italian renaissance portraiture


Gentile Bellini died on this day in 1507 in Venice. Eldest son of Jacopo and brother of Giovanni, Gentile was active as a painter and diplomat for the Venetian republic. In 1479, the government sent him to Constantinople to work for Sultan Muhammad II as a portraitist (National Gallery, London). In addition to portraits, Gentile is known for large-scale, “eye-witness” narrative paintings set in Renaissance Venice.

Reference: Peter Humfrey, et al. “Bellini.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press.<>.

Mehmet II, 1480, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

The Healing of Pietro dei Ludovici, c. 1501, tempera on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Procession in Piazza San Marco, 1496, tempera and oil on canvas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c.1503–06, oil on poplar, 77 × 53 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Source

To round off Masterpiece March on ArtMastered, let me present you with what is undoubtedly the most renowned portrait in the history of western art: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda in Italian. This small panel, thought to be a representation of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is even considered by many to be the world’s most famous painting. This is despite the common viewpoint that the portrait is overrated; I have never been to the Louvre, but I’ve heard from a number of people that navigating the huge crowds surrounding the piece doesn’t make the experience of seeing the Mona Lisa in person worthwhile.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There is a mysterious history behind the painting’s execution, and when little is known about the subject of a portrait, it can often make the work all the more interesting. The Mona Lisa’s enigmatic expression and the imagined landscape background are two of the reasons historians have been so drawn to the painting. It is also a fantastic example of the sfumato technique Leonardo became renowned for, particularly in the depiction of the sitter’s curly hair. Many an article has been written about the Mona Lisa and in December 2015, the painting hit the headlines after a French scientist claimed to have discovered a hidden portrait painted underneath the surface composition. It was a radical declaration and historians were skeptical, but Pascal Cotte’s scientific methods are very interesting to read about, nonetheless. Have a look at this BBC report for further information and visuals.

Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520-1579) - Portrait of a Lady, 1575

The recent Giovanni Battista Moroni exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts included his Portrait of A Lady. The painting shows an amazing advance in optical and psychological realism. It also echoes an increase in ruthless social climbing in renaissance society - as seen in Claire Foy’s feisty portrayal of Anne Boleyn in the current BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall. Many 16th century portrait paintings play a role in fulfilling tempestuous ambitions in courtly power politics.  Moroni is a leading master of colour in renaissance oil painting even among Venetian contemporaries. Compared to Titian he is a better draughtsman and his painting technique has a superb tonality of colour, texture and surface detail. He travelled to Venice and met Titian but preferred the relative calm of being a society portraitist in his native Bergamo.