Went to the see the remarkable Renaissance portraits at the Met yesterday, and stayed with them for a long time –the hair, the clothes, the glamour.
Regarding art history, I’m a layperson. So I recognize that my understanding of Renaissance art had always been dominated by the tender images of the holy family and company. I was, of course, familiar with Machiavelli, the blood curdling image of the Renaissance in Nietzsche, and this or that portrait of this or that Medici or court figures from 15th century Italy. As isolated figures, they did not make much of an impression. What you don’t get from reading Machiavelli or from Nietzsche’s descriptions is the face.
It’s one thing to see an isolated face. It’s another thing to see all these Renaissance faces filling up room after room after room. I found bone chilling and unpleasant the intensity of this particular assemly of people. These were men and women who understood money and power. Human all too human, there was not a scintilla of religion or piety about them; nor nary a hint of human kindness. In profile and in ¾ view, what struck me was the impassive brutality of the face. Hood-eyed and predatory, they’d sooner kill you then look at you.
I figured something out. Leaving the exhibit of these guys and “their women” returns you back to the Renaissance galleries in the Met. You meet up there with the more familiar pictures of the holy family and other religious types. What struck me today is how often they seem to look downwards or sideways with sad looks or undisguised terror. I’m willing to bet it’s because they knew that these guys were lurking outside the picture frame, just down the hall.
(Note: All images appeared at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I found most of them at Laura Gilbert’s blog “Art Unwashed” (http://artunwashed.blogspot.com/2011/12/renaissance-portrait-from-donatello-to.html and also from the online slide show at the New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2011/12/23/arts/design/20111223-RENAISSANCE.html
For a more professional review of the exhinit, see the link above to Gilbert and to Ken Johnson’s review at the NYT http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/23/arts/design/renaissance-portrait-from-donatello-to-bellini-review.html.