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An Outstanding Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Renaissance Portrait: from Donatello to Bellini

This showstopper exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was co-organized with the Berlin State Museums. Almost sixty institutions and private collectors contributed works of art to this encyclopaedic survey comprising 160 masterpieces, which stressed the Italian contribution to this genre. Besides paintings, there was also an outstanding collection of manuscripts, sculptures, coins and medallions. Most of the major Italian artists were represented including Masaccio, one of the fathers of perspective. The exhibit focused on portraits of prominent citizens of the Italian city-states with special emphasis on Florence and Venice until the beginning of the 16th century, thus excluding Titian, the greatest portraitist of them all.
It was a real revelation to see how successfully these great artists succeeded in portraying the likenesses, emotions and personalities of their sitters. By so doing, these artists jettisoned the old established norm, which consisted of portraying an idealized human subject. For me, the highlights were the two spectacular portraits by Sandro Botticelli of the famed Florentine beauty Simonetto Vespucci, as well as those of Giuliano de Medici. Giuliano's brother, Lorenzo the Magnificent, was represented by his death mask as well as a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci and some medallions.

fig 1. Botticelli_Ideal Portrait of a Lady_Frankfurt.jpgFig 1:  Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1444-1510)
Ideal Portrait of a Lady ("Simonetta Vespucci") (1475-80)
Tempera on poplar
Städel Museum, Frankfurt.

Two magnificent female portraits by the Florentine brothers, Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo, also deserve special mention.

fig 2 Antonio del Pollaiuolo_Portrait of a Lady_Gemaldegalerie Berlin.jpgFig 2: Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1431-1498)
Portrait of a Lady (1460-65)
Oil and tempera on poplar panel
Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

Portraits of famous families and personalities from other city-states were also on view including the d'Este family of Ferrara, the Sforzas of Milan, the Gonzagas of Mantua and the Montefeltros of Urbino. Although the most famous portrait of Federigo, Duke of Montefeltro, by Piero della Francesco from the Uffizi was absent, the Duke was represented in a full-length portrait by Pietro di Spagna together with his son and heir Guidobaldo. The final section of the exhibit was devoted to Venice with dazzling paintings by the Bellini family, Mantegna, Carpaccio, Vivarini and Antonella de Messina.  

The exhibit is accompanied by an outstanding scholarly catalogue edited by Keith Christiansen, Curator of European Paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Stefan Weppelmann, Curator of the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

On view till 18 March.

Part of this article was originally published in The Jerusalem Post on 4 March, 2012.

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