When Your Mom Is A (Renaissance) Bae

When we look at a great piece of art, we are usually caught up in what we might call the “big picture” of the picture. A sculpture of the crucified Christ causes us to think about the meaning of His death on the cross, or a portrait bust of George Washington makes us think about his courage and resolve in the founding of this country. Yet sometimes we should take the time to appreciate the “little picture” in a work of art, and see what we can learn about ourselves in the process. So today, I’d like us to look at a Renaissance painting made up of both big and little pictures, but perhaps focus a bit on that aspect of it which asks us to consider the relationship between mothers and daughters. For this masterpiece does so simply by causing us to compare and contrast how a mother and daughter are dressed in the picture.  

The magnificent, over-life-size Portinari Altarpiece, or more formally, “The Adoration of The Shepherds with Members of the Portinari Family, Accompanied by Saints Anthony, Thomas, Margaret, and Mary Magdalen”, is now in the Uffizi, but was originally created for the family chapel in the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. It was painted around 1475 by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes (c. 1430-1482) for Tommaso Portinari and his family. Tommaso was a financier with the Medici Bank in the Flemish city of Bruges for many decades; his wife, Maria Maddalena di Francesco Baroncelli, came from another prominent Florentine family (but more on them later.)

There are many fine details to admire in this work, from still life paintings of flowers in the foreground, to incredible levels of embroidery detail on the robes of the angels. Notice also how the tiny landscapes behind the figures feature other scenes from the Gospels apart from the Birth of Jesus. On the left, above St. Anthony Abbot’s bald head, we see the very pregnant Virgin Mary being assisted by St. Joseph as they come down a steep, rocky hillside into Bethlehem for the census, followed by the donkey on which the Blessed Mother had been riding. On the right, we see the Three Magi mounted on horseback on their way to Bethlehem, with one of them sporting a rather jaunty, white piece of headgear that looks like cowboy hat. The townsfolk are gathered nearby, with a child pointing in wonder at the luxuriously dressed foreigners, while one of the attendants asks a local the way to the stable.

The donors, i.e. Tommaso and Maria and their three children, kneel on either side of the Nativity scene, beneath the standing figures of their respective patron saints. The men of the family are dressed in expensive, but fairly simple costumes. It is rather the women of the family who draw our eye, and well they should, for these two Italian ladies are like haute couture fashion plates from the 15th century.

Signora de Portinari is not the curvy, full-figured woman we often expect to see in Renaissance paintings. She is elegantly dressed in a fitted, black velvet gown, with white fur cuffs and bodice detailing. She wears a wide, satin sash around her waist somewhat like a Japanese obi, a black veiled cap trailing diaphanous white silk, and a gold and jewel-encrusted collar necklace that probably cost the price of a house in those days. This is the only piece of jewelry she is wearing in the picture, other than her wedding ring.

To her left and set back a respectful distance behind, her beautiful daughter Margarita is also finely dressed. She wears a green silk dress with laced bodice, trimmed with matching dark green velvet. Her jewelry consists of a gold chain necklace with a jewel and pearl pendant, and a brooch pinned to the side of her cap. The young girl has magnificent strawberry blonde hair that cascades out very naturally from beneath her headpiece like a waterfall.

I think it is not unfair to observe that, unlike her daughter, Signora de Portinari is not exactly what we would consider pretty. Yet she is unquestionably a very elegant woman. If Coco Chanel had been a dressmaker during the Renaissance, she might well have dressed a lady exactly like this. Her high cheekbones, angular features, and slim figure would make her an ideal customer for many fashion designers even today.

In looking at the image of the mother and daughter kneeling together, one cannot help but wonder what the relationship was like between the two of them. Did the little girl turn out to be as fashionable and elegant as her mother? Or are we given a clue by Margherita’s tumbling, untamed hair that she had a bit of that hotheaded, rebellious streak, which we so often attribute to redheads? Did they argue about clothes, even as her mother picked out the finest clothes for her daughter to wear in formal settings, about what the mother wanted her to wear and what the daughter herself wanted to wear – something which mothers and daughters have argued about since time immemorial?          

An open question in art history at the moment is why, when this painting for the hospital chapel was completed, it was not actually delivered until 1483. One theory is that the Portinaris were a bit too close to what was going on in Florence at the time. Not long after this piece was completed Bernardo Bandini Baroncelli, a relative of the Signora de Portinari, was involved in the “Pazzi Plot” to overthrow the Medici family. He and another conspirator stabbed Giuliano de’ Medici, the brother of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, nineteen times while he was attending Mass at the Duomo in Florence one Sunday.  Lorenzo, who was also attacked in the same assault, managed to escape, but Giuliano died on the floor of the cathedral. Many of the families of the conspirators were punished directly, or were found guilty by association.  

Bernardo, who fled to Constantinople after the assassination, was later captured by the Turks and turned over to the Florentines. He was publically executed in Florence a year after the murder of Giuliano de’ Medici – in fact, Leonardo da Vinci made a well-known, contemporary drawing of his corpse hanging from a rope. The final round of purges arising from the conspiracy took a few more years, so it is possible that the Portinaris thought it best for the family to lay low for a bit, rather than making a show of presenting a gigantic – and subsequently very famous and much-admired – work of art to the people of Florence.

However, despite the wealth and grandeur that you see in this painting, and despite whatever caution they may have exercised in their art donation, the Portinaris were eventually ruined. Tommaso made a number of bad investments on behalf of the Medici, which caused them to close the branch of their bank in Bruges. After several attempted comebacks, he ended up dying in a pauper’s bed at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, the very hospital for which he had commissioned this painting. His estate was left with so many debts, that his eldest son refused his inheritance, so as to free himself from his late father’s creditors. What happened to the stylish Signorina de Portinari, or to her daughter Margarita, I do not know. Perhaps a reader with greater knowledge of Italian history will be able to tell us in the comments.

What we do come away with in this picture, however, is not only an appreciation for a beautiful work of art, and a document of the styles and fashions of the time in which it was created, but also the opportunity to engage in some thoughtful consideration and discussion. The dynamic between mother and daughter is very unique, something which those of us with “Y” chromosomes can never fully understand. In works of art such as this, both mothers and daughters, as well as those who love them, can see a bit of their own relationships: what they were, are, and will be, in a timeless embodiment of that unique relationship.

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The Portinari Altarpiece (Detail)

Why A Major Art Heist In Italy Robs Us All

This past Thursday, November 19th, what may turn out to be the biggest art theft in Italian history – apart from Napoleon’s efforts of course – took place at the Museo Civico di Castelvecchio, in the city of Verona. Three armed men overcame the museum’s security guard at closing time, and stole 17 paintings from the museum’s collection, before making their getaway in the security guard’s own car. So far, the robbers have not been apprehended.

Some in the press are suggesting that, as in the famous heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the paintings stolen from the Castelvecchio were taken to order. Presumably, given the list of what was taken, the underworld kingpin who selected these items has a particular penchant for Venetian art. The majority of the works stolen were by the great Venetian Old Master painter Jacobo Tintoretto (1518-1594), and of the remaining pieces, three were by his son Domenico (1560-1635) or his associates, another by Jacobo Bellini (c. 1400-1470), the progenitor of the Renaissance style in Venice, and another by Bellini’s son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431-1506).  

The stolen works are estimated to be worth between $11-16 million, but this seems a figure based purely upon conservative speculation. For example, works by Mantegna are not only rare in themselves, they almost never come up for sale on the open art market. Mantegna’s painting of “The Descent of Christ Into Limbo”, a very interesting picture but certainly not pretty to look at, sold at Sotheby’s over a decade ago for around $28.5 million. The work of Antonio di Puccio Pisano (c. 1395-1455), or “Pisanello” as he is commonly known, is even rarer: apart from some of his bronze medals and drawings, I could not even find a recent auction result for one of his paintings.

You can see photographs of each of the stolen paintings by visiting this link. I imagine that they will soon appear on the Art Loss register, if they have not already. Here’s a translated list of what was taken:

The Madonna of the Quail by Pisanello

St. Jerome Penitent by Jacopo Bellini

The Holy Family with St. Mary Magdalene by Mantegna

Portrait of a Child Showing a Child’s Drawing by Giovanni Caroto

Portrait of a Young Benedictine Monk by Giovanni Caroto

The Madonna Nursing the Christ Child by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Carrying of the Ark of the Covenant by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Banquet of Belshazzar by Jacobo Tintoretto

Samson by Jacobo Tintoretto

The Judgment of Solomon by Jacobo Tintoretto

Portrait of a Man by Circle of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of a Venetian Admiral by Studio of Domenico Tintoretto

Portrait of Marco Pasqualigo by Domenico Tintoretto

The Lady of the Campions by Rubens

A Landscape by Hans de Jode

A Seaport by Hans de Jode

Portrait of Girolamo Pompei by Giovanni Benini

I chose the missing Tintoretto “Samson” to illustrate this post, because he accurately reflects in this picture the attitude of frustration we all ought to have toward stolen art. Certainly, the loss of these works highlights the ongoing problem of art and antiques theft in Italy and elsewhere, which is quite a lucrative black market business and often used for money laundering purposes. Yet more importantly, this act removed from the shared patrimony of both the people of Verona and indeed of the world, the opportunity to study, appreciate, and learn from these paintings.

These works of art not only represent people and events important to the Catholic faith and to Italian culture, they are also tangible fragments of our shared human history. Each tells a story of how and where they were made, by and for whom, using what materials and methods were commercially available and scientifically understood at the time, and what happened to them after they left the artist’s studio. Without the paintings themselves, we may still have words on a page to tell us these things, but words alone cannot make up for their loss as objects of both visual beauty and historic significance.

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Detail of "Samson" by Tintoretto

The Lady Who Taught Van Dyck To Paint

We often think of the Old Master Painters during the Renaissance and Baroque eras as being just that: masters, rather than mistresses. Yet there are exceptions to this, as you learn when you begin to delve more deeply into art history. While most of these ladies are not household names today, during their lifetimes some of them were very popular and well thought of, indeed. So today I wanted to draw your attention to one in particular, whom I was reminded of yesterday, in the context of news about a pretty amazing art discovery.

One of the most remarkable finds in the art market in recent years occurred on the British Antiques Roadshow, when an Anglican minister from Derbyshire learned that the painting he had purchased for 400 pounds in an antique shop a decade earlier was by the great Flemish Baroque painter, Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641). The work turned out to be a study by Van Dyck for a larger work, “The Magistrates of Brussels”, which was destroyed in 1695 during a bombing of the town hall of that city. Several other preparatory paintings survive, including one in the British Royal Collection. The rediscovered painting has just gone on view at the Rubens House in Antwerp, where it is on permanent loan from the collector who purchased it.  

Between 1621-1627 the young Van Dyck was living and working in Italy, earning his keep by painting the nobility in places like Genoa, such as the enormous portrait of the Marchesa Elena Grimaldi Cattaneo now in the National Gallery here in DC. He was also taking time to study and travel throughout Italy, sketching and talking to other artists as he went. One of those whom he met, and whose ideas were to have a significant influence on his own development as an artist, was a lady then her 90’s and suffering from an eye ailment which prevented her from painting the portraits that had made her famous.

Sofonisba Anguissola (1532-1625) was the eldest of seven children born to members of the minor nobility in Cremona, Italy. Unusually for her sex and class at the time, she became a highly accomplished artist, to the point that she engaged in a lengthy correspondence with Michelangelo on art and technique, after he praised a drawing she sent him. Her early paintings of herself, her brother, and her five sisters showed a remarkable directness and lack of sentimentality.

Eventually Anguissola was called to Spain to be a lady-in-waiting to Queen Isabel de Valois, the third wife of King Felipe II, who was a decade younger than the Italian painter, but also a painter herself. The two became close friends, and no doubt for Anguissola it was in some respects like being the big sister again. During her time in Madrid she painted the Royal Family and their courtiers many times. While in Spain her style changed as she matured, in part to adopt to the formalities required of court life and her own place within it, and her figures similarly adopted a certain hauteur.

A very famous painting in The Prado of Felipe II in middle age for example, once attributed to other artists working in Madrid at the time, has now been credited to Anguissola. Dressed completely in black, the most powerful man in the world is portrayed gently holding a rosary in his left hand, with his right hand resting in the carved grooves of his armchair. His expression is one of quiet, complete self-confidence: here is a man who knows exactly who he is, and feels absolutely no need to apologize to anyone for it. This is a remarkable psychological study of a figure who changed the course of world history.

It is some indication of the esteem in which Felipe II held Anguissola that following the untimely death of Queen Isabel in childbirth, he provided for his wife’s dear friend and companion by not only giving her an annual pension, but also a substantial dowry so that she could marry into the nobility. Anguissola married the son of the Spanish Viceroy to Sicily, and with her husband’s encouragement continued to paint. After his death in 1579, with the King’s permission she sailed back home to Italy; on the journey, she and the ship’s captain fell deeply in love with one another, and the two eventually married. Like his predecessor, Anguissola’s new husband encouraged her to continue painting. When it became impossible for her to paint due to her deteriorating vision, she supported the arts through philanthropy, collecting, and by meeting with younger artists who wanted to learn from her experiences.

In July 1624, a young Van Dyck showed up to visit the now very elderly Anguissola, to look at her paintings, hear her stories about some of the great artists she had met and corresponded with, and to come to understand some of her ideas about how to engage in the art of painting. He wrote of their conversations in his notebooks, now preserved in the British Museum, and drew a sketch of her which he later turned into an oil painting, now in the collection at Knole House. In it, we see a very old woman, bowed by age, but still as sharp as ever – as Van Dyck himself described her – her large, searching eyes no longer seeing clearly, but still peering into the person sitting before her.

Who knows – but for that deeply perceptive understanding of how to convey, in portraiture, the dignity of the sitter, Van Dyck might never have emerged from Rubens’ shadow. Whatever the case, Van Dyck acknowledged that he learned an enormous amount about the art of painting from Anguissola, particularly with regard to how to treat his sitters. Had this tiny Italian lady not made such an impact on the man who became the most popular and influential painter in England for well over two centuries, British and indeed American art would have been something else entirely.

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Self-portrait of Sofonisba Anguissola (1558)