From Caesar to Mona Lisa
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
How would you like to be remembered? That selfie you took on vacation, a wedding photo, or image from a family gathering? We consciously construct portraits to depict how we want to be perceived by others, and what characteristics we want to represent. For thousands of years rulers and the elite have used portraiture to convey a message about who they are, their values, and status. Perhaps this handsome man probably wanted to be remembered as a healthy, well dressed and groomed youth embarking on a career or finding a suitable spouse. Each historical period, and sometime each Italian region, developed their own ways of creating a lasting remembrance of its men, women, and children.
Let’s start at the beginning of Italian portraiture – in Greece. The Romans esteemed everything Greek and emulated Greek art, language, and culture as a foundation for the Roman Empire. Greek portraits idealized their subjects. No wrinkles, warts, or undesirable facial features appeared. Male athletes, rulers, or politicians were memorialized with a statue in a public space with youthful, perfect bodies. Only men. Tombs also had portraits, but of the living, not the deceased, depicting them in their daily life.
Romans also took some cues from the Etruscans. Etruscans had tomb sculptures of rather pleasant happy looking men, women, and children, and their tombs were decorated with painted images of the living carrying out their lives. Hunting, fishing, recreating, and feasting were common themes. Romans continued with tomb portraiture and statues of important figures. Romans blended these traditions of idealization and using public spaces for portraiture. For example, Romans made portraiture their own by emphasizing individual facial features more than the Greeks.
Romans extended portraiture to women, usually emperor’s wives and others in their entourage. Hair was a status symbol for women. Clothing, or lack thereof, signaled status and roles for males. There was not a lot of emphasis on body types as they often switched out heads on full length statues as rulers changed. The bodies look very similar with youthful athletic physiques.
Roman history can be divided approximately first into the Republican (509-27 BCE) and then the Imperial eras, until the last emperor died in 395 CE. Power in the Republic period was more Senate based and in the Imperial epoch it was total rule by the emperor. Republican era male statues often followed these visual clues. Statues with the man depicted in a:
Toga = represents a Roman citizen
Armor or short mantle = officer or soldier
Nude/semi-nude = superior being
During the Imperial era portraits evolved. Emperor statues conformed often to the following:
Toga = first among equals
Veiled head with a full-length robe = performing priestly duties or making a sacrifice
Amor = warrior
Nude/semi-nude = super human, deity
Augustus was the first emperor (r. 27 BCE-14 CE). He came to power in the leadership void following Julius Caesar’s assassination (44 BCE). He made the most of being emperor, with military conquests, and especially through public art, where his portrait appeared literally everywhere. Always depicted as a young man, with idealized features and calm expression, Augustus portraits sent the message of someone in complete control: stability, prosperity, and empire expansion. As emperor, he was also the high priest, or pontifex maximus. That meant he performed sacrifices in honor of the gods and was the supreme religious leader in addition to commander in chief. Following his death, he was deified, a new tradition that took hold for most deceased emperors (except for the likes of Nero).
The Palazzo Massimo statue shows him with a veiled head in his priestly role. His features, although idealized, are identifiable as Augustus with short hair brushed forward, small chin, and low set ears. Coins help scholars identify rulers as their name is inscribed on the coin and the features can be matched to portraits. Augustus included his portraits throughout the empire with the intent that everyone should know his likeness. Public statues were akin to the social media in our time.
Caracalla was a short-lived emperor who ruled some two hundred years after Augustus (r. 211-17 CE). Septimius Severus, Caracalla’s father, conquered parts of present day Iran during his eighteen year reign. Things didn’t go as well for Caracalla. Caracalla was mean and despicable. Part of the Severan dynasty, he had his brother murdered, as well as others who may have gotten on his bad side, or interfered with his rule. He had a lot of governing issues, with run-away inflation, devaluation of Roman currency, and managing a huge empire. His legacy was building the large Baths of Caracalla in Rome (by the Circus Maximus) to appease the citizens with luxury bathing facilities. The baths are very well preserved and a testament to Rome’s mastery of using concrete to build huge vaulted buildings.
To shore up financial difficulties and administrative issues, Caracalla made every man a Roman citizen, so they could pay more taxes. The portrait in the Metropolitan Museum is a good example of the warrior military type, although only his head and two leg fragments remain from a full-length statue. He was depicted nude except for a short military cloak draped over his shoulder. His stern furrowed brow exudes ruler and leader. The details of the closely cropped beard stubble, curly hair, and eyebrows are not found in earlier Roman portraits. It seems as the Roman empire grew and into the current era the rulers were depicted as older, with more individual features, until near the collapse of the empire when depictions grew less individualistic, more abstract and harsher. Caracalla was assassinated in present day Turkey by his successor, Macrinus.
Hairstyles are very important in Roman art to pinpoint the era and which ruler prototype or family the portraits may belong to. Nero crimped his hair, others curled it or shorn it short. The women in the royal household were trendsetters with elaborate hairstyles which took a long time to braid, pin, and design. Hairpieces were used to create volume. Specific household slaves specialized in hair styling. They used curling irons for both genders in certain periods where curls were fashionable. Beards came in and out of style for men as did short or slightly longer hair.
A predominant female style around the late BCE to early CE during the Augustan age was the Octavian hairstyle. This unnamed woman in the Palazzo Massimo portrait wears the typical highly coiffured style named after Augustus’ sister, Octavia. Many female portraits have this style. The front is folded back into a nodus while the sides and above the front are drawn back and braided into a circular top knot. The woman is older with distinctive lines around the mouth and deeper set eyes.
Portrait Set into a Statue of Fortuna, Late-Flavian-early Trajanic, c. 100 CE, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
About one hundred years later the complex hair treatments reached new heights, literally. The massive rows of tightly wound curls atop the female portrait, known as the Statue of Fortuna, remain the focal point of the portrait. Narrow braids separate the hair behind the ear, ending in a large bun. Hairpieces were also used to add height. Depicting this style in marble required deep drilling to form the curls which contrasts the smooth skin, gives texture to the portrait, and allows for a play of light and dark. The braided back furthers the textural differences.
However, the hairstyle overshadows any personalized facial features. It is relatively rare to get a glimpse of personality with female portraits. Age is subtly indicated, but not much character. Hair styles align females with different Imperial family and their fortunes. Most of time we don’t know who is represented. In this case the head and top of the neck is original, which was placed in the eighteenth century atop a statue of Fortuna. This hair-do derives from the Flavian period (69-98 CE) and peaked in the Emperor Trajan period, as there are other extant portraits with a similar hair style. Trajan (r. 98-117 CE) was a very popular ruler which would account for the desire to imitate Flavian hairstyles for both men and women.
At a risk of oversimplification, Roman male portraits first were Greek god like classical elements that represented youth, strength, and calm. Following the disastrous reign of Nero, emperors looked a bit more human. When the later empire encountered political instability and attacks from Germanic tribes, emperors looks firm and tense, ready to fight. By the end of the Roman empire emperor portraits appear abstract and blank faced.
Following the fall of the Roman empire, autonomous portraiture vanished. Group portraits are found in mosaics and reliefs mainly representing dignitaries, rulers, popes, bishops, etc. These group line ups are not very individualistic in the sense we would think of portraits. Group portraits continued into the late fourteenth century and early fifteenth century. Sacred paintings of Madonnas surrounded by saints included the patrons, usually depicted in smaller scale, kneeling next to the Madonna's throne. It wasn’t until the early Renaissance that individual portraits reemerged with new vitality. Painted portraits became a lasting legacy for dynastic families, royal kingdoms, and the wealthy, as well as a way to shop around prospective brides and grooms. Commissioning a portrait equaled wealth and status.
Florence became the epicenter of portraiture from about 1450-early 1500s. Three artists transformed portraiture with lasting innovations: the Pollaiuolo brothers, Sandro Botticelli, and Leonardo da Vinci. By the mid-1440s portraiture became quite a common and popular means to commemorate a person whether it be an ex-voto, memorial, commemorative.
Antonio (1431-1498) and Piero (1441-1496) del Pollaiuolo were artisan brothers with a successful and large shop in Florence. Goldsmithing, sculpture, and painting were their many talents. Piero may have been more of a painter while his brother produced more sculpture, and this Portrait of a Woman is probably by Piero. The Pollaiuolos brought female portraiture to the forefront of Florentine art.
Although her name is unknown to us, this lady is shown in outlined profile and wears a deep red brocade garment with her blonde hair pulled back and up into a braided bun adorned with jewels. Hair continued to be a distinctive feature in many female portraits of the Italian Renaissance. Jewels, expensive fabrics, and frequently idealized facial features also predominated. Full length portraits were not the norm at this juncture; an emphasis on representing comely facial features was key. High foreheads, creamy white skin, and a demure and reserved character were preferred.
Pollaiuolo’s subject has a high forehead, clear complexion and rosy cheeks which indicate health. The elaborate hair, jewels, and expensive fabric denote family wealth. This may be a portrait of an unmarried woman that would be presented to a potential spouse’s family. Lighting is bright and uniform with brilliant colors. She conforms to the beauty ideals and virtue standards of her time. Interestingly, two other portraits with her facial features are in two other museums.
Renaissance artists aimed to subtly convey the psychological nature of their clients. Their aim was not to portray an exact physical likeness but rather their best physical features as well as their dispositio, their character and nature of their interior selves. Allegorical references often present in portraits help the viewer understand which desired character elements and virtues the subject wishes to emphasize. Portraiture was very much image management. Because Renaissance art is by nature an emphasis of the ideal, and so in turn the best physical and character traits were depicted. Botticelli excelled in painting the Florentine dispositio.
Sandro Botticelli (1444-1510) is best known for his iconic allegorical paintings in the Uffizi Gallery: Primavera and the Birth of Venus, painted in the 1480s. During the same period he completed portraits that were not only departures from the past but became standard representations for the future. Botticelli was part of a small world of Florentine painters. He apprenticed under Fra Filippo Lippi, then Verocchio, alongside Leonardo da Vinci. Artists were a tight yet competitive group. Botticelli, nicknamed after his brother’s nickname the “keg” Botticello, had his own distinctive style. He did not mirror his peers or his master’s way of painting. There is a tenderness in his work along with a distinct atmosphere and vivid colors.
Portrait of a Lady Known as Smeralda Bandinelli is the beginning of a change in individual female portraiture. She was the wife of Viviano Bandinelli, and here is pictured in her early 30s. What is remarkable about this portrait is that she is placed in her home, turning and making direct eye contact with the viewer. Direct eye contact in public, especially with men, was a social faux pas at least and a sign of immorality at worse. Her hair is neatly coiffed with the common style of tightly curled hair on the sides, parted in the middle, with the remainder drawn back and covered with a cap. She is well to do, but not an aristocrat.
So here she is at home, in the summer, wearing a white silk or linen camicia undergarment with a deep red silk cotta with an overlay of sheer fabric edged in gold, called a gonella. Smeralda appears relaxed, almost inviting us in to her private space. This isn’t just a profile of a head and shoulder but a longer view of the torso. And Botticelli has included her hands, making her less abstract, more human, more of a real person for us to gaze at. This is the first surviving painted female portrait not in profile but in three quarters view. Once portraits were painted in this manner, the profile never returned to favor. The inscription on the bottom of the frame, although added later, identifies her.
The Medici family ruled Florence at this time, sometimes ruthlessly, and were not without enemies. Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici were brothers, with Lorenzo the elder and third generation of Medici to rule. He was called Lorenzo the Magnificent and came to control the family business and Florence in 1469. Lorenzo was a great patron of the arts and humanities. It was a golden age for Florentine art but also a perilous time if your family was against the Medici.
Pope Sixtus IV emboldened an elaborate plot to overthrow the Medici, and the Florentine rival Pazzi banking family was at the center, in concert with the archbishop of Pisa and dozens of others. During the height of Sunday mass, on April 26, 1478, as the host was consecrated, Lorenzo and Giuliano were attacked with knives. Giuliano died after being stabbed some twenty-seven times. Giuliano was only 24 years old. Lorenzo had minor wounds and locked himself in the sacristy of the cathedral safely, thanks in part to Luca della Robbia’s heavy bronze doors. Lorenzo’s survival made him even more invincible. Giuliano’s death became a stern warning to anyone who dared oust the Medici as well as a rallying point for Medici supporters.
This incident became known as the Pazzi Conspiracy after which Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci were commissioned to paint portraits of some of the men who paid the price for murder. They were hanged from the windows of the Palazzo dei Priori and the Bargello. Seventy in all were rounded up and sentenced to death. These portraits, now lost, were of the men hanging, not alive. A war ensued between the Papal States and Florence, which lasted until 1480. Tensions remained high between the two city states until the Medici were removed from power in 1494. Even though this was artistically a golden age, politics and governing were fragile.
Botticelli painted an egg tempera portrait of Giuliano. In fact, there are three extant portraits from Botticelli’s workshop, all in the same vein, but with differing backgrounds. Were these paintings done commemoratively post-mortem or do they merely suggest Giuliano’s contemplative nature? Medici portraits usually do not depict humble characters. There are a few hints in the National Gallery of Art’s painting.
Noteworthy are the downcast eyes. The other two portraits barely show the eyes open, but in this version, more of the white and iris is visible. Post mortem death masks were common; however, eyes are usually open and the person appears awake. Commemorative medals were made following Giuliano’s death with his eyes open and looking straight ahead.
Following Renaissance tradition, Giuliano is placed in a painted frame setting. It has been suggested that the open shutter behind him with a pale blue sky refers to the afterlife. A mourning dove perched on a broken twig rests on the windowsill. Birds are often used allegorically, and it is most likely a sign of bereavement. The rich red cloak of a nobleman offers a contrast to the muted colors in the background and may refer to his bloody death. There are three planes presented in the portrait: the living bird in the foreground, Giuliano, and the far serene landscape. Perhaps these three planes signify life, transition, and death or immortality. The portrait cannot be disconnected from political life in Florence. It is entirely feasible this portrait was painted posthumously to attest to the pathos of the murder and remind people of the consequences.
Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man with a Medallion (1480-85) continues portraiture innovation. Also known as Young Man Holding a Roundel, this youthful figure is presented in three quarters view within a painted frame. His buttoned navy overcoat contrasts with the sky-blue background as does his reddish blonde hair, worn fashionably at shoulder length. He gazes directly at the viewer. The round picture he holds (with manicured hands) depicts a saint from a fourteenth century painting. We don’t yet understand who the saint is or why he displays it. Even though the name of the sitter is lost to us, speculation is that he is a Medici, perhaps a cousin to Lorenzo the Magnificent. We can appreciate that he is a cultured, poised young man.
Botticelli was a favored Medici painter. Despite the fractious nature of politics, he was called to Rome by the very same pope who plotted against the Medici and commissioned Botticelli to paint some walls of the Sistine Chapel. However, as time went on, styles and preferences changed and he fell out of favor. He died poor in Florence. It’s difficult to believe that the creator of such respected art works ended his career nearly penniless.
It is a rare event when a famous old master painting goes up for auction, and Sotheby’s will sell Portrait of a Young Man with a Medallion in January 2021. It was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from real estate tycoon Sheldon Solow who purchased it for $1.3 million in 1982. Although it will be sold anonymously, it is estimated $80 million would be a good starter. What would Botticelli have thought?
This brings us to perhaps the most famous portrait in western art, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The painting is so iconic, and so reproduced, that it loses context with the time in which it was created. Leonardo (1452-1519) had a unique view of the world. Nature meant everything to him and it formed the filter through which he created art and his drawings, by observing, working meticulously, and attempting to understand how the human body, plants, water, rocks, virtually everything, worked. Beauty, grace, and understanding the natural world were his obsessions.
He was born with a few strikes against him, as he was illegitimate and left-handed. That may account for his independent nature and lack of connection to human beings, as it was hard enough to create a place for himself in a world where paternal heritage was important. His father Piero did provide for him, and set him up with an art apprenticeship. In his work as a notary to the rich families of Florence, Piero had many connections, and may have introduced Leonardo to prospective patrons. Although Leonardo was born only seven years after Botticelli, he was far ahead of his time. Art historically we think of him as contemporaries of Michelangelo and Raphael, who were in reality a generation later than Leonardo, although they had some interaction with each other at some point, with Leonardo being the elder.
Leonardo designed buildings, statues, weapons, bridges, and machinery of all types, most of which never came to fruition. What did come to fruition in painting is quite remarkable. His early training consisted of working under Andrea Verrocchio for a few years around 1470. He soon branched out on his own, working for the ruling families of central and northern Italy.
Leonardo spent some twenty years in Milan starting in 1481 in the service of Duke Ludovico Sforza. He did some engineering projects, worked on a sculpture, and completed the iconic Last Supper (Santa Maria delle Grazie, 1495-97). Always a visionary, the impact of the nuances of his painting and innovative composition are sometimes lost in the deteriorating painting, which began to peel away while he was alive. The wall painting was made famous also in his lifetime via prints and engravings.
The first seventeen years of 1500 he traveled frequently in Italy, following the fall of Milan to Louis XII of France. When Louis XII invaded Milan he asked if it was possible to detach the Last Supper mural and bring it to France. Luckily, that wasn’t possible. It was during this time period that Leonardo began the portrait called the Mona Lisa. He took Botticelli’s innovations in progressive directions.
The woman is turned to the viewer, and engages the viewer with her eyes and a discreet smile. Smiling is something very uncommon in portraiture. No glimpse of contentedness is shown in previous portraiture. Her arms are crossed but relaxed and she is shown to her hips. The background consists of a mix of fantasy and reality. The Leonardoesque craggy Dolomite type mountains are not native to Tuscany, but the mist, called sfumato in Italian, is prevalent in the northern regions. I remember distinctly traveling from the Swiss alps to Milan in a train on my first trip to Italy as a college student, looking out the window, and seeing exactly what Leonardo painted – a smokey foggy atmosphere. True to nature, he painted the atmosphere he saw in the natural world. Sfumato inhabits all his paintings, a departure from some of his peers who painted with clarity and an evenly lit bright light, and often no background landscape, only a solid color background. Leonardo’s backgrounds are fantastical mountains and streams, as if they were taken from his notebooks.
Leonardo often started with a dark wash over which colors appear muted, but the figures emerge from the sepia background. He has a subtle use of color which defines the figures, such as in the Annunciation (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, 1472-75) or Madonna of the Rocks (The Louvre, Paris, begun 1483). His figures seem to emerge from dark backgrounds. He does not use bright color contrasts nor a linear outline of figures. Gone are the evenly lit bright paintings of Botticelli. Leonardo did retain some compositional elements common to portraiture of the time. Her arms rest on a ledge, although darker and more obscure than the painted framed windows of Botticelli’s portraits. It is unthinkable, but the Mona Lisa was cut down on the sides. There were columns on each side of Mona Lisa which would render the composition very different from the painting we know today. While Leonardo has placed her on a traditional parapet, he moved her closer to the front plane of the painting, giving her a greater prominence in the composition.
Leonardo’s posing of his subject became widespread in Western Europe by bringing the subject front and center. The composition of an equilateral triangular or pyramid shape also dominated the Italian Renaissance. Leonardo, and other artists, use this Renaissance composition staple in multi-figure compositions as well as single figure compositions. Here, she sits close to the front of the picture frame, squarely in the middle with her head at the top of the triangle. Her elbows rest at about sixty degrees and the forearms complete the triangle shape. This gives a monumentality to the portrait.
Italians have a way of looking as if they exude a confident ease, something hard to capture in paintings, but done so well by Leonardo, as well as Botticelli. In Italian it’s called sprezzatura. (It’s fun to say in Italian – sprez-za-tú-ra.) There isn’t an equivalent word in English. Perhaps nonchalant would be close. The Mona Lisa has that sprezzatura. This confidence usually is reserved for aristocratic men. A woman in early 1550s self-assuredly looking directly at the viewer, smiling, would be very unusual and avant-garde. She also has her hair down, not in a complex hair do, and lacks the jewelry or rich fabrics of contemporary portraits.
Who really was the Mona Lisa? Volumes have been written about the identity of the woman Leonardo painted, from the ridiculous, that it is a self-portrait of da Vinci in drag, to the plausible, that it is Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. In between are numerous ideas inspired by Freud, the fiction book The Da Vinci Code, and others. Especially amusing are the rumors that Leonardo was part of some mysterious secret society with clues imbedded in his work. Some scholars won’t commit to an identity of the sitter. Many call the portrait La Gioconda, the feminized version of her husband’s name. The name Mona refers to either an abbreviation of Madonna or a respectful way to address a woman, similar to ma’am or lady.
There is enough evidence to reasonably conclude that it is Lisa Gherardini. The Gherardini family lived in the Chianti region, near Greve, then moved to Florence. Lisa was born in 1479 (one year after the Pazzi Conspiracy) and in 1495 married Francesco, a thirty-five-year-old widowed silk merchant. By 1502 she had given birth to two sons and a daughter. The following year Leonardo began her portrait. Lisa went on to give birth to two more children. Leonardo continued to work on the portrait for many years, traveling with it to Rome, Milan, and France. In fact, the portrait was with Leonardo when he died.
It remains an unsolved mystery as to why the Giocondo and Gherardini families did not receive the portrait or perhaps even see it. There are no documents that support a commission or payment, however, Leonardo’s father had done some legal work for the Giocondo family and perhaps made the connection between his son and the family. Lisa would have been in her mid-twenties when he started the painting, although she appears older than that in the finished version. By the time Leonardo died, she would have been about 40. Lisa lived until about 1455, more than thirty years after Leonardo’s death.
Leonardo spent his last years in Amboise, France, near Tours, a far cry from Florence. His last years were hosted by the French King Francis I. When Leonardo died some paintings, including the Mona Lisa, were listed in an inventory, which is how the Mona Lisa came to its final resting place at the Louvre in Paris, not in Italy, which still irks some Italians. In 1911 an Italian boldly stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre simply by taking it out of its frame and carrying in out in his jacket. His intention was to restore it to its rightful country of origin.
Today seeing Lisa at the Louvre is less than satisfying as she is in a highly secured alarmed airconditioned sealed compartment. The number of tourists is overwhelming and distracting as they raise up smart phones to capture an image of the 30 x 20 inch portrait. The painting has darkened considerably from age and layers of varnish, yet she remains enticing despite undergoing rumors, travel, and theft.
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