Violante is probably by Palma Vecchio. The sheer joy Titian displays in representing female beauty is however shown in his masterpiece Flora (1515). The portrait La Bella, once attributed to Titian, resembles the sumptuous figure in Sacred and Profane Love but is in the style of Palma (Fortini Brown, 1997).

La Bella

Figure 6.  Portrait of a Woman, or La Bella (1520).

With Flora, 1515,  [Fig 7] Titian brought spiritual and earthly elements into an extraordinary and accomplished harmony. The style is subtle and less casual, less provocative than Palma Vecchio’s courtesans. It is a work justly celebrated which appears to represent Titian’s ideal of feminine beauty where he has represented the figure as an ideal nymph. She represents a classical balance between the sensuous and the special character of the Venetian ‘fancy portrait (Steer, 1995).


Figure 7.  Flora (1515).

At this time various pictures of beautiful women form a difficult category to distinguish. Are they just paintings of models, just ‘fancy pictures’ based on studies from life, or are they true portraits? Light falls on Flora’s face, on the robe and the breast it has left exposed. Every detail, even though the picture is almost flat, is perfectly executed, the hands especially. The picture’s essence is that Titian has connected the picture planes using colour and texture. Therefore Flora shows the beginnings of a new phase in Titian’s development as a figure and portrait painter. The painting of the goddess of flowers depicts a blonde Venetian woman with a straight nose, the ideal beauty of a satiated society.

During this period Titian also produced a Portrait of a Young Man in a Fur (1515), see Figure 8, now in New York, plus Portrait of a Young Man (1515), see Figure 9, now in London. The London portrait has been attributed to Giorgione (Gould, 1971) but if the date is correct it we must remember that Giorgione died in 1510. It is nonetheless an unusually fine example of the half-length portrait.

man in fur

Figure 8Young Man in a Fur (1515).

man 1515

Figure 9 Portrait of a Young Man (1515).

The unknown man emerges from a shady and undefined background to present clear outlines but still possesses a Giorgionesque lyricism. The sitter wears dark clothes with light falling on a noble face, on a white shirt and single red sleeve. This enhancement of the sitters reflective features is another developing feature of Titian’s portrait style.

3. Second Period: Artistic Development (1520-1540).

Giorgione’s influence now diminishes and Titian develops light effects to heighten pictorial narrative. Marrying his housekeeper Cecilia di Perarola in 1525 they have two sons Pomponio (1524) and Orazio (1525). Cecilia fell ill in 1525 and died (1530) after giving birth to Lavinia and a non-surviving daughter. This had a profound affect on Titian. During this period Titian became increasingly involved with the courts of Ferrara and Mantua. Portraits now developed a more expansive and overt style. Marked by a quiet pictorial subtlety and colouristic refinement the 1530s portraits are compelling images of idealised masculinity and femininity. Titian’s mastery of colour appears in his Portrait of Vincenzo Mosti (1520), a Ferrarese nobleman, painted in neutral tones, whites, greys [Fig 10]. Titian, in straight¬forward portraits employed dark all-over tonality with key forms emphasised by light.


Figure 10Portrait of Vincenzo Mosti (1520).

Aesthetic effect depended on relationships and intensity of detail, as with Man with a Glove (1523), which expressively defines innate nobility and inner grandeur [Fig 11]. The inscrutable calm and pictorial realisation of this young man is a masterpiece of tonal gradations and Titian’s painterly skill.


Figure 11.  Man with a Glove (1523).

Psychological characterisation is emphasised in the pose of Frederick II Gonzaga (1525) with the sitter shown three-quarter dressed in magnificently in blue velvet doublet and red stockings [Fig 12]. Federico Gonzaga (1500-1540), one of Titian’s most important patrons, and son of Isabella d’Este (1474-1539), is enveloped in light posed against a luminous grey background. The Duke’s status is emphasised by the compelling physical splendour expressed by Titian using exquisitely and aesthetically modulated colours, the dog echoing compositionally the facial tones of its master.

gonzaga dog

Figure 12Frederick Il Gonzaga (1525).

In 1530 Charles V invited Titian to his coronation in Bologna where he painted his first (1532) and well-received Portrait of Charles V [Fig 13] thereby establishing a long rapport. No in the Prado in Madrid the portrait is a copy of Selenneger’s but with altered proportions. It is thought to have been painted

charles V

Figure 13Charles V with a Dog (1532).

at Venice from drawings done at Bologna and presented to Charles when they met at Asti in 1536 (Wethey, 1971; Hope, 1980). During this period Titian added to the lyrical use of colour a quality of dramatic action and vitality whilst still adhering to reality. His portraits now demonstrate a profound psychological insight and understanding of his subjects: Cardinal Ippolito de’Medici (1532-33); Andrea de’ Franceschi (1532) a severe and ascetic depiction of the Grand Chancellor of the Republic of Venice; his Old Man in Armour (1535) which represents Titian’s father Gregorio; and Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino (1536-38), Captain General of the Venetian Republic [Fig 14]. Now in the Uffizi, Florence, he holds the Commander’s Baton with papal insignia and branch of oak referring to his surname Rovere meaning ‘oak’. Assumed one of a pair with Eleonara Gonzaga (Campbell, 1990).


Figure 14Francesco Maria della Rovere (1536-38).

In his female portraits his search for beauty is coupled with a recognition of inner dignity, e.g.,  La Bella [Fig 6] is typical of the style Titian developed for court portraiture with its richness of texture, detail and beauty of colour. Three-quarter length, designed for display, she is a model who posed nude for; him on other occasions e.g., Venus of Urbino ; and Girl with a Fur (Hope, 1980; Wethey, 1971), see Figure 15.  Beneath The Girl with a Fur is a painted a version of La Bella (Campbell, 1990; Wilde, 1974) originally described by its first owner (Francesco Rovere) in 1536 as “…that Lady wearing the blue garment.” (Rovere, 1536).

girl fur

Figure 15.  Girl with a Fur (1534-38).

The style is quite different from the severe manner in which Titian depicted his own countrymen (Steer, 1995). Lack of interest in her identity shows “…that La Bella is not really a portrait but a fancy picture based on studies from life.” (Campbell, 1990). For Francesco Rovere the interest is beauty not personage. Inherited by Vittoria della Rovere La Bella was taken from Urbino to Florence in 1631 prior to her marriage to Ferdinando II de’Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.
The portrait [Fig 16] of Elenora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino (1536-38) was subject to a sonnet by Pietro Aretino who wrote “The union of colours laid in by Titian’s brush expresses, besides the concord that reigns in Eleonora, her gentle spirit.” (Camesasca, 1957-60).

E Gonzaga

Figure 16.  Elenora Gonzaga (1536-38).

Eleonora was the daughter of Gianfranco Gonzaga, Marquis of  Mantua and Isabella d’Este and married Francesco Maria della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, in 1509. Previously Titian had Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) herself (1534-36) copied [Fig  17] from a portrait by Francia in 1511 from an earlier original (Campbell, 1990). Now in Vienna, it is cut down on both sides and copied from a Francia portrait of 1511, itself a copy of an earlier original by an unknown artist (Campbell, 1990). Obviously a young twenties woman in the picture she must have been sixty at least in 1534. Not averse to copying for his patrons Titian produced his Francis I (1538) from a medal by Cetlini (Wethey, 1971).

Isabella d'este

Figure 17Isabella d’Este (1534-36).

4. Third Period: Celebrity and Power (1540-1555).

After 1540 Titian’s search for realism becomes more apparent and proceeds to exhalt and discern the spiritual values and qualities of his sitters and patrons. Now his psychological insight is at its height with his Portrait of Pietro Bembo (1540) of the most celebrated Venetian 16th century humanist (Fig 18) and Doge Andrea Gritti (1540) finished more than a year after the Doge’s death.


Figure 18Portrait of Pietro Bembo (1540).

Now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and probably a second and later portrait of Bembo (1470-1547), the poet, literary theorist and cardinal in Venice. He loved some women other than the De more platonico and one bore him three children (Fasolo, 1980). The portrait of Doge Andrea Gritti (1540), also in the National Gallery of Art, Washington is a powerful characterisation [Fig 19] where for Titian “…humanity cannot act except by investiture with dignity and power.” (R. Lunghi quoted by Fasolo, 1980).


Figure 19. Doge Andrea Gritti (1540).

The Speech of Alfonso D’Avalos (1540-41) is a celebrative composition with dignified gesture and pose [Fig 20]. Humanised by the presence of D’Avalos’s sonithe landscape is populated by a multitude of soldiers.  Titian Met Charles V and pope Paul Ill at Busseto in 1543 where painted Pope Paul III (1543) a portrait characterised with restrained but intense vitality. Seated which subsequently  became general for papal portraits.


Figure 20. The Speech of Alfonso D’Avalos (1540-41).

Previously Titian had painted Ranuccio Famese  (1542), grandson of Paul III and Prior of San Giovanni dei Forlani in Venice. Ranuccio  I,  (1530-65) wears the Maltese Cross emblem of the priory’s ownership. A beautifully  perceptive and crafted portrait [Fig 21] displaying boyish innocence and naivete to perfection.


Figure 21. Portrait of Ranuccio Farnese (1542).

Now n the National Gallery of Art, Washington, it is a canvas signed Titianus/F. The portrait is an exquisite concentration upon an individual. The background is muted in order to concentrate on the colourful doublet and fresh, youthful complexion of Ranuccio (Campbell, 1990).

Followed by Portrait of Don Diego Mendoza (1545) with its classical background [Fig 22], Pitti Palace in Florence, and Pietro Aretino (1545) where years of self-indulgence [Fig 23] have “…turned the notorious and lively writer and blackmailer into the bloated image portrayed.” (Gould, 1971). Aretino) (1492-1556) a literary reprobate kept European courts and dignitaries to ransom by holding still his rapier wit and scything satire.


Figure 22. Portrait of Don Diego Mendoza (1545).


Figure 23Pietro Aretino (1545).

Settling in Venice in 1527 Aretino flattered Titian by his very good company and brought him many clients. Of this period is the enigmatic Man with Blue Eyes (1545) with its neutral colouring [Fig 24], disquieting, impassive expression of the sitter. Now in the Pitti Palace, Florence. Sometimes called the Young Englishman or the Duke of Norfolk thesitter is unidentified (Gould, 1971).

blue eyes

Figure 24. Man with Blue Eyes (1545).

Everything occurs to concentrate attention on the face with its inquisitorial gaze. The figure is surrounded by an undefined sombre space with accentuation depending on the chain across his chest. The chill of the Man with Blue Eyes is counteracted by the colourfully warm and vibrant Portrait of a Girl (1546) where  female beauty [Fig 25] and passing resemblance to La Bella show Titian’s unfailing interest in female beauty. Now in Museodimonte, Naples.

girl 1546

Figure 25. Portrait of a Girl (1546).

 In 1545 Titian was the guest of Guidobaldo II della Rovere in Urbino where he was commissioned to paint [Fig 26] the Duchess Giulia di Verano (1547). -Birooe; according to Aretino,A from a verbal description with her clothes sent from the Duchy, consisting of crimson damask (Campbell, 1990). Now in the Pizzi Palace,


Figure 26.  Giulia Varano, Duchess of Urbino (1547).

Florence, she was identified as Giuila by the monogram (Giulia and Guidobaldo) and wearing of crimson (Campbell, 1990).

Going to Rome in 1545 Titian met Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo, Pietro Bembo and Cardinal Alessandro Famese. Given honorary Roman citizenship he painted Pope Paul Ill with his grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio (1546) — a work of rare psychological insight displaying the tensions foretelling the eventual schism between the sitters. Returning to Venice there followed the Votive portrait of the Vendramin Family (1547) of original composition set in the open. Gabriel and Andrea Vendramin worship in the open with Andrea’s sons but suprisingly Andrea’s six daughters are excluded. No other Titian is comparable to such a large family group which was not common in Renaissance portraiture. ‘

In 1548 Charles V invited Titian to Augsburg where he painted the posthumous Isabella of Portugal (1548) showing her richly dressed [Fig 27] and spiritually calm. Isabella, dead wife of Charles V, is created in poetic effect as an act of memory showing her as remote in depiction as she is in death. Now in the Prado,


Figure 27.  Isabella of Portugal (1548).

Mdrid, it was painted at the request of Charles V someyears after her death (Fasolo, 1980). The Charles V Seated (1548), in the Prado, Madrid, shows Charles V alone and silent [Fig 28], gazing enigmatically but intently outwards, the cares of state burdensome after the victorious Battle of Muhlberg.

Charles V seated

Figure 28.  Charles V Seated (1548).

The supreme portrait was the equestrian Charles V at Muhlberg (1548) where another aspect of the Emperor [Fig 29], with Titian at the height of his powers, is represented as a great general. Again, Charles is alone, resplendent and impassive, looking at an invisible horizon, and where Titian’s skill has reached unsurpassed limits. Now in the Prado, Madrid, the painting was badly damaged by fire, the horses legs and the base of the picture are repainted (Steer, 1995).


Figure 29.  Charles V at Muhlberg (1548).

Prior to returning to Augsburg in.1550 he painted The Knight of Malta (1550), again a powerful portrait of a dignitary of the Maltese connection in Venice [Fig 30]. The Venetian Knights of Malta connection reappears. A rich chapter they owned the priory of San Giovanni dei Fortani of which Ranuccio Farnese became prior, see Figure  21, (Fasolo, 1980).


Figure 30The Knight of Malta (1550).

The Portrait of A Military Commander (1550) is a chromatic symphony with a theatrical pose expressing the character of the sitter [Fig 31] reflecting the grandeur of victory. Now at Kassel in Germany. The dragon motif in the background and the man’s lance refer to St George possibly an allegorical reference to


Figure 31.  Portrait of a Military Commander (1550).

the triumph of a Christian hero (this gentleman or knight?) over evil (Fasolo, 1980). Charles V requested two portraits of his son Prince Philip, future Felipe II of Spain. The Philip II (1550) is similar to one in the Museo di Capodimonte (Naples) and is still debated as to sequence. Colour variations are chiefly background [Fig 32] with the figure illuminated by refined modulations of tone and light stressing the newness of kingship by splendid apparel. Charles V had abdicated in favour of Philip in 1550. Now in the Pitti Palace, Florence.

Philip II

Figure 32.  Philip II (1551).

The Philip II in Armour (1551) is a full-length pose [Fig 33], Prado in Madrid, with a determined sitter amidst an astonishing tour de force of detail. The armour is brilliantly painted, though Philip did not appreciate Titian’s semi-impressionist technique, with adjuncts (e.g. the helmet) being now used to exemplify the grandeur and status of the portrait subject. During this celebrated period Titian had continued his great series of portraits without any trace of repetition but the crisis of 16th century impinged upon all societal levels and Titian who was now entering his seventies. It is thus that he embarks upon his final achievements.


Figure 33.  Philip II in Armour (1551).

5. Late Period: Final Achievement, (1556-1576).
Titian, despite his trials and tribulations still possessed an animating and implacable pride in his work. His later works now show a change in direction. A new manner with more varied colours and denser textures. Outlines are rebuilt after having been broken down with colours flowing into one another, completely liberated from constricting lines and lit as if by some mysterious source. An example is the Allegory of Prudence (1565) with its three faces [Fig 34], symbolising the Three Ages of Man’, above the heads of the wolf, lion, and dog, representing Titian, his son Orazio, and nephew Marco. The profiles are deliberately severe with broad brush strokes applied with strength, will, and sense of purpose.


Figure 34.  Allegory of Prudence (1565).

The Self Portrait (1560), now in Berlin, shows still the feature of the heavy underlying lower jaw and one which could not change with age [Fig 35]. Evidence that the Portrait of a Man (1507), see Figure 1, and Portrait of a Man (1510), see Figure 3, are indeed Titian (Gould, 1971). The self-portrait of 1560 is a fragment painted mainly in monochrome, the hands merely sketched in. Titian expresses human grandeur in his own imperious face. It is a final act of self-revelation using chiarascuro, hazy colour and simplification (Godfrey, 1975).

Titian self portrait

Figure 35.  Self Portrait (1560).

In his Self Portrait (1567) we see a different aspect of his personality, is not one connected with age but with a character looking beyond time, beyond objective forms and horizons, perhaps reflecting on the manner of his art and style so obviously shown by the portrait itself [Fig 36]. Now in the Prado, Madrid, he has reverted to smaller scales, a more intimate size, seemingly reserved for himself and the beauties he lovingly portrayed. he larger portraits were for the grand, his patrons (Godfrey, 1965).

self portrait 1567

Figure 36. Self Portrait (1567).

The portrait Jacopo Strada (1567-68) was dated to within eight years of Titian’s death and is an unusually elaborate example of his late style of portraiture [Fig 37]. Titian has retained his favourite compositional device, the diagonal pattern, for the art dealer sitter seen with some of his wares. Placed in an interior, either influenced by northern portraits or Lorenzo Lotto, it shows Titian still experimenting (Steer, 1995). Picture now in Vienna. Titian’s last portraits show him capable of expressing serene tranquility almost to the point of tragedy, where he is beyond the demands of life and only contemplates the struggle for survival. Titian died of the plague in Venice in 1576.


Figure 37.  Jacopo Strada (1567-68).

6. Summary and Conclusion
Titian’s portraits tempered a searching realism with compassion and lyricism, ranging from famous individuals to Venetian beauties, and his vibrant colour style was both an emotional and intellectual achievement. The neutral atmosphere of his earlier portrait backgrounds were replaced by cleverly arranged elements of setting arranged in patterns which remained staples for formal portraiture until the 20th century. Most of his artistic innovations from 1530 to 1550 were in the field of portraiture. Late Renaissance portraits were in a ‘courtly style’ — e.g., Bronzino — and were immobile aristocratic portrayals whereas Titian was always more naturalistic than the Manneristic `figura serpentiana’ device. Titian, the visual dramatist, preferred to compel his viewer to participate in the inner life of his sitters.

Titian achieved in old age a perfection in painting never achieved by previous artist, using a completely new and significant colour technique and style. As a result his later works are tragic poesies of colour and light and emotion. Titian used his brush to probe beneath the surface of his sitters to produce human documents rather than mere pictorial records. His full painterly form ranged from flaming colours and mysterious light to sombre and restrained hues. His final, octogenarian style was a summary use of grainy textures and colours that only took final form when viewed from a distance — a style that transformed and transcended the formal approach to beauty of the Renaissance.

Titian portrayed the likeness of grandiose personages without falsification and by remaining truthful to his sitters, and himself, he remained truthful to reality. Michelangelo intellectualised his later works with his tortured torsos that are tormented internally and externally, Perhaps an expression of his lesser nobility that had been wet-nursed in the campagna. Titian was from, and of, the campagna and his peasant robustness is reflected in the rumbustious style of his life and art. A son of a republic who immortalised an aristocracy, a genius who lent beauty to the jutting jawed ugliness of the Habsburg dynasty. For Titian, unlike Michelangelo’s dynamism of the Renaissance heroic, his figures are not sculptural but absorbed within the very fabric of life. Titian never tried to portray the ideal man and always stayed in the proximity of the real human being he was representing. Titian’s primal concern was with man living within his own environment.

The patrons of Titian did not only seek pictorial records but commissioned him “… because they provided exceptionally lively likenesses of
themselves, and because they admired them as works of art.” (Steer, 1995). Trtian’s achievement was to liberate the artist from bondage and elevate him to individual recognition in his own right. There could be no true patronage without a recognition of art itself and Titian’s art, especially his portraits, contributed enormously towards such progress in aesthetic values. In Titian there is an advanced mode of reflection only immaturely developed in High and Late Renaissance portraits. Titian’s humanism was not so much a reverence for the antique, literary or artistic, but essentially an outlook more akin to later concepts of what humanism came to mean in modem times.

7. References
Camesasca, E. (Ed). (1957-60). Lettre Surarte di Pietro Aretino. 3 vols. Milan. Sonnet included
in a letter dated Venice, 7.11.1537, to Veronica Gambara. Cited by Campbell (1990).
Campbell, L (1990). Renaissance Portraits. Yale UP, New Haven.
Fasolo, U. (1980). Titian. Constable, Firenze.
Godfrey, F.M. (1965). Italian Painting 1250-1800. Alec Tiranti, London.
Gould, C. (1971). Man. Hamlyn, London.
Gould, C. (1975). National Gallery Catalogues. The Sixteenth Century Italian School. London.
Fortin Brown, P. (1997). The Renaissance in Venice. Everyman, London.
Hope, C. (1980). Titian. London.
Murray, L. (1995). The High Renaissance and Mannerism. Thames & Hudson, London.
Rovers, Francesco Maria della, Duke of Urbino, to Gian Giacomo Leonard’. Padua, 2.5.1536.
Cited in Campbell (1990).
Steer, J. (1995). Venetian Painting. Thames & Hudson. London.
Wethey, H. E. (1971). The Paintings of Titian, II, The Portraits. London.
Wille, J. (1974). Venetian Art from Bellini to Titian. Cited in Campbell (1990).

All illustrations are in the public domain.


1 Comment

Filed under History Of Art

Michelangelo: sculpture and architecture for the Medici

1.  Introduction

Born at Caprese Michelangelo (1475-1564) came from a family of some social standing, his father being a Florentine official. After some parental opposition he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio and trained in fresco painting and with whom he stayed briefly. It was, despite his architecture, painting and poetry, as a sculptor he wished to be known. Michelangelo told his biographer Condivi he was self-trained and there is some truth in the claim that he was autodidactic. It was in the Medici household that he became a sculptor.

The Medici family were prominent Florentine commercial figures with Cosimo (1389-1464) a foremost individual from 1434, a role intensified by his son Piero and grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449-1492). Praised alternately as patrons and castigated as tyrants the Medici family were a commercial nobility and part of Florence’s group of powerful families called the popolani grassi (Eliot, 1996). Periods of exile from Florence (which profoundly affected Michelangelo’s career) between 1494 and 1512, and again from 1527 to 1530, were followers by their gaining near complete control of Tuscany as dukes and grand dukes (Hale, 1995), a process aided and abetted by the Medici popes Leo X (Giovanni de’ Medici, 1475­-1521 and pope 1513-21) and Clement VII (Giulio de’ Medici, 1478 to 1534, pope between 1523 and 1524).

Michelangelo went around Florence drawing from the frescoes of Giotto and Masaccio whereupon he stayed in the household of Lorenzo de’ Medici from 1490 until 1494, two years after Lorenzo’s death in 1492. Whilst in the Medici palace, where he studied under Benedetto di Giovanni (1420-91), Michelangelo would have encountered and had acess to such humanist and Neoplatonist scholars as Ficino, Landino, Poliziano, and Pico da Mirandola – from whom his interest in Neoplatonism derives. Art, for Michelangelo, was thus an intellectual activity. During this time he would also have listened to the sermons of Savonarola and read that friar’s writings. Two obsessions developed in this setting, against which Michelangelo measured his own achievement, the sculpture of Donatello and the ancients. After the death of Lorenzo he went to Bologna and thence to Rome.

The 1490’s were troubled years for the Medici and Florence. It was the era of Savonarola’s fiery scourges and when Michelangelo’s own republican sentiments were confirmed. During this period he strengthened his links with Lorenzo’s cousins Giovanni and Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco – later Popolano. It was the impending march of Charles VIII of France on Florence that forced Michelangelo to flee the house of Piero de’ Medici for Bologna in 1494. The role of the Medici and the other popolano grassi with regards to their patronisation of scholars and artists, as well as Michelangelo with his lesser noble background, can be summed up thus `…the house of Medici, the petty despots of many a small city-state and the rich bourgeoisie preferred to patronise an intelligentsia to some extent free# from religious obligations, and ready to recognise personal achievement independent of rank and birth.’ (Green, 1952). Michelangelo’s earliest carvings consist largely of imitations of the antique and are of a type he could only have learned in the sculpture garden of Lorenzo. (Clark, 1978).

2.0  Early sculpture in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s Florence

It was Ghirlandaio who formed the early talent of Michelangelo and it was in his studio that he came to the attention of Lorenzo de’ Medici (Cleugh, 1993). Presumably Ghirlandaio recognised the sculptural ability and ‘…arranged for him to enter Bertoldo’s school for sculptors in the Medici garden on the Piazza di S. Marco in 1489.’ (Von Einem, 1973, citing Vasari, and Tolnay, 1947). It was Ascanio Condivi, liDgrapher of Michelangelo, who records however that it was one Granacci who took him to the Medici garden (Frey, 1907), and that Lorenzo ‘…opened his garden as though it were a school or studio.’ (Von Einem, 1973). Thus the transfer to the sculpture garden allowed Michelangelo `…to attend the meetings of the Platonic Academy. He never forgot them, remaining a Christian Platonist till his death. This crucial period in the great artists development ended with Lorenzo’s death in 1492.’ (Cleugh, 1993).

Lorenzo de’ Medici is credited with being the first to recognise Michelangelo’s ability, whom he befriended and ‘…generously assigning him a room in his palace and a place at his table.’ (Schevill, 1963). It was Condivi again who recorded that Michelangelo’s copy of an antique faun (now lost) prompted Lorenzo to invite him to his palace (Olson, 1992). Bertoldo was Lorenzo’s keeper of the Medici fragments (4 antique sculpture on the Via Larga (Murray, 1995). Bertoldo, the former pupil of Donatello, was given the task by Lorenzo de’ Medici of `…assembling a body o first-class sculptors and painters and instructing them in the proper ways of art.’ (Von Einem, 1973, citing Gengaro, 1961). However, Herbert von Einem (1973) casts doubt on Vasari’s information concerning the role played by Bertoldo as Michelangelo’s teacher. Sources in the garden for his inspiration were the fragments and antique cameos (Murray, 1995), though Schevill (1963) avers that Michelangelo in the Medici garden was under `…no other guidance than his own unerring instinct…’ as he ‘…absorbed the Florentine tradition as manifested in its most rugged representatives, Giotto, Masaccio, Donatello, Pollaiuolo, and Signorelli.’

In 1490 Michelangelo was esconced as a house guest in Lorenzo’s palazzo where he lived with sons of Lorenzo – Piero (expelled by Charles VIII in 1494), Giovanni (later Pope Leo X), and Giuliano (whose tomb he later carved at Capella Medicea). At this time he became acquainted with Neoplatonism ‘…which played so important a part in his art and poetry.’ (Von Einem, 1973, Also citing Panofsky, 1939). Bertoldo died in 1491 and the young Michelangelo stayed on and appears to have been a familiar of the Medici household (Murray, 1995). During this period (prior to late 1492) he carved two pieces, presumably for Lorenzo, and these were his Madonna of the Stairs and Battle of the Centaurs.

2.1. The Madonna of the Stairs

Michelangelo’s earliest extant work when he was aged only sixteen. A relief, it is a devotional work, see Figure 1, and a popular fifteenth century form in the tradition of Donatello. Even so, this low relief work is `…an old motif – one uncommon, however in fifteenth century Florentine art…’ (Von Einem, 1973). It is a juvenile work in an early style that is heavily classically based but with Renaissance inspiration. It is carved from white Carara marble and is noted for its classical amoretti. Its implicit monumentality belies its small size. It is carved from a waxy and translucent slab, like alabaster, and reminiscent of Desidirio. It was a theme which Michelangelo was to `…develop in all its glory in his Madonna for the Medici Chapel.’ (Von Einem, 1973).


Figure 1.  Michelangelo.  Madonna of the Stairs (1490-92). Marble. Source: Public domain.

Carved in rilievo schaccitto it represents Michelangelo’s exploration of quattrocento techniques. The ‘…brooding figure of the Virgin…(Murray, 1995, p24) can be compared with Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna of the 1420’s to 1430’s, see Figure 2, and with Michelangelo’s own later Pitti Tondo of 1504-1505, see Figure 3.


Figure 2.  Donatello.  Pazzi Madonna (1420-30’s).  Marble.  Source: Public domain.

It has the unusual aspect of Mary suckling Christ. The Madonna’s face is in classical profile and she sits on a square block – a studio prop for models and Michelangelo’s hallmark. He chose not to show the child’s face and places him in an odd position ­perhaps nursing or sleeping and foreshadowing his death. Christ is also encased in drapery which suggests protection, either shroud or womb.


Figure 3.  Michelangelo.  Pitti Tondo (1504-05).  Marble.  Source: Public domain.

The novel stairs are possibly related to Girolamo Benevieni’s Scala della vita spirituale sopra it nome di Maria. Girolamo Benevieni (1453-1542) was a Florentine writer in the circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, and composed lyrical and narrative verse. Girolamo sought to embody Ficino’s concept of Platonic love. Praised by Mirandola he eventually became (like Botticelli) a devotee of Savonarola. Analytically the Madonna of the Stairs contains classical elements of relief sculpture with themes derived from the humanist circle in which Michelangelo moved within Lorenzo’s household. In the background four youths handle a long cloth identified as a winding sheet or shroud. In essence this relief is closer to Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna, see Figure 2, than the intervening lyrical Madonnas of Rossellino and Desidirio.

2.2 The Battle of the Centaurs

This second early piece was also executed when Michelangelo was around sixteen. Carved in marble in 1491 or 1492, see Figure 4, it resembles Bertoldo’s bronze relief Battle (with Hercules) done some time after 1478, see Figure 5. The figures display vigorous attitudes and illustrate a Renaissance interest in the human body and form. The relief is thus a `…tightly knit mass of struggling nude figures…’ (Murray, 1995). Bertoldo’s Battle is based partly on a damaged Roman sarcophagus and is not a mere copy (Olson, 1992). The work is variously known as the Rape of Dejanira, the Battle of Hercules and Centaurs, and Battle of the Centaurs and Lapiths, that ‘…foreshadows not only the classical style of his Florentine period, but the anti-classical expressiveness of his later works.’ (Clark, 1978). Therefore if this work was ‘…probably for Lorenzo de’ Medici and left unfinished at his death…’ (Olson, 1992) it renews the concept of Pliny that an unfinished work was preferable because it revealed an artists method and thought processes.


Figure 4.  Michelangelo.  Battle of the Centaurs (1492).  Marble. Source: Public domain.


Figure 5.  Bertoldo di Giovanni.  Battle (with Hercules). After 1478. Bronze. Source: Public Domain.

The Battle relief embodies the dictum of Pythagoras that ‘Man is the measure of all things’, which was echoed by Alberti and became a tenet of the Renaissance. The whole relief is conceived in terms of the body as an expressive vehicle, as much as it reflects Michelangelo’s ‘…study of late Roman sarcophagi, Bertoldo, the Pisani and Pollaiuolo.’ (Olson, 1992). Moreover, the relief of the Battle of the Centaurs was made ‘…at the suggestion of Poliziano who explained the whole myth to him from beginning to end.’ (Burke, 1987, cites also Condivi, 1964). At this time Michelangelo was experimenting with the deeply undercut style of Roman sarcophagi and quite different from Donatello’s very shallow relief. Both the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs show the ‘…squareness, the monumentality, the restlessness, the search for the union of many planes.’ (Stokes, 1955). Again, both reliefs are unique and even anticipate the future work of Michelangelo in the sense that the `…Madonna of the Stairs points forward to the Madonna in the Medici Chapel, and the Battle of the Centaurs to the Battle of Cascina, the Flood and even the Last Judgement.’ (Von Einem, 1973).

3.0 Michelangelo and the Medici Pope Leo X

The death of Lorenzo de’ Medici combined with the expulsion of the Medici from Florence in 1494, not to mention the ascendancy of Savonarola’s power conspired to bring Michelangelo’s ‘…incipient patronage to a brusque conclusion.’ (Murray, 1995). Michelangelo was not happy in the house of Piero de’ Medici and in October 1494 ‘…there ocurred the first of those panic flights which were to be repeated three times in the course of his life.’ (Clark, 1978). The advance of the French army to the gates of Florence may have forced Michelangelo to feel himself ‘…compromised by his Medici associations, prudently removed to Venice, and then, closer at hand, to Bologna.’ (Murray, 1995). According to Von Einem (1973) Michelangelo’s sudden decampment from Florence ‘…reveals for the first time…’ his ‘…impulsive nature, which asserts itself not only over his personal courage but also over any feeling of gratitude towards his patrons.’

Leo X, son of Lorenzo, was the first Medici pope, who allowed his brother Giuliano, Duke of Nemours to follow him to Rome (Schevill, 1963), and who died in 1516. Leo X made a client of Michelangelo the ‘…surly young sculptor…’ 1993) and employed him for the ill-fated S. Lorenzo facade. Leo X reputedly said of Michelangelo that ‘He is terrifying, one can’t get on with him.’ (Stokes, 1955,  citing Gaye, 1839-40), whereas even Sebastiano del Piombo wrote to Michelangelo that ‘…you frighten everyone, even Popes.’ (Stokes, 1955, citing Le Pileur, 1890). And yet Clement VII, the great admirer of Michelangelo ‘…treated him with the respect that he would ordinarily have accorded a sovereign prince.’ (Cleugh, 1993).

3.1 The facade of San Lorenzo

Michelangelo arrived in Rome in the summer of 1496 with a letter of introduction from Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, the pupil of Ficino and friend of Botticelli (Clark, 1978). Republican rule was restored in Florence between 1495 and 1496 so Michelangelo returned from Rome in 1501. He then carved a St John the Baptist (now lost) for Lorenzo Pierfrancesco (Olson, 1992) which reputedly was ‘…a marble statue of St John as a young man…’ (Von Einem, 1973). He was then recalled to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1505. The earliest example of architecture by Michelangelo was the 1505 lower storey of the Julius II tomb plus a structural design for the Sistine ceiling. However, in 1515 it was proposed that the Medici church in Florence – Brunelleschi’s new San Lorenzo – should have its facade completed. This project was proposed by Pope Leo X and Michelangelo began work in 1516, the contract signed in 1518, see Figure 6, with a design of an architectural frame filled with sculpture (Murray, 1995). Leo X had visited Florence in 1515 who, as Giovanni de’ Medici, Michelangelo had grown up with in Lorenzo’s house. Moreover it also ‘…seems to have been Giuliano da Sangallo who aroused the interest of the new pope Leo X de Medici…in this idea.’ (Von Einem, 1973).

S Lorenzo

Figure 6.  Michelangelo. Model of S. Lorenzo façade (1516). Source: Public domain.

Pope Leo X (1513-1521) did not employ Michelangelo as a painter, nor a sculptor, but as an architect, having designed for Leo the front of a small chapel in Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. A chapel, not suprisingly, dedicated to the patron saints of the Medici family – Cosmas and Damian. Also Leo decided to transform the open ground floor of the loggia of the Medici Palace in Florence. Again, Michelangelo was entrusted with building the facade.

Regarding the facade Leo X was unable to get Michelangelo to cooperate with his other nominee, Baccio d’Agnoli, so by 1517 Michelangelo was in sole charge of the facade of S. Lorenzo. The facade came to nothing, a plan that envisaged a large number of statues, and which ran into problems concerning marble procurement, eventually faded. Concerning the statues Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici (the future Clement VII) decided on the identity of most of the figures and these included: St Laurence; John the Baptist; Peter; Paul; Cosmas; Damian; the four evangelists; legend of St Laurence reliefs; Peter’s crucifixion; and the conversion of St Paul. (Von Einem, 1973).

4.0 Michelangelo and the Medici pope Clement VII

In 1523 Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici became pope Clement VII and commissioned Michelangelo to create a sacrarium or reliquary loggia for the Pergamo of S. Lorenzo, and which was to store the accumulated relics of Lorenzo de’ Medici. Designed in 1526 it was completed between 1532 and 1533. Moreover, Clement VII commissioned the Last Judgement for the altar wall in the Sistine Chapel.

The idea of the Medici Chapel, as a family funerary chapel, was first mooted by Leo X in 1519 and this New Sacristy (Nuovo Sagrestia) in Florence Michelangelo’s greatest ensemble.’ (Olson, 1992), indeed one of his outstanding masterpieces (Cleugh, 1993). Six tombs were planned for Lorenzo the Magnificent, Giuliano de’ Medici (brother of Lorenzo), Leo X, Clement VII, and two never completed for the younger Giuliano, and Lorenzo di Piero. At the instigation of Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici Leo X decided to erect this family mausoleum and the final design was handed to Giulio in 1520 (Frey, 1899), but the tombs for Leo X and Clement VII were never completed (Tolnay, 1947). Even still, Michelangelo abandoned the work in 1534 despite it being his oldest completed building (Von Einem, 1973). Delayed until the death of Leo X work proceeded in 1523 under Clement VII (illegitimate son of Giuliano de’ Medici) and commemorated four Medici: Lorenzo and his brother Giuliano; Giuliano, Duke of Nemours (d.1516); and Lorenzo, Duke of Urbino who died in 1519 (Olson, 1992).

4.1 The Medici Chapel

The New Sacristy is of small central plan with a domed choir at the end, see Figure 7, and comprises a system of pietra serena pilasters, entablatures and pedimented windows, all surmounted by a hemispherical dome in coffered all’antica style (Murray, 1995). Various architectural elements were classically inspired and by not using past formsand creating new ones Michelangelo shows detail and in the combination they are completely original.’ (Murray, 1995). In this sense the `…architecture and sculpture act one upon the other…’ as a ‘…single indivisible work.’ (Von Einem, 1973).

Medici chapel

Figure 7.  Michelangelo.  Medici Chapel, S. Lorenzo.  Source: Public domain.

The wall facing the altar contains sculptures of saints Cosmas and Damian flanking the Madonna and Child, the so-called Medici Madonna (Murray, 1995), but Cosmas and Damian were carved by Montesorli and Rafaello da Montelupo (after Michelangelo models) and it was only after some time that Vasari completed floor and walls (Von Einem, 1973). In deep niches over the sarcophagi are idealised portrait sculptures depicting Lorenzo as the Contemplative Life, Figure 8,

Tomb of guiliano

Figure 8. Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici.  Source: Public domain.

and Giuliano as the Active Life, see Figure 9, with both men in classical armour, with Lorenzo `…relaxed and thoughtful…’ and Giuliano’s ‘…alert pose of arrested movement.’ (Murray, 1995).


Figure 9Tomb of Guiliano de Medici.  Source: Public domain.

Lorenzo, see Figure 10, and Giuliano, see Figure 11, face each other from their recesses, the architectural function ‘…merely to serve as a backdrop to the statues…’ (Cleugh, 1993). There is no attempt to reproduce the actual features of the two dukes (Nemours, and Urbino).

Lorenzo tomb

Figure 10Figure of Lorenzo de Medici. Medici Chapel, S. Lorenzo.  Source: Public domain.

guilian tomb

Figure 11. Figure of Giuliano de Medici, S, Lorenzo.  Source: Public domain.

On each sarcophagus repose figures representing the times of the day, the `…positive times of Night and Day for the Active Life; the more indecisive times of Dawn and Dusk for the Contemplative Life.’ (Murray, 1995). Each sarcophagus carries two reclining nudes, one male, one female (though somewhat androgynous). These nudes represent Twilight or Evening, see Figure 12, and Dawn, see Figure 13, for Lorenzo, with Night, see Figure 14, and Day, see Figure 15, for Giuliano.


Figure 12Evening/crespuculo.  Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici.  Source: Public domain.


Figure 13Dawn/Aurora.  Tomb of Lorenzo de Medici.  Source: Public domain.


Figure 14Night/Notte.  Tomb of Giuliano de Medici.  Source: Public domain.


Figure 15.  Day/Giorno.  Tomb of Giuliano de Medici.  Source: Public domain.

In the recess of the chapel entrance wall, opposite the altar, stands the Medici Madonna, see Figure 16, flanked by the Medici patron saints (Stokes, 1955). A compact group, they lean forward and shelter the infant, stalwart old men resembling ancient sages with troubled faces that lend themselves to the image of the

madonna and child

Figure 16.  The Medici Madonna.  Source: Public domain.

whole chapel which ‘…silent and enclosed, expresses, in a blend of Christian and Platonic thought, the idea of the House of the Dead.’ (Murray, 1995). In the chapel there is now interaction between sculpture and architecture, the High Renaissance, like the mausoleum occupants, is no more.

4.2 The Laurentian Library

Lorenzo de’ Medici bequethed his library to Florence with the original intention that it be housed in the Monastery of S. Lorenzo. In 1524 Clement VII made provision for a modest project with normal windows which meant Michelangelo  had to heighten the structure (Murray, 1995). In 1557 Michelangelo delivererd a clay model for the Biblioteca Laurentiana, see Figure 17, that was eventually executed in 1560 by Ammanati (Wundrum, 1988). The central room is noted for a huge flight of freestandiniteps [see Figure 18] posessing three flights separated by balustrades `…so that they appear to be flowing like molten stone down from the library and spreading across the floorl’ (Murray, 1995). Vasari and Ammanati completed the steps based on Michelangelo’s sketches of 1550.

5.0 Summary and conclusion

Following the restoration of Medici power in Florence Michelangelo was eventually entrusted with completing the facade of S. Lorenzo, and embarking on the Medici funerary chapel (Kempers, 1987, citing also Langedijk, 1981). Michelangelo spent three periods in Florence, 1520-21, 1523-27, and 1530-34, working on the Medici Chapel (Stokes, 1955), as well as the adjoining Laurentian Library. The four completed tombs in the chapel are `…regarded as the crown of Renaissance sc ulpture, as the Sistine Chapel – executed by Michelangelo for Julius II – is considered to be that of Renaissance painting.’ (Cleugh, 1993). With regard to the facade of S. Lorenzo (never completed) the elevation designs were `…his first steps away from the classical world of the High Renaissance and towards the anti-classical world of Mannerism.’ (Von Einem, 1973).

There are two essential aspects of the work of Michelangelo, firstly his passion for anatomy, secondly his awareness of sin, thus his career began at a time `…when Graeco-Roman sculpture was a new and compelling discovery accepted by artists and patrons alike as an ultimate model.’ (Clark, 1978). However, in the process of his development Michelangelo demonstrated the `…inexhaustible repertoire of his movement studies which he used as a means of heightening expression…’ (Burke, 1987). It is this that forms one the bases of Mannerist sculpture. The relationship with Leo X showed the pope’s `…little understanding of Michelangelo’s greatness…’ (Cleugh, 1993) preferring to encourage and reward Raphael whilst also having little respect for Leonardo.

For Leo X Michelangelo devoted fifteen years of his life on the Medici Chapel. Years which were of great importance for Michelangelo’s development, time as an artist which embraces his change `…from the High Renaissance to Mannerism, and prepares the way for his later style.’ (Von Einem, 1973). In this sense a feature of Michelangelo’s sculpture was its idealisation and, as the figures of Lorenzo and Giuliano show, he was not really a portrait sculptor. It can be said that the Medici Chapel was the birthplace of Mannerism (manera = good manners)  defining a breaking of the classicist rules of order and harmony and a reaction therefore against the High Renaissance. The figures increasingly lose their individuality, show unnatural movements, and seem imbued with a melancholy presence (Von Einem, 1973).

Analytically, is the Medici Chapel inspired by the ideals of Neoplatonism? There are a number of motifs that enable such an interpretation: river gods and times of the day are found in antiquity – being known from reliefs on the Arch of Constantine in Rome; the contrast of figures as vita contemplativa and vita activa (Panofsky, 1939). If however Michelangelo has left the High Renaissance behind in the chapel then Von Einem’s view (1973) means it is `…unlikely that Michelangelo would have based his design for a chapel dedicated to the Resurrection on the ideas of Neoplatonism.’ The chapel, despite its motifs, is deeply Christian in sentiment, and in keeping with the beliefs of his ecclesiastical patron, pope Leo X. But then, Leo X was also a humanist and well versed classicist. Michelangelo had changed, at this juncture the twisted forms of antique sculpture, for example the Laocoon, and created an instrument `…to visualise the spiritual turmoil of the 16th century.’ (Clark, 1978). Michelangelo presaged therefore the demands of the Counter-Reformation.

Finally, Michelangelo’s personal turmoil interacted with the turmoil of his times (as indeed did Botticelli’s) and his development occurred despite the viscitudes of his patrons whose demands so often (e.g., Julius II’s tomb and Sistine ceiling) vitiated against Michelangelo’s demands on himself. Just as the awesome power of Michelangelo, his terribilita, brought conflicts with his patrons it also imbued his work with his own sense of worth, the individual worth of the increasingly independent minded artist. It remains a moot point whether he would have completed more projects had his patrons left him alone to actually do what they commissioned him to do, and he wanted to do for them.

For the Medici family Michelangelo was not a painter – for them he was a sculptor and architect, their personal monumentalist. It was not until Clement VII commissioned the Last Judgement did the Medici demand such skills, and even then the death of Clement VII transferred the altar wall’s commission to the behest of the next pope Paul III.

6.0 References

Burke, P. 1987. The Italian Renaissance. Polity Press.

Clark, K. 1978. The Young Michelangelo, in The Penguin Book of the Renaissance.  J.H.Plumb (ed).

Cleugh, J. 1993. Medici. The Barnes & Noble, NY.

Condivi, A. 1964. Vita di Michelangelo Buonarrotti. Barelli, E.S. (ed). Milan.

Eliot, G. 1996. Romola. Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Frey, K. 1899. Sammlung ausgewahiter Brief an Michelangelo Buonarrotti.  Berlin.

Frey, K. 1907. Micheiangiolo Bounarrotti. Vol. 1. Berlin.

Gaye, G. 1839. Carteggio inedito d’artista dei secoli XIV, XV, XVI. Florence, 1839‑40. Vol II. 489.

Gengaro, M.L. 1961. Maestro e Scolare, Bertoldo di Giovanni e Michelangelo. Commentari. Vol 12.

Green, V.H.H. 1952. Renaissance and Reformation. Edward Arnold, London.

Hale, J.R. 1995. Dictionary of the Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, London.

Kempers, B. 1987. Painting, Power, and Patronage. Penguin.

Langedijk, K. 1981. The Portraits of the Medici, 15th-18th Centuries. Florence. Vols 1-2.

Le Pileur, A. 1890. Les Correspondents de Michelangelo. Paris, p21.

Murray, L. 1995. The High Renaissance and Mannerism. Thames & Hudson, London.

Murray, P. 1996. Architecture of the Italian Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, London.

Olson, R. 1992. Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Thames & Hudson, London.

Panofsky, E. 1939. The Neoplatonic Movement and Michelangelo: Studies in Iconology. NY.

Schevill, F. 1963. Medieval and Renaissance Florence. Vol 2: The Coming of

Humanism and the Age of the Medici. Harper, NY.

Stokes, A. 1955. Michelangelo. Tavistock, London.

Tolnay, C, de. 1947. Michelangelo. Vol 1. Youth. Princeton, 2nd ed.

Vasari. Lives of the Artists.

Von Einem, H.Michelangelo. Methuen, London.

Wundrum, M. 1988. The Renaissance. Herbert Press, London.

1 Comment

Filed under History Of Art