In the Renaissance, rich men contrived to have their faces inserted into Biblical paintings, elegant women kept squirrels as pets and people of importance apparently spent a lot of time pondering their own deaths.
An exhibition of roughly 100 portraits now running at the National Gallery in London (till Jan. 18) shows how the 15th and 16th centuries interpreted the human image in painting, drawing and sculpture. Those of us who can't get to London at the moment can find the contents of the show handsomely reproduced in Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian (Yale University Press), as enjoyable an art book as I've opened this season. The illustrations include some of the best work of Raphael, Titian, Holbein, Bellini and company.
The Renaissance was the first great age of the portrait, and in a sense the last. During roughly two centuries, the highly competitive art of portraiture stretched over four or five countries. It never again achieved the same widespread excellence.
Portraits had been painted for centuries before, but in the Renaissance their rise paralleled the discovery of the self as an object of contemplation: Hamlet was the perfect Renaissance character, introverted and self-centred. Portrait artists responded to a new psychological reality.
It's not necessarily true that portraits constitute the true excitement of Renaissance art. There are those who think altarpieces and religious murals carry more power. But those who fall in love with the Renaissance in youth usually fall first for portraits; they're a familiar form, raised to an incomparably higher level. For people like that, Renaissance Faces is a meeting of old friends who have invited along some highly attractive strangers.
Death, exquisitely symbolized and usually linked to beauty or worldly success, never strays far from the imagination of the painters in the exhibition. Their obsession reflected the theology and philosophy of the day; a memento mori, a reminder of death, was a long-honoured part of European culture.
But in art destined to hang on the wall of a house or castle, death also expressed a fashion. The subjects of portraits seem to be reminding their friends that they ponder deep thoughts.
Painters obligingly deployed a collection of death symbols for their clients -- hourglasses, sundials, clocks, snuffed-out candles, crumbling stone walls and columns. A housefly could do double duty in a painting by demonstrating the artist's skill at verisimilitude (sometimes it looked as if a viewer should chase it away) while reminding everyone of death and decay.
Flowers and skulls both represented the inexorable march of time. Pansies stood for melancholy or thoughtfulness, since the word came from the French pensee, meaning thought. One lovely painting in Renaissance Faces shows a man holding a skull in one hand and a pansy in the other. Unless art scholarship is radically mistaken, this chap is meditating on ... death. There's a wonderful painting by Lorenzo Lotto, the Venetian master, of an Albanian soldier. His hand rests on a little pile of petals, among which the careful observer will notice a tiny skull.
Many artists read up on physiognomy, an allegedly scientific system for determining character by studying faces. Physiognomy taught, for instance, that goodness and beauty came in the same human package. That idea, inherited from the Greeks and Romans, reminds us that Renaissance thinkers, in their eagerness to revive the great thoughts of antiquity, bought a few lemons as well. Physiognomy was one.
Artists and philosophers read four ancient books on this subject (one of them falsely attributed to Aristotle) and then began pouring out their own elaborations of the same nonsense. It influenced major artists such as Albrecht Durer, who is handsomely represented in the National Gallery show.
Even when beauty-equals-virtue was absent from a portrait, there was usually some beholder who would see them there. In the 1530s, when Titian painted Eleonora Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, he inspired Pietro Aretina to write a sonnet insisting that the picture showed Eleonora's modesty, humility, chastity and beauty -- "and between her eyelashes the throne of the Graces is seen." That's fine till you see the picture, which shows a lady of extravagant primness and no notable beauty. Her dress is sensational, however, and her jewels memorable.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the oddest of the Renaissance masters, stuffed symbolism into every corner of his canvases. He shaped painted fruit, vegetables, flowers and fish into recognizable human faces. There was a time when art critics muttered about a deranged mind, but the 20th century embraced him as a brilliant surrealist, centuries ahead of his time. The London show has borrowed from Skokloster Castle in Sweden a famous Arcimboldo portrait of Rudolf II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, portrayed as Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons. That gave Arcimboldo an occasion to use a pear as a nose, a cob of corn as an ear and two pea pods as eyelids (one iris is a blackberry, the other a mulberry). He composed the rest of his portrait from grapes, an apple, cabbages, onions and flowers representing different seasons.
The National Gallery show includes some of its own greatest possessions, including the Quinten Massys portrait said to depict the ugliest woman in the world, but painted after her death and based mainly on the opinions of her enemies. That painting acquired a fresh reputation in the 1860s when it inspired John Tenniel, illustrator of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, to create the ugly, ill-mannered duchess who advises you to beat your little boy when he sneezes: He only does it to annoy because he knows it teases.
One of the exhibition's paintings by Hans Holbein depicts Anne Ashby, Lady Lovell, wearing a hat of Russian ermine that Holbein renders superbly. Three squirrels were on her family coat of arms so Holbein includes her pet squirrel sitting on her arm and nibbling a nut, just like the squirrels in the coat of arms. A starling is behind her, so close it almost appears to be perched on her shoulder. She, meanwhile, looks soberly and perhaps sadly into the distance, apparently unaware of both bird and rodent sharing her space. The composition doesn't entirely make sense, but you could say that about many of the magnificent pictures in Renaissance Faces. It's one of the book's charms that, after four or five centuries, these precious images still inspire a sense of mystery.