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