When Beauty Was Virtue

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In the catalog for "Virtue and Beauty," the show of portraits of Renaissance women on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington through Jan. 6, art historian Joanna Woods-Marsden poses a question that probably hasn't occurred to many people. We're used to seeing the human face photographed, drawn, scribbled and painted on movie and television screens, on billboards, in fact on a vast range of surfaces in our world, including the rock of Mount Rushmore. But suppose we weren't? Suppose that representations of real people were rarer than hens' teeth and that the only artificial faces and figures we had to look at were imaginary, mythical and sacred--Jesus and the saints, the gods of Olympus and the like? What if we never saw, in the normal course of life, a recognizable picture of anyone we knew? What, in other words, if we were like nearly everyone in Europe prior to 1400? "It is hard to exaggerate," writes Woods-Marsden, "the degree of modernity informing the invention of the independent, profane portrait in the early Renaissance."

With a few exceptions (Roman busts, Fayumic coffin likenesses), portraiture in art's long span is quite a new--well, newish--form. It really gets under way in 15th century Italy. It came with problems, though. Portraiture as we know it is the art of making recognizable likenesses of individuals. But not all Renaissance portraits are about verisimilitude, and even when they seem to be, their truth can't be tested because usually there are no other images of the same person to test it against.

Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, died of tuberculosis at 23, but it is said Botticelli used her lissome and rhythmical curves as the model for Venus on her half-shell and Flora in La Primavera. Vespucci may have looked like that, or she may not. Maybe she was a blond pudge like Pamela Anderson. Getting tumbled in a wave of neo-Platonic fantasizing about how outer shape mirrors inner essence--"For Soule is Forme, and doth the Bodie make," wrote the poet Spenser in 1596--may be great for the figure and complexion when court painters like Botticelli and writers like Marsilio Ficino or Angelo Poliziano are watching, but it's not so good for documentary truth. As faithful records of human appearance, these 15th and 16th century portraits of women are unreliable. But they are also dream images, illustrating a semiphilosophic proposition that we have altogether abandoned today: the idea that great beauty implies lofty virtue. Tell that to Hollywood and the model agencies.

It was, however, an assumption that guided the way women were painted in quattrocento Italy. Actually, one feels that this show comes about 35 years late. It should have been done back in the '60s, when the National Gallery bought Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de' Benci from Liechtenstein. Leonardo was in his early '20s when he painted this daughter of a rich Florentine banker, circa 1474-78. On the front of the panel you see the familiar face--that pale, egg-smooth, cold teenage mask--a girl soberly dressed in brown, the blue lacing of her bodice neatly echoing the blues of the far sky and the trees and water in the middle distance. Her blond hair frames her face in fine, tight ringlets. The painting prefigures Leonardo's later obsession with studies of the movement of water and air, not to mention his fondness for the similar hair of a future male lover, Salai--"beautiful hair, rich and curly," as he jotted on a page of his notebook.

The inwardness and remoteness of this girl are emphasized by the spiky leaves of the dark tree behind her--a juniper, ginevra in the Italian of the day, her given name. Then, on the back of the panel, is the explanatory inscription. A branch of laurel and a palm frond--for glory and virtue--enclose a twig of juniper, with the inscription "Virtutem forma decorat" (Beauty adorns virtue).

The portraits in this show follow a clear and fairly stereotyped pattern of development. The pattern emerges from Roman low-relief sculpture and contemporary portrait medallions, some of which are also on view. In early likenesses by Pisanello, Pollaiuolo and Uccello, the subject is seen in strict profile. This gives her remoteness: she doesn't look back at you or acknowledge your gaze in any way. She is on display in all her finery, in scarlet velvet or cloth of gold, in brocade and pearls--an icon of marital success and faithfulness. (The catalog has an excellent essay by Roberta Landini and Mary Bulgarella on the arcane intricacies of status and ladies' fashion in 15th century Florence.) Her existence as a silhouette, an untouchable presence--or rather, apparition--reinforces the idea of virtue. So does the purity of line required by profile.

And there are conventions of beauty underlying those of art. For instance, the ideal Italian Renaissance woman had to be a white-skinned blond. Brunets would simply not do. Fashion, literature and the formal constructions of desire insisted on that. Since Italy, then as now, was short of pale natural blonds, bleaching was in order. A favorite bleach--especially in Venice, where prostitutes had to be blond to succeed--was human urine. Whose, history does not say.

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