Feel like avoiding the hyper-caffeinated, Ikea-chic crowds at the Armory events this weekend? Looking to elude the critical conundrums and potential disillusionment of the Whitney Biennial? Seeking to perhaps shed a time-jerked tear or two while gazing upon the now charming, now amusing, now confounding and ever arresting visages of figures whose smiles, profiles and hair styles were captured largely dal vivo about five centuries ago?
Well then, the Met has just the show for you, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini. It’s been on display for several months now, but at this point you’ve only about a week left to see it. Need some nudging? Here are ten reasons why you shouldn’t miss it.
I’ve provided the first five (having seen the exhibit five times, this just seemed to make sense), while my friend and cohort at After Vasari, A.L. McMichael, a CUNY Graduate Center art historian—a Byzantinist, to be specific, whose research interests range from late antiquity to early Renaissance—has provided the second set.
1. Donatello’s Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore, c. 1425. This large bronze bust fully covered in gold is a fine exemplar of how saintly bling can become deliciously blung. The details here are exquisite. Note, for instance, the engraved stubble.
2. Mino da Fiesole’s Niccolò di Leonardo Strozzi, 1454. This marble bust makes clear how unrealistically idealized portraiture was no longer the style. This fellow’s face seems to beg a sound effect along the lines of, ‘Doh!’
3. Missing its gold coating and crown of laurels, the stucco death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici is all the more haunting as a result. What a presence, what a vestige, what a visage. Again, note the stubble.
4. The terzultimate room: With mostly marble busts to one side and a suite of paintings to the other, with dark-walled rooms preceding and following, this gallery seems to gently ascend as its long-dead residents, many of them children, flit glances and gaze distantly all around.
5. In the last room of the exhibit, Antonio Rizzo’s marble bust of Doge Cristoforo Moro will stop you cold, but be sure to have a good look at all the painted fellows in there sporting the zazzera, a sort of bowl-cut sort of boy-bob that’s almost hilarious and almost cool. It’s sure to make a comeback.
Here are A.L.’s rather more scholarly reasons:
1. Although the show lacks paintings by Leonardo da Vinci—most of those were on exhibition in the British National Gallery until February—his genius did not go unnoticed. After all, Leonardo not only launched a thousand Dan Brown novels, he inspired knock-offs in his own day. Lorenzo di Credi’s Portrait of a Young Woman (c. 1490-1500) is clearly a reference to Leonardo’s Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci (c. 1474). Both paintings depict elegant, enigmatic women seated in front of a juniper bush (a reference to the name Ginevra, which means juniper).
2. Botticelli’s Ideal Portrait of a Lady, depicting heartthrob Simonetta Vespucci, looks a bit like Julie Delpy and a lot like Botticelli’s mythological heroines of Primavera and Birth of Venus. As you inspect her be-ribboned hair and Medici cameo (her little pendant depicting Apollo and Marsyas; note its three dimensional counterpart displayed near the painting), ponder how many similar beauties may have been lost when the artist, under the influence of pious conservative Savonarola, destroyed some of his works in the Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497.
3. Even in monochrome, the pursed lips of the marble likeness of Cosimo de’ Medici, sculpted by the workshop of Antonio Rossellino, seem likely to spout grandfatherly advice. The profile of the stern and wrinkled Medici pater familias commands attention even while gazing away from the viewer. Clearly, the artist meant for us to view him from this angle because the high relief is deceiving; take two steps to your left and look at his face, which will now be square, flat, and cartoonish.
4. In 1439, John VIII Palaeologus, the penultimate emperor of the Byzantine empire, sought help from Western Europe against the impending attack of the Ottoman Turks. While his efforts were ultimately in vain—the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453—his trip was the impetus for the popular revival of the ancient portrait medal when Pisanello cast his portrait in bronze.
5. After perusing the paintings of ladies with high foreheads and delicate features, you may find yourself humming a verse of “One of These Things is Not Like the Others” when you get to an anonymous Florentine’s Portrait of a Woman (c. 1440-50). Her inelegant posture, high neckline, darkly defined eyebrow and decidedly un-Roman nose rest uneasily among the doges and divas lining the exhibition’s walls. The painting has been attributed to both Fra Filippo Lippi and Paolo Uccello, but those ruffled sleeves also appear awfully reminiscent of one of Mary Crawley’s dinner gowns in Downton Abbey.
Convinced yet? We hope so. The Met is open until 9pm on Fridays and Saturdays, by the way. Nighttime visits to museums are the best.