Jodi Cranston: The Poetics of Portraiture in the Italian Renaissance.

Author:Emison, Patricia
Position:Book Reviews


The Poetics of Portraiture in the Italian Renaissance.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 258 pp., 69 b/w ills. $90.00

John Pope-Hennessy's reprise of his Mellon Lectures, The Portrait in the Renaissance (1963), tried to cover just about everything, especially "the ideas by which it [Renaissance portraiture] was inspired." (1) Yet poetry was barely mentioned. The chapter on "Humanism and the Portrait" accorded it the most incidental of mentions. Throughout, Dante, Ariosto, and even Petrarch were but glancingly invoked; Simone Martini's portrait of Laura went strangely unremarked. On the other hand, Rensselaer Lee's 1940 study (republished in 1967), Ut Picturar Poesis: The Humanistic Theory of Painting, dealt extensively with poetry but gave nary a nod to portraiture. Thus, Cranston's topic, a revised version of her doctoral dissertation of nearly the same title, delineates a field these prior studies did not hint at. Her intellectual family tree includes much that was not available then: Michael Fried's aesthetics of absorption, Mieke Bal's term "nonautographic," Maurice Merleau-Ponty's description of bodily self-awareness. T he biggest distance between Cranston's project and Pope-Hennessy's centers around the idea that portraiture is metaphorical, or self-referential--that is, that painting a particular person induces a special meditation on objecthood. The word metaphor recurs in the text like a Wagnerian leitmotiv, whereas forty years ago it didn't occur to Pope-Hennessy to use it at all. And that difference is attributable to the model of Joseph Koerner's book The Moment of Self-Portraiture (1993), which had asked the question, "How is it that things (objects as well as works of art) are linked to meanings through the agency of the face-as-self?" The word metaphor did not appear so often there, but the theme that portraits, especially self-portraits, are a "means by which art symbolizes its tasks" is crucial to Cranston's emphasis on metaphorical readings. (2)

Cranston sets out to study 16th-century Italian portraiture or, more exactly, "a fundamental change in the conception and reception of portraiture" (p. 1), especially during the first half of the century (extending, however, to late Titian self-portraits) and not excluding excursuses to works other than portraits and works not Italian. The fundamental change is defined as the "dialogue" between viewer and portrait that evolves as usage of the profile pose declines. It might have been worth mentioning that interesting and very early exception to the classicizing profile rule, the portrait of Rudolf IV of about 1360, in Vienna. To be fair, the point here is not the possible richness of the earlier tradition, only the formal innovations, mostly Venetian ones, of the earlier 16th century. Indebtedness to John Shearman's Only Connect for the theme of the active viewer is duly and recurrently acknowledged. (3) Yet Shearman's study was meant to integrate innovations in portraiture into a complementary set of innova tions in other genres, and to see the whole as historically specific; here, that historical specificity is lacking, its place taken by generic "dyads of exchange--speaker-listener, lover-beloved, self-other" (p. 2).

The first of five chapters, "Dialogue with the Beholder," opens with a couple of pages tracing the semiotics of the profile and three-quarter poses from Simone Martini to Giorgione's La vecchia, which functions here as an example of more modern, interactive portraiture. Toward the end of the book, in chapter 5, it will be decreed straightforwardly that the work is not a portrait at all, but here the author maintains instead that this portrait type redefines the temporal and ontological scope of the genre from commemoration and essence to futurity and becoming. Though La vecchia is not a portrait, it resembles a portrait, and as a cover for a portrait (merely hypothetical, I might note), it is literally a poetic veil. La vecchia "personifies the temporal effects that make portraits necessary" (p. 39). This preoccupation with temporality is carried a bit far, however, when the painting of a man in a black fur coat with which this allegory was associated in 1601 develops the unexplained attribute of youth late in the chapter (p. 48); the inventory describes him simply as 'a man' ("un home"). (4) In fact, as Jaynie Anderson has pointed out, the inventory seems to say that the portrait of a man is the cover to the primary object inventoried, "un quadro de una Donna Vecchia" (a painting of an old woman) (5) Rather shaky historical evidence is presented as though in support of the basic point that La vecchia employs a pose associated with portraiture for allegory ("a general concept," p. 17). This is scarcely a revelation. What is new is only the metaphorical potential of the example as poetic veiling.

The remarkable feminization of a personification of Time in La vecchia receives no comment whatsoever from Cranston, though surely adjustment as to whether the work was originally a portrait cover hinges partly on the plausibility of this gender complication, as also on the size, which goes not only undiscussed but even uncited. Yet La vecchia is large for a Giorgione portrait (26 3/4 by 23 1/4 inches, or 68 by 59 centimeters, without frame), much larger, for instance, than Laura (16 1/8 by 13 1/4 inches, or 41 by 33.6 centimeters), and it is on the large side for a portrait cover. (6) The closest parallel proffered, Albrecht Durer's Venetian portrait of a young man (this one actually is young) with the aged hag Avarice depicted on the verso, of similar date but dissimilar size (12 1/4 by 11 3/8 inches, or 31 by 29 centimeters), is oddly described as referring to the sitter's character, or his "internal qualities," surely a connection that the sitter himself would hardly have condoned. The old legend that Du rer painted the verso, whose technique is less painstaking, in revenge for a poor recompense has more plausibility than that, but neither that nor any other alternative explanation is mentioned.

It is always tricky to pull off explaining one unusual work by another; Cranston avoids this by employing the premise that there are no unusual works, Durer's Avaritia and Giorgione's La vecchia included. They are taken to complement one another as figures of transience, though Durer's verso is said to comment on the individual portrayed and Giorgione's cover on the portrait genre. Furthermore--and here we enter seriously into poetics, or at least into a visual version of intertextuality--La vecchia behind her parapet signifies an abnormal, that is, nonnarrative, experience of time, like the type of the Imago pietatis in which the dead Christ stands, as it were, in his tomb, or like the heretics in Inferno, canto 10, rising out of their sarcophagi. La vecchia, in particular, "figures resistance as central to the portrait type" (p. 44) -- resistance, we may take this to mean, to "Italian infatuation with narrativity." (7)

The second chapter, "Familiare colloquium: The Recollection and Presence of Portraits," explores the metaphor of portrait as dialogue or as epistle, with special attention to double portraits and to portraits in which the subjects actually grasp letters. "Impersonation" portraits, such as Gerolamo Savoldo's Lady as Saint Margaret, are also discussed here for their self-referentiality. They make the theme of posing explicit. Savoldo's is the only clear example both illustrated and discussed of this rather complicated relative of Erwin Panofsky's disguised symbolism, since Lorenzo Lotto's Lady with a Drawing of Lucretia is merely allusive rather than appropriating.

Despite the conviction stated early on that 16th-century portraiture is both formally and semantically novel, Leon Battista Alberti's On Painting (1435) is cited...

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