Magazine article USA TODAY

Virtue and Beauty: Renaissance Portraits of Women. (Museum Today)

Magazine article USA TODAY

Virtue and Beauty: Renaissance Portraits of Women. (Museum Today)

Article excerpt

AN EXHIBITION focusing on the extraordinary flowering of female portraiture in Florence, Italy, from c. 1440 to c. 1540, "Virtue and Beauty: Ginevra de' Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women," includes 48 works from this period. Together, they illustrate the expansion of portraiture in Florence beyond the realm of rulers and their consorts to encompass women of the merchant class, who figure in a number of panel paintings, medals, and marble busts.

Renaissance portraits differ in many ways from portraits today. Above all, they lack the psychological dimension--the revelation of the inner self--characteristic of modern portraiture. When a Renaissance portrait represents a sitter's individual nature, it reflects a different conception of identity. In the case of women, they were seen in light of their social status and familial roles as wives and mothers. The female portraits in the exhibition are, in this sense, individual variants of the society's paradigm of the "ideal woman." Significantly, many of the paintings and all of the medals in the show are double-sided, with the front presenting the likeness of the lady and the reverse a "portrait" of her (good) character in terms of mottoes or emblems.

Judging from their portraits, one might well conclude that Florentine women of the time all had long necks, golden hair, pearly white skin, sparkling blue eyes, and rosy lips and cheeks. This similarity reflects a canon of female beauty derived from literature, particularly Petrarch's sonnets in praise of his beloved Laura. Aside from the real or imagined beauty of their female subjects, artists celebrated their exemplary virtues--modesty, piety, and, above all, chastity, the preeminent quality of a woman in a patriarchal society. Virtue and beauty were, in fact, linked in Renaissance thought and art, based on the notion, going back to ancient Greece, that outward beauty signified an inner beauty of spirit.

The earlier portraits in the exhibition represent the sitter in strict profile, wearing lavish costumes and jewelry of the sort that young women donned on the occasion of their marriage. These depictions, with their suggestion of an ideal, unapproachable beauty, were highly popular with American collectors at the beginning of the 20th century, with the result that a number of profile portraits of women lent to the exhibition come from U.S. museums. For example, Filippo Lippi's "Woman with a Man at a Window" from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is the earliest independent portrait of a woman from Florence that has survived. The prominence of the lady, who is watched by a man at a window casement, has long puzzled commentators on the picture, but it might suggest that the portrait was commissioned by the woman's family to celebrate her betrothal. Other early profiles by Lippi, Paolo Uccello, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo are featured in the exhibition.

A selection of Renaissance medals, which inspired the profile pose and the double-sided portrait format in painting, is included as well. Among the women from prominent Florentine families depicted in these medals are Maria de' Mucini, Giovanna Tornabuoni, and her sister-in-law, Lodovica Tornabuoni. The allegorical figures on the reverses of the medals include the Three Graces, a maiden with a unicorn, and a phoenix. …

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