The Representation Of Women In Fifteenth Century

P Essay, Research Paper

The Representation of Women in Fifteenth Century Italian Portraiture The Italian Renaissance was a time of rebirth, a burgeoning ofinterest in the classical arts and sciences. Portraiture as a genrewas on the increase, fuelled by a growing introspection throughwhich man was becoming aware of the innate characteristics that madehim an individual. Burckhardt, in _The Civilisation of RenaissanceItaly_, devotes a chapter to tracing the representation ofindividual personalities in Renaissance literature. On reading hispremise that, ‘the development of personality is essentiallyinvolved in the recognition of it in oneself and in others.’(Burckhardt,1878), it can be seen that this statement is of primeimportance when discussing portraiture of the same period. Oncecapturing a personality and not just a likeness became desirable, achange started in the way portraiture was seen. It takes time before the desire to portray character overcomesthe convention of depicting women in a profile format, like AlessoBaldovinetto’s _Portrait of a Lady in Yellow_ of c. 1465. Profileportraits were an accepted practice that continued to be popularduring the entire fifteenth century. The fifteenth century was usedto seeing profile portraits in the donor paintings of theirchurches, a format that no doubt helped to distinguish donors fromreligious figures, as can be seen in Masaccio’s _The Trinity withthe Virgin and St. John_. Although there was no taboo oncontemporary figures sharing the same space as religious figures,there were obvious distinctions made between, usually in terms ofscale and costume. This leads us to a possible reason why theprofile portrait remained in use in Italy when the rest of Europewas already more commonly utilising a three-quarter face format forportraits. It is possible that during the early part of thefifteenth century there was a taint of profanity around theportrayal of secular figures in a manner usually reserved forreligious figures. The profile portrait also retained its popularityin Italy due to the influence of Roman coins. Portrait medals, basedon Roman coinage, were produced in fifteenth century Italy and weremade for presentation and for commemoration. In the Baldovinettoportrait we can see the remoteness and dignity that such a formatbestows on the portrayal of the sitter. Her silhoutte becomes afluid line, defined against the flat background, and along with herdistant gaze, promotes her remoteness from the viewer. The dignitythat is acquired comes at the expense of individuality. The woman inthis portrait becomes as emblematic as the motif of palm leaves onher sleeve. In male portraiture this reduction of the humanphysiognomy to emblem reinforces the portrayal of status. In GentileBellini’s painting of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, what remains is theimpression of a powerful man, the upholder of an important officecloaked in the garb of his rank. However, in the _Portrait of a Ladyin Yellow_, the sitter’s status is generic, conforming tocontemporary conventions of beauty applicable to all women.Boccaccio, a fourteenth century poet, describes in the _Tesidea_ theappearance of a beautiful woman, using conventions that were toremain in place throughout the fifteenth century; ‘I say that her tresses seemed as gold … and combed so that not a single knot was in them, and they fell on the support of her shining white shoulders … Her brow was ample and spacious, and white and level and very delicate, beneath which in a twisting arch terminating almost in a half circle were two eyebrows … Beneath these were two shining eyes … They were serious and long and well seated, and brown as others never were’ (Boccaccio, _Tesidea_, quoted by Dempsey) Considering this quote, can we be sure that Baldovinetti’s sitterhad hair as golden as her dress, that her eyes were the shade ofbrown we see in the picture, whether indeed her eyes were brown atall? To what extent did contemporary ideals of beauty becomeoverlaid onto the likenesses of women? It is impossible to tell, butthe way this unknown sitter corresponds to Fifteenth Century idealsof beauty must give cause to doubt the accuracy of herrepresentation. With no spark of her individual character, and withdoubts at the veracity of her portrayal, she is left mute, a symbolof the wealth and good character of the family whose emblem shedisplays so dominantly on her sleeve. By the end of the fifteenth century, the portrayal of women in

portraiture was becoming markedly different. The profile conventionwas gradually overcome by three-quarter views, falling into linewith the way men had more commonly been represented from the middlehalf of the century. In _Portrait of a Girl_, a painting from theworkshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio the format gives the sitter morepresence, and the artist more scope for exploring facialcharacteristics. She does, however, still conform to the ideals ofbeauty and deportment of her age. Her static pose and averted gazecause her to be an object to be gazed on just as much as the figurein Baldovinetti’s _Portrait of a Lady in Yellow_. The change comeswith Leonardo Da Vinci, and can be seen in his _The Lady with theErmine_, a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, mistress of LudovicoSforza. With her head and body turned at different angles, aposition that is impossible to hold for any length of time, the posebecomes mobile. The viewer is aware of the unnerving possibility ofher gaze travelling to meet their own. This fluid pose gives anincreased sense of activity that had previously been omitted fromfemale portraiture. Da Vinci believed that a portrait should show’the motions of the mind,’ (Da Vinci; quoted by Henessy, p101) andwe can see this in the subtle characterisation of her face whichgives her an alertness akin to that of the ermine she holds. Atfirst glance it would seem that this image of Cecilia Gallerani hasa greater autonomy than that of the women we have previously lookedat. She certainly has a greater presence, but Da Vinci remains intight control of the portrayal, and the amount of individualisationhe gives to the painting is in order to convey his view of hissitter. The sitter is not in control of the way she is represented,and Da Vinci has used his own judgement to shown us a ‘beautifulweasel’ (Calder, 1970 p111). Cecilia Gallerani must have been awareof this, and the reason she disliked the painting. The artist hasbecome a commentator on human character, and the aspects that heemphasises are not pleasant. Cecilia’s likeness has been used as avehicle for the display of Da Vinci’s insight into the psyche, toshow the degree of perception that a painting could achieve. In thesame way, later artists like Titian would use the likeness ofbeautiful women as a vehicle to show the beauty of the art ofpainting (see Cropper, 1986 p175-190). The impression left after examining female portraiture of thefifteenth century, is one of sitters with little or no control overthe way they are represented. Their static poses become a base overwhich male notions of respectability and beauty can be laid. At firsta motif for the wealth and good standing of family, her image islater subsumed into a wider discourse on the nature of paintingitself. It is not until the sixteenth century, with female artistslike Anguissola Sofonisba, that women begin to enter this discourse,and in so doing, define their own standards in the genre of femaleportraiture. List of Paintings Baldovinetti, Alesso,_Portrait of a Lady in Yellow_, c.1465.Wood, painted surface 62.9 x 40.6 cm.London: National Gallery Masachio,_The Trinity with the Virgin and St. John_, 1425FrescoFlorence: S. Maria Novella Bellini, Gentile,_Doge Giovanni Mocenigo_, c.1478.Panel, 63 x 47 cm.Venice: Museo Correr Workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio,_Portrait of a Girl_, 1490Wood, 44.1 x 29.2 cm London: National Gallery Da Vinci, Leonardo_The Lady with the Ermine_ c.148355 x 44.4 cm Bibliography Burckhardt, J. (1878), _The Civilization of the Renaissance inItaly_, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, Calder, R. (1970), _Leonardo and the Age of the Eye_,London and Melbourn: Richard Heinemann Ltd Chadwick, W. (1992), _Women, Art and Society_, London: Thames and Hudson Cropper, E. (1987) ‘The Beauty of Women: Problems in the Rhetoric ofRenaissance Portraiture,’ in M. Ferguson, M. Quilligan and N.Vickers, eds. _Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Differencein Early Modern Europe_, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press Dempsey, C. (1992) _The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s Primaveraand Humanist Culture at the time of Lorenzo de’ Medici_Princeton:Princeton University Press Dunkerton, J. Foister, S. Gordon, D. and Penny, N. (1991),_Giotto to Durer: Early Renaissance Painting in the NationalGallery_, New Haven and London: Yale University Press Henessy, J. P. (1966), _The Portrait in the Renaissance_,Princeton: Princeton University Press Humfrey, P. (1995), _Painting in Renaissance Venice_,New Haven and London: Yale University Press Kelly, J. (1984) ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’ in _Women, Historyand Theory_,Chicago: Chicago University Press



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