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On Portraiture- Today and in Mannerist Italian Art

Updated: Dec 2, 2021

From Cod Pieces to Cloth and Conspiracies- a reflection on Medici era art at the Met- Brian Keeler

Portraiture has long been part of my artistic endeavors in painting so it was a special treat to make a trip into New York City to attend the show of paintings, sculpture and other artifacts from 16th century Florence. This show, “The Medici: Portraits and Politics, 1512-1570" was not a disappointment.

This was my first visit into New York City and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the show was held, since the pandemic hit. It was quite an effort and wearing a mask for the entire day was challenging especially because I had a severe allergic reaction once I got off the bus at the Port Authority. Lots of sneezing and watering eyes made viewing the show a challenge.

This period of the cinquecento, as it is called in art history, which is also the Mannerist period is not my favorite period of Italian art history. The previous era of the early and high Renaissance is preferred, but still there is nothing to scoff at here. The show is comprised of virtuosity in spades and there were some surprises and revelations too.

It is interesting to note that the term Mannerist is really a misnomer, as with other periods of art history. We think of the Impressionist classification as with the Ashcan School or The Fauve, which were all derogatory and off-hand criticisms. The Mannerist classification refers to "in the manner of the antique." It was actually the opposite, because those artists of the 16th century were attempting to subvert, flaunt and oppose the rigor of proportions and formulas of the High Renaissance. Some of the examples referred to here, like the portrait bust below, many not conform to the Mannerist credo of distortion and exaggeration. But many of the others do, for example Pontormo's portraits or especially Parmigianino's Madona of the Long Neck.

The Bronze portrait of the Florentine banker, Bindo Altoviti by Cellini.

Firstly I was delighted to see two portraits of a Florentine banker, Bindo Altoviti that I had not seen before. These were of particular interest as a portrait by Raphael of Bindo, done in his youth has long been one of my all time favorite portraits. I had recently sketched from the original, which is in the NGA in DC. These two portraits in the MET are tour-de-force works of consummate skill as well. The painting is by one of the major exponents of 16th century portraiture, and who was new to me, Francesco Salviati (1510-1563.) Bindo is portrayed full bearded with a fur collar and in the understated black coat that was popular in this era, as well as in the Dutch portraiture of the next century. The beauty of black and subtlety of tone is truly remarkable. Black has received a fair amount of bad press in our art training, some of it justifiable, as the urge is to get beginners away from using black as the default color for darkening. I recall that Frans Hals was supposed to have used 17 different variants of black. Black was regarded as an indication of steadfastness because it couldn’t be changed into another color. The graphic beauty of black is undeniable and we can appreciate how an understated and reserved palette has inherent dignity. Even aside from the masterfulness of this oil portrait of Salviati, it is notable that it is on marble! Yes, it must way a ton.

The oil portrait (on marble) or Bindo Altoviti by Francesco Salviati.

The other version of Bindo is right next to the painting and it is a life size bronze by Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571.) Some of us may know Cellini for the huge bronze sculpture of Perseus with head of the Medussa in the Loggi di Lanzi in Florence. This bronze is a magnificent head with incredible character. I tend to appreciate the overall form, modeling, structure but there are details in this work that are astounding too. For example the perforated hat, called a scuffioto is masterful exercise in minutae. Bindo was a handsome youth and he aged gracefully and it is indeed interesting to see how he was portrayed by these great Italian artists at different stages in his life. He was one of the wealthiest men in Florence, and we are fortunate that he was a patron of the arts.

Angnolo Bronzino (1503-1572) is the star of the show and his portraits are paired with many of Salviati’s to show the two main exponents of the era in contrast. His work is sure to impress for its detail, exactitude and high resolution of surface and modeling. Still, the stiffness of the poses is not my preferred look. as they tend to look overly posed, and well, stiff. Preferring the naturalness and painterliness of a Hals or Sargent or even his contemporary, Andrea Del Sarto are brushy painters who appeal to my taste more.

The portrait of Bronzino’s which is the centerpiece of the exhibit is the three quarter length oil of the teenage Ludovico Cappioni, who was the son of a wealthy banker. Clothing and textiles are emphasized by the curators and with good reason. The accouterments, rich garments and books they are often holding all indicate status and literary aspirations. The aspect of this portrait that did not receive mention in the commentaries that I saw or listened to is the prominent cod piece, which is the phallic protrudance showing plainly in white against the black doublet. This was a convention of the era and recall that Henry the Eighth was also portrayed by Holbein with similar inclusion. Hmm, it seems odd by our standards, but is it really any different than woman of our own day flaunting their cleavage?

The oil portrait by Bronzino of the 16 year old Ludovico Cappioni.

The Mannerist painters as a group has been appreciated for sometime. I saw a major show of their work at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence a number of years ago. And one of the main painters of this era is Andrea Del Sarto, who I have often considered one of my favorite painters. His naturalness, or sprezzatura as it is known in Italian, had long appealed to me. There is an altarpiece in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Madonna of The Harpies, that epitomizes the fluidity of Del Sarto. We saw a wonderful exhibit of his drawings at the Frick a few years ago that showed his process and the practice of the era.

Portraits as allegory are part of the show too. One of the oddest, at least by 21st century sensibilities is the commissioned oil of Giovani de’ Medici. He is portrayed at 16 by Bronzino as a nude St John The Baptist. The painting was commissioned by the subjects father, who was then Pope Pius IV.

The centrality of art, and portraiture in the Renaissance and Mannerist periods is worth noting. Paintings figured in the politics in a major way, as they did with marriage contracts and even with assuaging bruised egos. The entire lower level of the Sistine Chapel was an act of diplomacy by Lorenzo de’ Medici to assuage the Pope over the Pazzi murders (the Pope was most likely behing the murder of Lorenzo's brother) and the complications that resulted The painters were, aside from the best artisits Tuscany had, they were also emissaries of culture and politics. A far cry from today.

So viewing a show of this quality is indeed a treat. As a painter I am often very appreciative of just how much abundance of inspiration we have in our museums. This trip to the Met underscored this in a big way.

Putting into practice some of the inspiration from the show at the MET- painting an alla prima oil portrait from life.

To view a short vid on this portrait-

I just finished a portrait from life, a fellow that I found interesting working across the street was the model. My partner, Linda asked why I did this painting. And the reason is that I like to keep up my chops and continued working from life is one of the best ways to do this. Going to the museums and to shows like this one at the MET is amazing activity that offers us painters and abundance of inspiration. The experience of looking at mater works like these Mannerist portraits can be exhilarating, humbling and inspiring.

A recent 26"x 30" oil portrait "Light from the Right- Joe Mullen." This oil also pays homage to the Renaissance realism and interest in the individual- a hallmark of the period.

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