Donatello’s gilded bronze sculpture “Reliquary Bust of Saint Rossore” (c. 1425) is a restless surface of gleaming, golden waves enveloping a stern male presence.
Seemingly haloed, lit from within, the glowing, spot-lit sculpture beckons viewers into the first gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s astounding exhibition “The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini.”
On view is a gathering of some 160 portraits -- paintings, drawings, bronze medals and marble sculptures, mostly Italian -- from the 15th century.
“Saint Rossore” is fixed, frontal, head bowed in prayer. Yet he is a whirlwind of emotion and activity, with his neck shooting out of his shoulders like a geyser.
In Donatello’s portrait, we sense both human countenance and hallowed ideal -- the flowering of, and tension between, the sacred and profane.
“The Renaissance Portrait,” which was jointly curated with the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin, where the show originated, is exponentially greater than the sum of its numerous masterpieces.
The exhibition moves loosely chronologically and by subject and region. The biggest names are here: Fra Angelico, the Bellinis, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Leonardo, Mantegna, Masaccio, Pisanello, Rogier van der Weyden and Verrocchio.
These decades, saw great change in perception as artists roamed outside idealized realms. The outward appearances of the world are brought head-to-head with the inwardness of man; notions of permanence and reverence regarding God and heaven collide with the liberty, dignity and autonomy of the individual.
The beauty of classical antiquity butts up against the truth inherent in the ugliness of your neighbor. The 15th century marks the nascence of portraiture not just for religious purposes but, for the first time since antiquity, as a celebration of actual people -- their accomplishments, appearance and personalities -- for posterity.
This exhibition brings us potentates of church and state, patrons, poets and artists, including self-portraits -- not “types” but, rather, individuals reborn, identifiable to friends and family.
Included here are portraits of the Medici family, doges, cardinals, kings, the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III and, perhaps, Dante. Super-banker and Florence overlord Cosimo de Medici shows off his gaunt boniness in several striking portraits.
Grandson Lorenzo the Magnificent is remembered in an unsettling cast of his death mask in which he looks deep in thought with his teeth clenched as if chewing on a piece of tough salami.
Willful distortion is what brings these portraits to life. The sitters are often presented in profile, yet their heads and chests rotate toward frontal or three-quarter views and their eyes dart, turn and advance toward the viewer, in an attempt, seemingly, to engage with us.
The subjects are not fixed, “captured.” They are in constant motion. In Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s profile “Portrait of a Lady” (c. 1460-65), her chest, as in an ancient Egyptian figure, turns to face us.
Giovanni Bellini’s three-quarter portrait “Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic” (1515) is elastic. The sitter’s eye closest to us shrinks and drops back; and the eye farthest away grows enormous and projects forward.
As you look into the eyes of many of the greatest portraits, the subjects become pensive and withdrawn. Their personalities slowly excavated by the artists, are not easily divulged. You must work to unravel their fullness and complexities.
In the last gallery, among a suite of masterly Bellini-family portraits, is Gentile’s depiction of Caterina Cornaro (c. 1500), the tragic queen of Cyprus who was deposed by avaricious Venetians and dispatched to the mainland in Asolo.
Written on the portrait in a trompe l’oeil plaque is a testament from the sitter to her splendid painter:
“…I bear the name of the virgin who is buried on Sinai. The senate of Venice calls me daughter. Cyprus, seat of nine kingdoms, is subject to me. You see how important I am, yet greater still is the hand of Gentile Bellini, which has captured my image on such a small panel.”
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)