Renaissance Portraits

It’s no secret that people in the Renaissance were obsessed with appearances. 

In the tumultuous world of Renaissance Italy, reputation was everything—it could mean the difference between success and failure, wealth and poverty, fame and ignominy. And one of the best ways to build a reputation was through portraits. 

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed! Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

Lowest prices on antiquities, guaranteed!

Andrea Odoni, by Lorenzo Lotto, 1527

When commissioning a portrait, Renaissance men and women could control every detail, down to the background minutiae, to project a cultivated image of oneself. In order to make an enduring legacy, you had to leave behind signs of your greatness, and portraits were one of the best tools for crafting your reputation.

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs! Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

See, ladies, I'm good with dogs!

Federico Gonzaga, by Titian, c. 1529

The fashion for portraiture provided a new way to manipulate one’s reputation. Though he focused on writing rather than portraiture, Stephen Greenblatt made this argument in his excellent academic work, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. Self-fashioning meant using every available tool to craft and project an intentional reputation. 

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book.  Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I always put on a full coat of armor when I settle in with a good book. 

Federigo da Montefeltro, by Pedro Berruguete, c. 1480

I think of these portraits as the Renaissance version of a “selfie”—but requiring much more time and energy. There is a direct link between the Renaissance fixation on cultivating a reputation and our current infatuation with social media.

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine. Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

No biggie, just chillin' with my ermine.

Cecelia Gallerani as "The Lady with an Ermine," Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1489

In short, we have internalized the Renaissance obsession with appearances.