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Images of power and allure

03 December 2008

Abigail Willis enjoys an exhibition of Renaissance portraiture

Strident: a full-length portrait of Philip II of Spain (1560) by Antonis Mor. Philip is dressed as he was on the day of the Battle of Saint Quentin on 10 August 1557 (even though he was scarcely present on the battlefield). This is a copy done by Mor in Spain of an original he painted in Brussels, now lost

Strident: a full-length portrait of Philip II of Spain (1560) by Antonis Mor. Philip is dressed as he was on the day of the Battle of Saint Quentin on...

IF PEOPLE-WATCHING is one of the pleasures of city life, then visiting a portrait exhibition in one of the capital’s great art galleries is a double pleasure. “Renaissance Faces” at the National Gallery offers the chance to encounter some remarkable personalities from 15th and 16th-century Europe.

The selection includes National Gallery stalwarts such as Holbein’s masterful dual portrait of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selves (The Ambassadors) and van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, but also imports less familiar faces from further afield. On loan from Sweden, Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s audacious portrayal of Rudolph II is on view in Britain for the first time. Cast as Vertumnus, Roman god of the seasons and plant life, the Holy Roman Emperor’s face is composed entirely of fruit and vegetables.

An enthusiastic patron of the arts, Rudolph apparently approved of the likeness, but other leaders chose to be portrayed in more regal guise, as in Antonis Mor’s full-length portrait of Philip II in armour, which pre­sents the Habsburg monarch as an unyielding soldier-king. The con­ven­tion for papal portraits was a less stri­­dent, but still commanding, three-quarter length seated pose. Innovated by Raphael for his 1511 portrait of Pope Julius II, the format was adopted for subsequent papal portraits, such as that of the bareheaded and aged Pope Paul III, painted by Titian in 1548.

Portraits were a significant tool for Renaissance power brokers. Henry VIII was evidently so taken with Holbein’s vision of prospective bride Christina of Denmark that he kept the portrait, despite not going through with the marriage. But it wasn’t just royalty who staked their claim on posterity through por­traiture. The faces here include a tailor, a pirate, a hermit, and, appro­priately enough in today’s credit-crunched times, a corpulent Floren­tine banker.

Renaissance viewers revelled in puns and symbolism, and were adept at decoding paintings such as Marten van Heemskerck’s Portrait of a Lady with Spindle and Distaff, which makes reference to the Book of Proverbs to emphasise the propriety of the well-dressed sitter (spinning was associated with wifely virtue). Outward beauty equalled inner morality, and artists often resorted to depicting idealised “types” of beauty. The polychromed wooden bust of St Constance, a demure blonde, whose heavy lidded gaze is the first to greet exhibition visitors, dutifully conforms to Renaissance ideals of saintly, female beauty. At the other extreme artists were fascinated by physical deform­ity and old age, as in Quinten Massys’s Ugly Duchess (who was probably suffering from Paget’s disease).

The impulses behind Renaissance portraiture were as varied as its sitters. Erasmus promoted the exchange of portraits as a token of friendship, and had classical-style bronze medallions struck to distribute to his circle. In similar spirit, the humanist scholar Peter Gillis commissioned a portrait of himself by Quinten Massys to send to his friend Sir Thomas More in London. Remembrance, however, was the main goal of the portrait, and for all the artists’ skill in bringing these Renaissance faces to life, a tangible, melancholy sense of mortality pervades the show.

“Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 18 January 2009. Phone 020 7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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