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Major exhibition on the genesis of the Italian portrait opens at the Bode Museum in Berlin
Journalists look at the painting "Dame mit dem Hermelin" ("The Lady with Ermine") by Leonardo da Vinci before the opening of the exhibition "Gesichter der Renaissance" (Renaissance Faces) at the Bode museum in Berlin August 24, 2011. The exhibition of some 170 masterpieces of Italian portraiture runs from August 25 till November 20 in the German capital. REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz.
BERLIN.- The Gemäldegalerie— National Museums in Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, have joined forces in organizing a major exhibition on the genesis of the Italian portrait. For Berlin, the Bode Museum presents itself as the ideal location to hold such an exhibition: on its opening in 1904, it was conceived by its founder, Wilhelm von Bode, as a ‘Renaissance Museum’ on the Museum Island. The Bode Museum will host the first stage of the exhibition, running from 25 August to 20 November 2011, before it subsequently goes on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, from 19 December 2011 to 18 March 2012.

More than 150 key works, including paintings, drawings, medals and busts, are about to go on display for the first time together. The more than 50 lenders include the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London. Among the exhibition’s many highlights is Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Lady with an Ermine’ from the Czartoryski Collection, Cracow.

The exhibition highlights depictions of the appearance and personality of real people. Portraits of feminine beauty vie with portraits of generals, princes and humanists, offering us a fascinating insight into the age of the early Renaissance.

At the heart of the exhibition stands the Italian Renaissance portrait. The Italian art of portraiture evolved under the influence of antique models. However, it was equally shaped by the innovations of the great Netherlandish painters. The history of the art of portraiture, from Pisanello up to Verrocchio, Botticelli, Bellini and Leonardo, is retold in a selection of magnificent and sensational key works, including paintings, sculptures, medals and drawings. The exhibition focuses both on the art produced at the Italian courts, as well as the development of the portrait in Florence and Venice.

A unique architectural and lighting concept, especially designed for the exhibition, takes into account the individual qualities of each exhibit in its presentation. Of crucial importance here is the aesthetic experience, both of the quality of the artworks and of the materials used in creating them.

The artistic diversity evident in these early portraits, the various roles the images served and their historical contexts all resonate with suspense. The Gemäldegalerie—National Museums in Berlin and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York embarked on an intense collaboration to present this to the general public. Masterpieces from New York and the rich collections of the National Museums in Berlin, not just from the Gemäldegalerie itself but also from the Sculpture Collection, Kupferstichkabinett and Numismatic Collection, offer visitors an unprecedented insight into this epoch. Furthermore, for the first time the show in the Bode Museum also encompasses all media of Italian Renaissance portraiture—medals, drawings, sculptures and panel paintings.

Portraits—either in the form of a painting, photograph and less often a medal—have become commonplace today, but between the 5th and 15th century independent portraits of individual people were rare and the exclusive reserve of rulers and historic figures. Only in the 15th century did it again become customary for artists on both sides of the Alps to produce independent portraits of men and women. Today’s exhibition ‘Renaissance Faces’ pays homage to Italy’s contribution to this first great age of European portraiture and conveys a sense of the innovative ways in which artists responded to the challenge of creating individual portraits and how they explored questions of identity that arose as a result.

When selecting the exhibits, the organizers’ chief aim was to highlight the prevailing conventions and decisive innovations in a period spanning more than eight decades. Set against the backdrop of Italy’s geographical, political and cultural complexities in the 15th century, the exhibition is divided into three clearly outlined thematic sections. The first of these is Florence, as it was here that the independent portrait first appeared on a significant scale. The visitor’s gaze is then directed to the courts of Ferrara, Mantua, Bologna, Milan, Urbino, Naples and finally papal Rome. The circle is then completed in Venice, where a portrait tradition only established itself remarkably late in the century. In each section, works in all media are juxtaposed with each other to give visitors the chance to see for themselves how the various art forms mutually influenced each other with their own unique qualities.

In a society dominated by family descent and social hierarchies, conventions were binding. And it is precisely these conventions that are depicted in profile portraits from 15th-century Italy. Profile portraits were equally popular as reliefs or paintings. Compared with the far more naturalistic art produced north of the Alps, which people in 15th-century Italy were definitely familiar with, this form of portrait seems at first a little surprising, as the Italian artists present the sitters in a soft light and at a slight angle to the picture plane. The sitters are seen standing either at a window or behind a parapet and gaze at the viewer. Sometimes a hand is seen resting on the edge of the painted frame. When looking at these images, it is clear that Italian portraits are not primarily concerned with achieving an accurate likeness, at least not in the conventional sense. Italian portraits do not so much reveal personality, rather convey social conventions and cultural identity.

The profile portrait was frequently given such exceptional importance in Italy, because it largely drew from Roman coins and reliefs for inspiration. But the profile portrait has always been the most elementary form of capturing someone’s likeness. Informal, direct and frontal views have become so familiar to us in portraits today thanks to photography that we first have to be resensitized to the unique possibilities inherent in the profile portrait. For one, it makes it possible to objectify a person’s outer appearance and allows physiognomies to convey cultural meaning. The pleasing aspect of a high forehead, the refinement or contemptuousness expressed in a raised brow, the aristocratic curve of a nose and the severity or gentleness of a chin and jawline—all these are physiognomical characteristics that come to stand as emblems for beauty, rank and power.





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