From Renaissance Self-Portrait to Selfie
Updated: May 30
The Italian National Tourist Board rolled out a nine million Euro campaign to entice tourists to visit Italy, especially the cities of Rome, Venice, and Florence. Their secret weapon is Botticelli’s iconic Venus dressed in the guise of a tourist. Taking a selfie. Some nick-named her the “Barbie Venus.” The campaign tagline is “Open to Meraviglia,” or open to wonder. I wonder if it’s a good idea. Italy needs more tourists?
Marketed as a virtual influencer, the flawless computer-generated twenty-first century Venus selfie takes place in an empty Piazza San Marco. Venice’s Piazza San Marco is never empty. She has been hailed as a brilliant campaign to use an internationally recognized iconic image or derided as a sell out to Italy’s cultural heritage. She is also featured as a celebrity in front of a group of microphones, eating a Margherita pizza at Lago di Como, and with a bicycle in front of the Colosseum. No other tourists in sight. Should Venus be repurposed as a social media influencer? I propose that tourists are already disconnected from the context of history, art, and architecture. Embracing this empowers vapid tourism. It’s clear where I stand on this issue. One positive. The website open-to-meraviglia has information on the famous and not so famous sites in Italy and can serve as a planning resource.
Creating an image of yourself is hardly new. Building a brand of yourself isn’t new. Perhaps computer Venus is just part of the evolution. After all, Botticelli painted himself in his 1470 Adoration of the Magi as an important Florentine citizen. Caravaggio included himself in David and Goliath (1609) as the decapitated giant Goliath. Some would say it fit his brand identity. Titian and Michelangelo included self-portraits in their final works. Historically there have been some spectacular self-portraits. Vincent Van Gogh comes to mind. Rembrandt. Picasso. Frida Kahlo.
The origins of self-portraits are difficult to pin down. This post will consider the span of artists’ self-portraits during the Renaissance era with some notable examples. In Western art of the early modern era (i.e., the Renaissance) Northern Europe provided some of the earliest influential examples.
While self-portraits are not easily categorized there is a loose grouping of types starting with artists including themselves as bystanders in a religious scene, ingeniously placing himself alongside prominent figures. Next is the autonomous self-portrait with the artist as the subject, and finally the self as an object of art, either for commercial purpose or as an active participant in a scene as the subject. Interpreting self-portraiture is tricky. Self-portraits contain an air of cleverness and mystique. There is a need to be looked at, and a challenge for the viewer to try to figure out what makes the artist tick. A self-fashioning exists of personality, style, and status. These trends go hand in hand with the emergence of the independent artist and their upward economic and social mobility.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) was a true influencer. Dürer had an intense desire to broaden his skills and experience different art forms and techniques. A lifelong learner, he pursued artistic training in Germany before heading to Venice in 1494 and again in1505-07. He established an artistic kinship with Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, as well as other European artists and humanists. Raphael sent him a drawing and Albrecht sent him a self-portrait. Dürer soaked up everything humanist or artistic in Italy and brought back those skills and ideas to Nuremberg. He also brought northern ideas to Venice. Oil painting was well known in Venice through a mutual trade and artistic connection between the north and Venice. Dürer’s extraordinary skills in painting, drawing, and printmaking contributed to his renown in Europe.
In many ways, he was the Leonardo of the north. He was intensely curious about nature and the human body. Although artists had been including self-portraits as bystanders in scenes for quite some time (Benozzo Gozzoli included himself twice in the1459 Medici Chapel frescoes), Dürer took it to another level with his 1500 full frontal self-portrait. It would be over one hundred years until another artist depicted himself in a similar fashion. In addition to discovering new techniques and innovating in his art, Dürer desired something else from his travels: social mobility. Considered a craftsman in his native land, in Venice he was considered a gentleman.
He presents himself in a fur coat with slashed sleeves. The tones are somber and dark. His right hand touches the edge of the trim. He holds his hand in a pose similar to Christ’s gesture of divinity. Scholars have noted the similarity in gestures but admit that Dürer has left some ambiguity about the gesture. He has depicted himself not as an artisan but as a well-dressed intellectual.
One cannot help but to notice Dürer’s elaborate styling. That hair! Each strand is painted meticulously in wavy curls with light brown and golden highlights. He was in fact well known for his grooming including his waxed mustache, shaped eyebrows, and permed hair, achieved with the assistance of what we would call a personal stylist. After his death his body was exhumed in order that casts of his hands and face could be made and snippets of his hair could be taken by his followers and aficionados. Perhaps his styling is the equivalent of photo retouching?
Besides his good looks and clothing, Dürer has made it clear that he made this painting with his name written in Latin at his eye level to the right. He writes “I, Albrecht Dürer of Nuremberg painted myself thus, with undying color, at the age of twenty-eight years.” On the left he includes the monogram AD, painted in his signature logo with a large A and the D inscribed below within the confines of the A. The year 1500 is above the initials. AD also stands for Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord), perhaps a pun on his divine artistry. The AD becomes his brand which is included in many paintings and prints. The self-portrait was publicly put on display in the Nuremberg town hall.
This was not his only self-portrait. He painted two others in 1493 and 1498 as well as including himself as a bystander in scenes, studies of himself nude, and studies of his hands and legs. In total, sixteen images of himself or his body have come down to us. The 1498 painting also features his coiffure and expensive clothing.
If a self-portrait is like a logo or a social media presence, Dürer wanted to impress with his status and wealth. Ego aside, he makes a statement about his artistic mastery and his social place. He made the self-portrait a concept which other artists built upon. By the mid to late 1500s self-portraits were collected and sought after on the art market.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a specific word at the time for self-portrait. Paintings of the self or individuals were referred to as portraits. Sometimes called a “face painting,” self-portraiture became advertising for skills and creativity. Parmigianino, born Francesco Mazzola, (1503-40) hailed from the central Italian city of Parma. When he was twenty-one and a newly transplanted artist in Rome, he created a clever marketing tactic by painting himself as he posed in front of a convex mirror.
Mirrors were utilized since ancient times and the most common form was a convex mirror. Nuremberg and Venice were prominent mirror manufacturers. The mirror gave a wide-angle view. Albrecht Dürer used a convex mirror as did other artists, but Parmigianino makes the painting in the shape of the convex mirror. Measuring about nine inches in diameter, the artist used a convex poplar wood frame to convey the curvature. Although he idealizes himself a bit younger than twenty-one, he paints his hand in the foreground to establish the distortion. Even the timber beams on the ceiling and window to the left are curved. Note the small doorway on the right made diminutive through distortion and how he painted the reflection of the frame in the mirror.
He made this painting as a gift in order to stimulate commissions from Pope Clement VII, which did not materialize. Parmigianino’s portrait shows an interest in the self as a subject as well as optics and illusion. It is a clever twist on the self-portrait, and to my knowledge, unique in Italian painting. A precedent is perhaps Jan van Eyck’s 1434 The Arnolfini Portrait (National Gallery, London) where the convex mirror mounted on the wall reflects the reverse of the Arnolfini couple. In miniature, reflected in the mirror. two people enter the room. Some have proposed one of those tiny individuals is Jan van Eyck.
The Renaissance has an increased focus on the individual evident not only in portraiture but also in literature. Autobiographies by artists and other intellectuals became a way to leave a legacy of their lives, often brimming with good deeds and exemplary character. Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists was first published in 1550 and a second addition published in 1568. The second volume includes more artists along with woodcut portraits of the artists, not from life, but from what he thought was a reasonable likeness. More artists are included in the second volume along with more attention given to self-portraits.
One woman contributed many self-portraits to the genre. Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625) is the first recorded famous Italian female artist. Sofonisba’s father and mother had six daughters and one son. Their father, Amilcare, made the unusual decision to give his children a liberal education. They came from a minor aristocratic family in Cremona, northern Italy. He recognized eldest daughter Sofonisba’s drawing talent early on, as well as the potential economic opportunity for the family.
Amilcare desired that his children receive a humanist training. Women artists of the sixteenth century were dependent on men to educate them, promote their work, and liaison with patrons. Male family members usually managed their careers. Women could not conduct business or purchase art supplies without male family members. Female artists did not study live models like their male counterparts. Sofonisba was one of a few female artists.
Miniature self-portraits became her specialty and a way for her father to promote her paintings. They were given as gifts to potential clients. About twelve survive with perhaps seven more lost. Sofonisba was very well regarded by her artist peers and attained a wide reputation. This miniature, painted with oil on parchment, shows Sofonisba holding a very large medallion with intertwining letters and an inscription around the medallion. At only two by three inches, it reveals her talent for detail.
Painted when she was about twenty-four, she has a child-like appearance. She turns her heads slightly and wears a black gown with a white collar. She engages the viewer by looking towards us. The medallion is super-sized perhaps in order for us to be able to read the inscription and to try to decipher the monogram. Some suggest that she holds a shield or the reverse side of a mirror. Around the edges she painted in Latin “Painted from the mirror with her own hand by the Cremonese virgin Sofonisba Anguissola.” She always depicts herself in modest clothing and with objects, such as books, that reflect her status and education.
The intertwined letters are more difficult to decipher. Many have ventured a guess. She cleverly concealed the letters. Some see letters that spell out Amilcare in reference to and thanks for his management of her artistic endeavors. Others see the letters K and Y in addition but cannot decide on the meaning. Some suggest the letters refer to initials of siblings and family members. At the top, bottom, and sides she painted clusters of grapes, which scholars have had difficulty interpreting.
Another explanation suggests the letters form a Latin phrase “Anguis sola fecit victoriam” referring to a family legend of heroic victory in battle. If this is the case, along with her talent and humanist upbringing, it presents her family and herself as having the appropriate status to be considered noble. Status was everything, especially to a family of modest means. Sofonisba and Amilcare’s efforts were fruitful. A few years after painting this miniature she was chosen to join the court of King Philip II in Spain, serving as a court painter and art teacher for his wife Queen Isabel de Valois.
If Sofonisba needed to portray herself as a demure virgin, male artists had more liberty in how they wanted to be perceived. The Venetian artist Tintoretto chose a different way to distinguish himself. The artistic milieu in most of sixteenth century Venice was dominated by Titian, who cultivated a gallant figure with princely international clients and a reputation to match. Jacopo Tintoretto (c.1518-1594) was born with the last name of Robusti. He became known as Tintoretto after his father’s profession as a cloth dyer, or tintore. Titian was at the epicenter of Venetian and European patrons. Both artists had very different artistic goals and attributes. Their self-portraits attest to their varied approaches.
Titian’s 1550 self-portrait is dignified. He reminds the viewer that he is part of a minor nobility with the shiny gold chain from the Knight of the Golden Spur. The painting is considered unfinished as his hands are roughed in. About seventy years old, he is well dressed with black clothing, fur cloak, long beard, and skull cap, all trademarks of aristocrats. His shirt shimmers with a golden aura and appears luminescent. There is no reference to his profession as he appears without the tools of his trade. He gazes off beyond the viewer. Titian’s artistic identity is consistent, clear, and he managed his public persona carefully over the decades. This is an artist who knows his place in society and has claimed it.
Enter Tintoretto in the late 1540s as he breaks through and establishes himself in a highly competitive environment, especially within the confines of the Venetian islands. He found it helpful and rewarding to buck tradition. Finding patrons wasn’t easy at first. He brought a self-portrait and portrait of his brother to the Merceria, an open market area between the Rialto Bridge and San Marco, where everything and anything was for sale, with crowds of people trading and buying merchandise. This was a novel approach to non-commissioned artwork and self-promotion. In addition to vying for high stakes commissions, he brought his art to the public. We know of six self-portraits but three are lost. Two of the remaining are reminders of his unique approach to the self.
The 1547 portrait in London is not the one he brought to the Venice market, but perhaps indicates what he displayed. His painting is a disruptor, as it is unlike other artist’s self-portraits made prior or after. If a viewer didn’t know the date, they would be hard pressed to not guess 1700, 1800, or even 1900. He has no interest in expressing his place in society, body, or ornament. We have a hint of his shoulder and highlighted face emerging from the dark background. Dürer would probably disapprove of his grooming and unkempt appearance, as well as the handling of the oil paint.
Tintoretto turns to look in his mirror before looking back to his canvas. The striking loose brushstrokes, rapidly applied paint – and most of all the stare – are intimidating as well as captivating. He was described as a “hot pepper” according to his biographers and peers, hot-headed in his youth, and difficult to get along with. An unsubstantiated legend says he started as an apprentice in Titian’s studio but was booted out due to his temperament. He has chosen to convey personality rather than status. Yet the influence of Titian is keenly felt in the handling of the paint. Titian, Tintoretto, and another newcomer, Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), competed against each other for commissions from religious organizations and the state government. Veronese leaned towards Titian as his successor and influencer. Tintoretto leaned towards Michelangelo as his influencer. There is evidence Titian did some political maneuvering to influence commissions in favor of Veronese and deliberately against Tintoretto.
Tintoretto went on to obtain many important commissions, particularly the paintings for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, a lay religious organization. He was a versatile artist, painting portraits, large altarpieces, and mythological scenes. You can tell a Tintoretto scene by the many action figures grouped together in twisting poses with an earthy color palette. Angular and diagonal compositions frequently predominate, often with an airborne figure who looks like they are flying in for the save. Veronese's figures rarely levitate and are arranged in a more balanced composition. Tintoretto is imaginative in his compositions and colors. Portraits are the exception where he demonstrated restraint and deep psychological attention to his subject. He toned down the action and turned up the detail on clothing and ornament. It is relatively easy to distinguish stylistically a religious or mythological painting by each of the three Venetians, however, portraiture seems to bring them closer together in form and style.
He approaches a self-image differently. Tintoretto abandons his usual portrait formats and gives us a frank and gripping full frontal image in the 1588 self-portrait. He had eight children and ran a very busy workshop churning out many paintings, especially after Titian and Veronese’s deaths. Always trying to make ends meet, Tintoretto showed his age after over forty years of artistry. There is some evidence to indicate he had financial woes despite his achievements.
At seventy years old, six years before his death, Venice had changed and tastes had changed. His studio wasn’t as busy as before. He looks the part of a haggard artist. He had trouble trying to keep up with what he successfully built from his early days, even with the help of some of his children. Again he chose to avoid any status symbols, and did not emphasize clothing or jewelry. The gaze is equally direct as his earlier image, but the fire is diminished. For a man who was born and died in Venice, having only left his city once for a short trip, he thrived in an environment ripe with competition. His rivals were gone. Tintoretto was the last man standing.
There are two artists worth mentioning when considering self-portraits. Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) made no less than forty paintings, thirty-one etchings, and six plus drawings of himself. And then there were copies and distribution of copies. Some he made because he was an easy and available subject and to experiment with different expressions and personas. As an independent artist, his face became publicly familiar and probably the most recognizable artist at the time.
According to the British Library Leonardo da Vinci produced 28,000 pages in his manuscripts, organized into codices. Only about twenty-five percent survive today. Drawings of machinery, water, anatomy, inventions, people, animals, and countless other things were recorded. Despite all the codices, paintings, sketchbooks and drawings, there is no likeness he made of himself. Scholars have speculated and searched, however, he did not leave us a self-image, unless it is lost.
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Ilchman, Frederick, et. al. Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2009.
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