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A profile portrait of a Renaissance woman in the National Gallery of Victoria


In keeping with Dr Ursula Hoff’s own practice and with the meticulous training she has urged upon her students, this short article offers thoughts arising from an examination of a single artefact. Inevitably, my own selective interests, like those of any other viewer, ensure that description and argumentation cannot be disentangled. I have built upon Dr Hoff’s catalogue of the National Gallery of Victoria collection, which contains one of the few published comments on a neglected painting of the Italian Renaissance (fig. 1).1Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture Before 1800, 3rd edn, Melbourne, 1973, p. 87, with bibliography. See also U. Hoff, ‘Renaissance and Baroque Painting’ in U. Hoff (ed.), Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and London, 1949, p. 20; U. Hoff, The National Gallery of Victoria, London, 1973, p. 19; Ruth Pullin and Ron Ramsey, Viva Italia: Selected Italian Works from the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1986, n.p.; Ann Galbally, The Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, pp. 105–6 and pl. 4.45. This ‘Florentine school’ profile portrait of a woman sparked my interest in the profile convention for the portrayal of Renaissance women, and led to an extended paper on the subject.2Patricia Simons, ‘Women in Frames: The Eye, The Gaze, The Profile in Renaissance Portraiture’, History Workshop Journal, no. 25, 1988, pp. 4–30. Dr Hoff heard an early draft of that paper when it was delivered at a Department of History seminar at the University of Melbourne in August 1986. 

Five male profile portraits began a new convention for portraiture in fifteenth-century Florence, but from about 1450 nearly all subsequent profile portraits from Quattrocento Tuscany are of women. I think an important reason for the predominance of the female presence lies with the profile format itself. The characteristics of this genre, such as the patterning effects and averted eye, particularly suited the representation of upright bearing and the display of face and accoutrements as static, decorative possessions. The richly decorated state of the woman signified her status as an object of exchange when she became a vehicle for display at the time of her marriage. My argument is briefly rehearsed here too, but the opportunity will be taken to enjoy a close viewing of one example. 

We can begin from the outside, removing the glass and frame to reveal a larger panel than is usually visible. Since the current frame does not match the panel’s original dimensions, it is not original.3Cf. Pullin and Ramsey, op. cit. Payne’s report suggests the frame ‘is reminiscent in style to Venetian pastiglia frames of the early sixteenth century’. Fortunately, Alesso Baldovinetti’s profile Portrait of a lady in yellow (fig. 2) still appears in the National Gallery, London, in its original frame, a relatively thin, gilded one with a twisting pattern.4Martin Davies, The Earlier Italian Schools, National Gallery, London, revised edn, 1961, pp. 42–43, who dates the work c.1465. An inventory conducted ten years after Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (1488) in profile (fig. 3) informs us that a ‘cornice made of gold’ suited its display in a splendid ‘room of golden stalls’.5Archivio di Stato, Florence, Pupilli avanti il Principato, 181, folio 148 recto (translations here are my own, unless otherwise indicated). So the precious, gilt impression given by the current Melbourne frame is an appropriate one. The visible dimensions are less accurate. The wood panel (probably poplar) has been enlarged by wooden strips along the top and left edges. Whilst the former addition is now hidden behind the frame, the latter strip adds approximately 2.8 cm at the left; a thinner strip of crude overpainting at the bottom also seems to be a later enlargement.6The entire irregularly-shaped panel now measures 42.4 or 42.6 cm by 29.2 or 29.6 cm; the original panel was approximately 40.1 by 26.4 cm; the dimensions of the original paint layer were approximately 38.0 by 24.4 cm. Ultra violet photographs record a change in tone along the bottom edge, suggesting overpainting. A misprint in Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture Before 1800, p. 87, giving the dimensions as ‘42.6 x 20.5 cm’, has been repeated in subsequent literature. The profile portrait in Milan, attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo, measuring 45.5 by 32.7 cm, also has strips of repainting, about 1 cm in extent on the top and bottom and approximately 2.5 cm on the lateral sides: Mauro Natale, ‘Dipinti’ in Museo Poldi Pezzoli: Dipinti, Milan, 1982, pp. 151–52. The barb, or edge of original paint, suggests that the image area was initially about 38.0 cm high by 24.4 cm wide. When first executed, then, the frame ran very close not only to the woman’s hair at the top and right but also close to the sleeve on the left, so that the portrait was compressed within a tight area. This decreased size makes the Melbourne example even smaller than most of the forty or so other Italian profile portraits of women.7For the Pollaiuolo in Milan see n. 7 (Natale, op. cit., also gives dimensions for portraits attributed to Pollaiuolo in Berlin, Florence and New York). The Baldovinetti example is 63.0 by 40.5 cm: Davies, op-city p. 42. Ghirlandaio’s portrait measures 77.0 by 49.0 cm: Gertrude Borghero (ed.), Thyssen–Bornemisza Collection: Catalogue Raisonné of the Exhibited Works of Art, Milan, 1986, p. 116. The average of these six panels is approximately 57.0 by 38.0 cm. 

The rather claustrophobic, precious and small nature of the portrait is typical of the Quattrocento profile convention.8Jean Lipman, ‘The Florentine Profile Portrait in the Quattrocento’, Art Bulletin, 18, 1936, pp. 54–102 remains the basic survey and catalogue. Much of her argument is repeated in J. Mambour, ‘L’evolution esthétique des profils florentins du Quattrocento’, Revue Belge d’Archéologie et d‘Historie de l’Art, 38, 1969, pp. 43–60. The five male portraits are considered by Rab Hatfield, ‘Five Early Renaissance Portraits’, Art Bulletin, 47, 1965, pp. 315–34. The size and usually delicately painted nature of such portraits invited close scrutiny, making the woman a framed object of palatial display. Visible in rooms of palaces visited by all the family and those they wished to impress, these portraits were decorative but not purely private or domestic objects. Similarly, the carefully guarded virgins of oligarchic families were made available to selective public scrutiny when they began to be assessed by other lineages for their suitability as brides. Leon Battista Alberti suggested that the future groom ‘should act as do wise heads of families before they acquire some property – they like to look it over several times before they actually sign a contract’.9Leon Battista Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, in his Opere volgari, edited by Cecil Grayson, Bari, 1960, vol. 1, p. 110; translated by Renée Neu Watkins in The Family in Renaissance Florence, Columbia, S.C., 1969, p. 115. In the case of both the painted and the social examination, an oligarchic woman became a visible object of a public or patriarchal discourse from which she was usually excluded.   

In Quattrocento Italy an upper-class marriage established a political and social relationship between two lineages, rather than a personal or emotional link between two individuals. Property and propriety inherited by the girl from her own family was carefully assessed, with regard to the political and social value of the kinship ties the marriage would create, the value of the dowry her father would give, the purity and fertility of her female ancestors.10Several examples are given in Giovanni Morelli, Ricordi, edited by Vittore Branca, Florence, 1956, p. 210, n. 1. Her own face, body and character were also examined in a cool manner. As Alberti’s advice makes clear, ‘beauty’ was a moral and utilitarian notion, not simply an aesthetic or sentimental one: 

Beauty in a woman must be judged not only by the charm and refinement of her face, but still more by the grace of her person and her aptitude for bearing and giving birth to many fine children … In a bride … a man must first seek beauty of mind, that is, good conduct and virtue.11Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, pp. 110–11; translated by Watkins, in The Family in Renaissance Florence, pp. 115–16. 

The profile portraits also examined women from close up. A woman’s head and upper body almost always face to our left, silhouetted against a plain background, which in the Melbourne instance is dark green. Flesh tones are pale, as usual, although here somewhat golden, flecked with whiter patches where paint losses have been retouched (fig. 1). Luxurious yet sombre colouring is continued in the dress, where the background’s green becomes a more colourful blue-green and red sleeves shimmer with a golden sheen. Invariably, the portraits display blond or brown hair but in Melbourne it is particularly bleached or golden, complemented in tone by elaborate golden brocade work on the dress and by two pieces of goldsmith’s ware. Wealth is further proclaimed by numerous pearls, in a necklace and all around the dress’s neckline, along the top of the hairpieces and in the two jewellery settings. 

Whilst jewellery is common in many profile portraits, there are several unusual features in the Melbourne panel. Firstly, great subtlety and skill is evident in the painting of the pearls’ translucent volume, especially in those at the back of the necklace and in the jewel on the head (fig. 4) because here only dark ground lies behind them. In the latter setting, the crisp, delicate curls of gold are also executed with a very controlled touch so that the metal appears to be fine shavings fresh from the workshop of an excellent goldsmith. Similarly in the showy, heavy brooch (fig. 5), we see the rounded head and wings of a cherub, shaded with careful attention to the illusionistic effects of volume and metallic shine. Perhaps the partial oil medium enabled the painter’s demonstration of skill, a skill with gleaming surface and volume which indicates a date late in the fifteenth century. Florentine depictions of pearls during the mid-fifteenth century are usually grey globes with thick, small patches of white highlight laid over them,12For instance, in Domenico Veneziano’s St Lucy altarpiece, Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child with angels, and Piero della Francesca’s Duchess of Urbino, all in the Uffizi, Florence; and Paolo Uccello’s Young lady of fashion in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. In Baldovinetti’s London profile panel (fig. 2) the pearls are solid, but finely painted with a stippled effect. The pearls in the Uffizi profile attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo (fig. 6) are more like those in Melbourne, but their detailing is laid over a thicker ground. whereas in Melbourne there is a sense both of light on the pearls’ surface and of light trapped within the partly translucent, round gems.

Secondly, the type of jewellery again suggests a late Quattrocento context. It had been quite common to place a simple cluster of pearls atop the woman’s head, at most set within a fairly solid metal plate.13L’Oreficeria nella Firenze del Quattrocento, Florence, 1977, no. 194. More elaborate goldsmithery for this accoutrement is only evident in portraits which date from the 1470s. Particularly in profile portraits associated with the Pollaiuolo brothers, painters whose shop also designed bejewelled objects, we find a similarly rich interweaving of pearl and metal (fig. 6).14ibid., no. 193, for the Pollaiuolo profile in the Uffizi, dated c.1475; Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner, Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School, New York, 1971, pp. 124–25 for another. Precision and clarity in the handling of paint in the Melbourne panel differs from the dry, quick and sketchy strokes employed by the Pollaiuolo brothers for many of their details, such as the fur, brooch and chain in the Uffizi profile or Christ’s body on the crucifix held by Faith in the same gallery. For this and other reasons, an attribution of the Melbourne panel to either Pollaiuolo brother does not seem justified. An engraving of a fanciful head in profile, surrounded by elaborate jewellery, is sometimes called Pollaiuolesque: Alberto Busignani, Pollaiuolo, Florence, 1969, p. xlix; Leopold D. Ettlinger, Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo, complete edition, with a critical catalogue, Oxford, 1978, p. 170 (a rejected attribution). The intricacy of the metalwork and the delicate nature of protruding parts in the Melbourne representation suggests a similar or later finesse. 

Nearly all women in profile portraits wear pendants rather than brooches. An exception, in Filippo Lippi’s Portrait of a man and woman at a casement (c.1440–45, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) (fig. 7), shows precious stones and metal setting in a more solid and simpler brooch than the Melbourne one.15Zeri and Gardner, op. cit., pp. 85–7; for pendants see L’Oreficeria, nos 186–92. In the latter case (fig. 5), three large red stones (probably rubies) and three pearls are arranged asymmetrically, accompanied by curled edges and a figurative element which create multiple, fine extensions. Its sheer bulk and elaboration are like examples from artists associated with the workshop of Andrea Verrocchio, who began his own career as a goldsmith.16In general, on Verrocchio see G. Passavant, Verrocchio: Sculptures, Paintings and Drawings, complete edition, London, 1969. Interesting comments are made by John Shearman, ‘A Suggestion for the Early Style of Verrocchio’, Burlington Magazine, 109, 1967, pp. 121–27, who offers in passing the suggestion that Verrocchio may have been trained as a painter by the Pollaiuolo (p. 125). Also, when Verrocchio paints jewels, ‘which he does with more love and at the same time more discretion than Antonio Pollaiuolo, he does it with an intimate and precise understanding of techniques and materials’. For instance, the far left Grace in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera (c.1478–82) carries a large pendant in which stones are set on and between finely shaped gold leaves; Ludovica Tornabuoni’s pendant (c.1486–90) in her frescoed portrait by Ghirlandaio in S. Maria Novella (fig. 8) is a very large cluster of pearls surrounding a cross.17L’Oreficeria, nos 188. 187. A profile portrait based on Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (fig. 3) and attributed to the artist’s brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi, includes a large brooch with a female head above a crescent moon, perhaps an allusion to Diana: Elizabeth Pomeroy, The Huntington: Library, Art Collections, Botanical Gardens, London, 1983. p. 55 (colour reproduction). These two examples are also of interest because the leaves or cross are figurative elements, which seem to come into vogue during the later fifteenth century. Closer still to our example is Giovanna Tornabuoni’s brooch resting on a shelf in Ghirlandaio’s profile portrait of her (fig. 3): we see a central red stone surrounded by smaller stones and pearls, surmounted by fine wing-like protrusions painted with a consummate sense of gleaming metal. The only other instance of a large brooch with wings is even closer to the Melbourne piece, in that Antonio Pollaiuolo’s jewel (c.1475) includes the head of a winged creature above a central red stone and surrounding pearls (fig. 6). The head of this angel clothed in white, however, has an adult physiognomy and flowing locks, whereas in Melbourne we have the smooth, round and metallic head of an idealised, chubby babe, more like the infants painted by Verrocchio and his shop. In particular, the head’s gilding, decorative and volumetric nature recalls the cherubim heads in a frieze painted by Ghirlandaio in The Birth of the Virgin in the late 1480s in S. Maria Novella.18Metallic utensils are also painted by Ghirlandaio in S. Maria Novella with attention to their sheen: L’Oreficeria, no. 165 (where the child’s head in the Birth of the Virgin is also like the structure of the head in the Melbourne brooch) and no. 170. 

The Melbourne panel seems then to be a late fifteenth-century example of the profile format, by which time women were often depicted in simpler costume, without jewellery, sometimes appearing older, and more likely to be in a three-quarter-turned pose like portraits of men. In choosing an increasingly old-fashioned format, the patron and artist of the Melbourne example resorted to a lavish display of jewellery and rich cloth which was more common in this portraiture convention. The decorative, flat and patterned surface of both face and accoutrements in the profile portraits seems to have more readily lent itself to an emphasis upon luxury goods. 

I would argue that jewellery, when it occurs, signifies both the husband’s rank and the woman’s honour. Expensive jewellery was very much a man’s to bestow, in a patrilineal society where women had little income or inheritance of their own to disperse. Usually, jewellery was given by the husband (or father) at the time of a marriage. Advising her son about the adornment of a potential bride in 1465, Alessandra Strozzi wrote ‘She must have beautiful jewels, for just as you have won honour in many things, you cannot fall short in this’.19Alessandra Macinghi negli Strozzi, Lettere di una gentildonna fiorentina del secolo XV, edited by Cesare Guasti, Florence, 1877, p. 446; translated in Lauro Martines, ‘A Way of Looking at Women in Renaissance Florence’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 4. 1974, p. 26. Sumptuary legislation, which restricted the public display of luxurious goods like clothing and gems, allowed more ostentation during wedding celebrations. Probably many profile portraits are of new brides, certainly of wives whose exterior wealth, physical beauty and upright decorum signify and enhance the reputation of the men who commissioned the portraits from male artists. 

In a Renaissance ‘display culture’ oligarchic women were signs of an exchange between lineages. Displayed heraldically, as part of a carefully patterned surface, bejewelled and begowned, the portrayed woman becomes a palatial statement of her husband’s wealth and status. But what Alberti called a ‘beauty of mind’, or Vespasiano da Bisticci later referred to as a ‘dowry of virtue’,20Renaissance Princes, Popes and Prelates: The Vespasiano Memoirs, Lives of Illustrious Men of the XVth Century, translated by William George and Emily Waters, New York, 1963, p. 462; Alberti is quoted at n. 11 above. are interior qualities which she brings to the marriage along with such other valuable commodities as the material dowry and her own lineage’s reputation. Her proud, virtuous bearing and beauty became part of her husband’s possessions. The exemplary qualities proclaimed in the portraits were also later viewed by children as part of their own inheritance. A woman’s idealised beauty and honour, her ‘secure possession’ according to Vespasiano, further enhanced her new family’s honourable stock of social ‘currency’. 

Metaphors about jewellery often occur in texts pressuring women to behave as ideally as they appear in their portraits. An elderly husband didactically addressed his young wife: 

nothing is so important for yourself, so acceptable to God, so pleasing to me, and precious in the sight of your children as your chastity [onestà], The woman’s character is the jewel [ornamento] of her family; the mother’s purity has always been a part of the dowry she passes on to her daughters; her purity has always far outweighed her [physical] beauty.21Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, p. 224; translated by Watkins, in The Family in Renaissance Florence, p. 213. 

In the fourteenth century a mother concluded her twelve ‘commandments’ to her departing daughter, ‘do all these things then and you will be your husband’s golden crown’; whilst Paolo da Certaldo said ‘a good wife is the husband’s crown, his honour and status’.22Pietro Gori (ed.), I dodici avvertimenti che deve dare la madre alla figliuola quando la manda a marito, Salani, 1885, p. 16; Paolo da Certaldo, Libro di buoni costumi, edited by Alfredo Schiaffini, Florence, 1945, p. 129. Above all, ‘her greatest gift’ was her chastity; ‘in women a valuable thing is the fame of chastity which is like a beautiful flower’.23The first comment is by Juan Luis Vives, from Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, Urbana, 1956, p. 97; the second by Paolo da Certaldo, op. cit.,p. 73. Specific jewels were also seen as symbols – pearls, for instance, suggesting a bride’s chastity, rubies for protecting a person’s health, prosperity and virtue.24L’Oreficeria, nos 214, 219, 224–25. The cherub’s golden head above rubies and pearls in the Melbourne portrait may also connote the woman’s spiritual well-being or, if the portrait is posthumous, her blessed state in paradise. Like the profile genre itself, the jewellery within it proclaims the social and economic reputation of both husband and wife. 

As with the jewellery, comments will be made here about the style, date and significance of the hair in the Melbourne portrait. Like finely spun gold, every strand of hair near the face is carefully painted. This curled hair is pulled by the tension of a tightly gathered bun at the back, above which is a peaked head-dress in the Parisian style or alla Parigina. All the hair, even in the eyebrows, is painted with fine, individual strokes, but from the ends of the head-dress are pinned cascades of false hair (perhaps silk) painted in a more impressionistic, hazy manner. The costume is also executed by a mechanical, repetitive hand; these features may be the work of an assistant, given the task of painting the decorative costume which forms a solid base for the head and a prop for precious stones. But most of the hair, with its crisp curls and linear attentiveness, suggests the hand of a skilled goldsmith or miniaturist. 

The Pollaiuolo brothers do not come to mind here, for the hair in their Uffizi (fig. 6) and Poldi Pezzoli examples is a massed body of thick paint (virtually a cross-hatched ground in the Florence example), over which are placed lighter strokes to suggest some individual strands. The finer precise quality in Melbourne is closer to the lively curls and linear definition common to hair painted by members of the ‘Verrocchio school’. It has some similarities to hair in a profile portrait attributed to Verrocchio (fig. 9) or to Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of exuberantly tumbling water and hair.25Detroit Institute of Arts, Catalogue of Paintings, second edn, Detroit, 1944, pp. 139–40 for the profile portrait formerly attributed to ‘Verrocchio or Leonardo da Vinci’, now attributed by the Museum to ‘Ghirlandaio Workshop’. See also Passavant, Verrocchio, passim. For Leonardo see A. E. Popham, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1946, especially pls 179–81, 209–11, 279–82. The fine wisps of hair straying near the cheek in Melbourne are also somewhat Leonardesque, for instance, reminiscent of the angel’s hair in the Baptism painted by Leonardo when he was an assistant in Verrocchio’s shop during the early 1470s.26L’Oreficeria, no. 234, reproduces a detail of the angel, whose ringlets and transparent pearls are also relevant. Whilst the wipsy handling of this hair seems Leonardesque, as a hair style the locks hanging near the cheek appear in other late fifteenth-century portraits, for example, the Giovanna Tornabuoni (fig. 3), Ludovica Tornabuoni (fig. 8) and the female portrait attributed to Sebastiano Mainardi in the Museo Nazionale, Florence. Sadly, an attribution of the Melbourne panel to Leonardo himself is unjustified, but I would venture to place it within the problematic, large but as yet inadequately differentiated, Verrocchio circle. The artists working from the 1470s to the 1490s in Florence who were affected by their association with Verrocchio included Leonardo, Ghirlandaio and Lorenzo di Credi, but I suspect the Melbourne artist was primarily a miniaturist whose Verrocchesque tendencies were filtered through second-hand contact.27Jewellery, curling hair and energetically shaped outline are Verrocchesque, but the eye socket is unlike the very ovoid and large one with a heavy lid which recurs in works from the Verrocchio school. Late fifteenth-century miniaturists in Florence, some of whom had contact with the Ghirlandaio workshop, include Francesco di Antonio del Chierico, Gherardo and his brother Monte di Giovanni del Fora, Attavante degli Attavanti and Francesco Rosselli. 

Whoever the artist, he bound the hair in white ribbons, which at the bottom in each instance turn rather abruptly. The projecting bulk of the gathered hair is thereby suggested, but in an angular manner so that a contestation occurs between solid volume and flat pattern. Other profile portraits include white bands in the hair (for example, fig. 9), but peaked hairpieces are rare. They occur in Lippi’s Metropolitan Museum profile (fig. 7), dated c.1440–45 by most scholars. Here and in the so-called ‘Adimari wedding’, now dated c.1440–50, material liberally scattered with pearls covers the hair and lappets hang from the peaks.28On the ‘Adimari wedding’ see Ugo Procacci, La R. Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Rome, 1936, p. 39, and L’Oreficeria, no. 168. According to Joseph Breck, ‘the mode was apparently at its height between 1420 and 1450. The next decade witnessed a diminution in popularity and between 1460 and 1470 its distinguishing features were modified or disappeared’.29Joseph Breck, ‘A Double Portrait of Fra Filippo Lippi’, Art in America, 2, 1914, pp. 47–48. Since he relied on an inaccurate, early date (c.1421) for the ‘Adimari’ panel, his overall chronology may shift upon further investigation of hair styles. Certainly the lappets are usually discarded in Tuscan painting of the 1460s and 1470s, where the two peaks can be used to denote aristocratic, even foreign, women.30Several women display them in The Queen of Sheba’s Visit to Solomon by Piero della Francesca in S. Francesco, Arezzo: Kenneth Clark, Piero della Francesca, London, 1951, pl. 39. The woman in the engraving cited above (n. 14) wears lappets and the peaked head-dress. Several embroidered scenes of the Baptist’s life, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo between 1469 and 1480, feature the head-dress (Ettlinger, op. cit., pls 38, 48, 51, 52), as does a Birth of the Baptist in a Florentine manuscript documented at 1474 (Eugenio Casalini et al. (eds), Tesori d’arte dell’Annunziata di Firenze, Florence, 1987, pi. LXVII and p. 267). Perhaps the somewhat archaic or exotic mode was employed in the Melbourne panel to suggest the woman’s rich, exceptional status; or possibly the panel was painted some years after her actual marriage and the artist deliberately reverted to a hairstyle in fashion at the time of the wedding. 

Other features of the woman’s hair are discordant in relation to normative and moralising precepts. Her bleached hair, shaved forehead and plucked eyebrows appear in other portraits, yet these transforming practices were condemned by contemporary, often misogynist, literature.31For example, Giovanni Boccaccio, The Corbaccio, translated by A. K. Cassell, Urbana, 1975, pp. 25, 42; Diane Bornstein, The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtly Literature for Women, Hamden, Conn., 1983, p. 50; Franco Sacchetti, translated in Harold Acton and Edward Cheyney (eds), Florence: A Travellers’ Companion, London, 1986, pp. 238–39. The ostentatious display of wealth, spent on non productive ornaments and clothing, was also attacked, even legislated against.32Diane Owen Hughes, ‘Sumptuary Law and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy’ in John Bossy (ed.), Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, Cambridge, 1983; idem., ‘La moda proibita. La legislazione suntuaria nell’Italia rinasci mentale’, Memoria, nos 11–12, 1984, pp. 82–105. The very practice of representing a woman as an object available to selected non-familial viewers, let alone showing her in ornate, artificial guise, was granting her a visibility and form about which uneasy feelings and jealousy were voiced. Alberti has a woman advise against female ‘pleasure in gazing on each goer by’ because it was regarded as promiscuous and vain.33The 1598 English translation of Alberti’s Ecantonfilia, as cited by Donald Keith Hedrick, ‘The ideology of ornament: Alberti and the erotics of Renaissance urban design’, Word and Image, 3, 1987, p. 117. Similarly, a woman was not to allow herself to be seen: 

it is no part of beauties glorie, to attract a troope of eies, or be beleagered with an hoast of idle regarders: covet rather privately to be seene, as one adorned with vertue, courtesy and humanitie, then gold, purple, silke or silver, for that shall make thee truly honoured, when the other will leave thee foolishly despised.34loc. cit.

‘Private’ viewing is the prerogative of the single husband or lover, just as a loyal woman will have eyes for only one man. 

Profile portraits like the Melbourne one are caught in a kind of ‘double bind’. They represent signs of ostentation, womanly beautification and ‘public’ visibility, yet these same signs are used to suggest a woman’s honour. The contradiction is only resolved, as is the ‘double bind’ itself, by seeing the situation in patriarchal and idealising terms. Male permission has granted a woman’s visibility; the jewellery, beauty and so on are his to give and see and they redound to his ‘honour and status’. The vocabulary of misogynist attack could become the language of praise in other contexts. Profile portraits construct their own visual language, threading their way through other and contradictory ‘realities’. The profile portrait is an idealising object, not a memento of an individual personality but a display sign of family honour. The profile format itself cannot capture the asymmetrical, transient character of a face; it is a static, patterned, flat form with which to immortalise and idealise. 

The profile’s representation of an unsullied, reputable, ideal woman can also be related to contemporary ideas about the male and female gaze.35Developed in Simons, ‘Women in Frames’. A woman’s eyes aroused a man’s burning desire, making him a vulnerable object of her gaze, or a jealous, aching creature if the female gaze was cast elsewhere. Rules for female decorum insisted that a virtuous, chaste woman instead have uncommunicative eyes. She was to keep her eyes downcast and avoid all ocular temptation. ‘Bury your eyes’, for instance, she was exhorted by S. Bernardino speaking from the pulpit.36Iris Origo, The World of San Bernardino, London, 1964, p. 68. The profile necessarily presents an averted gaze, with one eye absent and the other looking fixedly ahead into impersonal space. The portrayed woman cannot appear to be deflecting the viewer’s eye and to this extent her self-possession is denied by an availability to the viewer’s scrutiny. Nor can the portrayed woman engage with the viewer, so intimacy is replaced by ‘silence’ between viewer and viewed. 

Passionate complicity is denied by the profile’s ‘buried’ eye and a woman so portrayed is seen as a chaste, decorous exemplar. It is not then surprising that one painter of these profile portraits (fig. 7) reportedly found such work exceptionally devoid of passion or sensuality. The soon-defrocked friar Filippo Lippi often lusted after a woman ‘and if he couldn’t buy what he wanted, then he would cool his passion by painting her portrait and reasoning with himself’.37Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite … , edited by Gaetano Milanesi, Florence, 1906, vol. II, p. 616; translated in Acton and Cheyney, op. cit., p. 295. The male maker of the profile portraits concentrated to produce detailed surfaces; the male viewer gazed upon a disengaged prop of wealth and a chaste ideal. He was neither made vulnerable, nor stirred by the averted female gaze, so his desire for her was somewhat sublimated. To this extent, the ideal male viewer demanded by the profile portrait was also chaste and loyal, but the portrait equally made possible his possessive, direct and sexual look at the woman’s image. In social practices of sexuality he could go elsewhere for pleasure more freely than could a woman; his own portrayal was in a three-quarter pose: in many circumstances the male eye could move through space, possessing a viewed body (male or female) and impressing the viewers caught by his portrait’s gaze. 

The pinned, passionless woman in a profile portrait is constructed like Alberti’s ideally chaste woman who disavows a roaming gaze and sublimates her sexuality by attending church and by ‘prattl[ing] with dumbe pictures’.38Alberti, Ecantonfilia, as cited by Hedrick, op. cit. p. 117. Doubtless she saw not only pictures of the Virgin Mary, virgin martyrs and other such role models; her very own portrait addresses both her and her daughters with an exemplary, chaste image. Yet apparently these practices only ‘increased rather than relieved’ the ‘hidden torment’ of Alberti’s female character.39loc. cit. (Hedrick’s paraphrase). Lippi also succumbed to the sensuality of visual practice, for his use of Lucrezia Buti ‘as a model for the figure of Our Lady’ only ‘left him even more infatuated’, and they eloped.40Vasari, Le Vite … , pp. 620–21; translated in Acton and Cheyney, op. cit., p. 295. The profile portrait was, like actual actions, a complex and contradictory construction in which actualities and ideals came together to form a unique statement or convention. The portraits cannot simply be matched with Quattrocento ‘facts’ and cannot be interpreted as pure ‘reflections’ of a single ‘reality’. They are active creators of their own language, protagonists themselves in an historical theatre. 

The face in the Melbourne profile has an averted eye and is painted not simply with a view to literal beauty but rather more for the construction of a wealthy, visible yet virtuous emblem. Indeed, at the time of its purchase by the National Gallery of Victoria, the Earl of Crawford commented not on the woman’s beauty but on the ‘somewhat ridiculous face and headdress’.41The Earl of Crawford to Daryl Lindsay, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, 7 July 1945 (Gallery files). Compared to the most well-known profile portraits painted earlier in the century and with which the Melbourne panel was compared during its purchase, the face here is of an older woman. She appeared ‘ridiculous’ to at least one twentieth-century male viewer who had certain expectations about ideal beauty, perhaps shaped by the earlier profiles, and perhaps induced in some fifteenth-century viewers as well. 

In 1949 Hoff noted that ‘the features are indicated with slight shadows in the hollow of the eye, on the receding part of the chin and the cheek’.42Hoff, ‘Renaissance and Baroque Painting’, p. 20, from which all subsequent quotations are taken. Shading is also concentrated around the bulbous part of the nose. All these shadows are more evident in an infra-red photograph (fig. 10), which gives some sense of under-drawing and of the penultimate effect before varnish was applied. The impression of an older face with sunken eyes and a slight double chin is due in part to the same attention the painter had given to light and volume in the pearls and gold. Throughout the portrait one can notice a play between volume and pattern, shading and line. For instance, the ‘outline retains a rounded quality which recurs in the forehead, the neck, the shoulders’, yet its crisp silhouette and complex curvature, accompanied by precise drawing for the nose, lips, eye and eyebrow, plays volume against flat line. The same tension has been noted above in the white hair-ribbons. 

The necklace falls parallel to the picture plane rather than forming a cylinder around three-dimensional flesh, once again stressing the patterned curvature of the design as much as it suggests volume. The brooch is worn at an impossible angle on the bodice, twisted towards the viewer to form its own mini-portrait and disrupting any three-dimensional illusion in favour of decorative surface. The volume of the near frontal cherub’s face exists in contradistinction to the flat silhouette of the woman’s face, showing that the artist could indeed handle other forms of facial depiction. Compared to many other profile portraits, the base formed by the shoulders is here a more solid one. This bulk balances the mass of protruding hair, but between them an elongated neck and flattened face threaten instability. The ‘shoulders are shown in modified three quarter perspective’, an inconsistency which gives the body an awkward twist. Any relationship between shoulder, neck and collarbone does not exist. The ‘foreshortening of the figure is indicated by the shape and placing of the neckline’, that is at the front, where the consequent décolletage covered by a thin veil (fig. 10) also suggests a date late in the fifteenth century, for higher necklines were an earlier fashion. 

Many of these disparities can be placed in the context of Renaissance explorations of ‘depth and volume on the flat picture plane’. But tensions between volume and line are especially likely to occur in the profile format where flat pattern both works with and against volume. In part, it may be that the painter of the Melbourne panel was personally unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with the profile convention. Possibly, he found it an archaic mode, and certainly from the 1470s portraits of women increasingly followed the three-quarter mode already established for male portraiture. One reason why the profile was abandoned as a dominant mode may be that the formal contradictions inherent in the convention were becoming too awkward and it was appearing old-fashioned. The contradictory play between actuality and ideal, between virtue and immoral ostentation and so on, which I have addressed earlier in this essay, may also have become too much for the particularly idealising, decorative profile type to sustain. Perhaps in the Melbourne instance a patron insisted upon an archaic hairstyle and an outmoded profile form because he wanted to commemorate and display a now-dead wife, or he was reverting to a fashion of his own youth. For whatever reason, what was produced was not so much a portrait of an individual woman as a display object creating complex inter-relationships between volume and line, and between viewer and viewed. 

 

Patricia Simons, Power Institute of Fine Arts University of Sydney (in 1988).

 

Acknowledgements

It is my honour and pleasure to dedicate this article to Dr Hoff, whose seminar course on Rembrandt I attended at the University of Melbourne in 1974. Two staff members at the National Gallery of Victoria, John Payne (Conservator) and Sonia Dean (Principal Curator), are warmly thanked for enabling my extended examination of the profile portrait out of its frame in November 1986. Mr Payne’s subsequent preliminary condition report was also of great interest and Ms Dean kindly arranged access to the Gallery’s files on the panel’s purchase. 

 

Notes

1          Ursula Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture Before 1800, 3rd edn, Melbourne, 1973, p. 87, with bibliography. See also U. Hoff, ‘Renaissance and Baroque Painting’ in U. Hoff (ed.), Masterpieces of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and London, 1949, p. 20; U. Hoff, The National Gallery of Victoria, London, 1973, p. 19; Ruth Pullin and Ron Ramsey, Viva Italia: Selected Italian Works from the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1986, n.p.; Ann Galbally, The Collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1987, pp. 105–6 and pl. 4.45. 

2          Patricia Simons, ‘Women in Frames: The Eye, The Gaze, The Profile in Renaissance Portraiture’, History Workshop Journal, no. 25, 1988, pp. 4–30. Dr Hoff heard an early draft of that paper when it was delivered at a Department of History seminar at the University of Melbourne in August 1986. 

3          Cf. Pullin and Ramsey, op. cit. Payne’s report suggests the frame ‘is reminiscent in style to Venetian pastiglia frames of the early sixteenth century’. 

4          Martin Davies, The Earlier Italian Schools, National Gallery, London, revised edn, 1961, pp. 42–43, who dates the work c.1465. 

5          Archivio di Stato, Florence, Pupilli avanti il Principato, 181, folio 148 recto (translations here are my own, unless otherwise indicated). 

6          The entire irregularly-shaped panel now measures 42.4 or 42.6 cm by 29.2 or 29.6 cm; the original panel was approximately 40.1 by 26.4 cm; the dimensions of the original paint layer were approximately 38.0 by 24.4 cm. Ultra violet photographs record a change in tone along the bottom edge, suggesting overpainting. A misprint in Hoff, European Painting and Sculpture Before 1800, p. 87, giving the dimensions as ‘42.6 x 20.5 cm’, has been repeated in subsequent literature. The profile portrait in Milan, attributed to Piero Pollaiuolo, measuring 45.5 by 32.7 cm, also has strips of repainting, about 1 cm in extent on the top and bottom and approximately 2.5 cm on the lateral sides: Mauro Natale, ‘Dipinti’ in Museo Poldi Pezzoli: Dipinti, Milan, 1982, pp. 151–52. 

7          For the Pollaiuolo in Milan see n. 7 (Natale, op. cit., also gives dimensions for portraits attributed to Pollaiuolo in Berlin, Florence and New York). The Baldovinetti example is 63.0 by 40.5 cm: Davies, op-city p. 42. Ghirlandaio’s portrait measures 77.0 by 49.0 cm: Gertrude Borghero (ed.), Thyssen–Bornemisza Collection: Catalogue Raisonné of the Exhibited Works of Art, Milan, 1986, p. 116. The average of these six panels is approximately 57.0 by 38.0 cm. 

8          Jean Lipman, ‘The Florentine Profile Portrait in the Quattrocento’, Art Bulletin, 18, 1936, pp. 54–102 remains the basic survey and catalogue. Much of her argument is repeated in J. Mambour, ‘L’evolution esthétique des profils florentins du Quattrocento’, Revue Belge d’Archéologie et d‘Historie de l’Art, 38, 1969, pp. 43–60. The five male portraits are considered by Rab Hatfield, ‘Five Early Renaissance Portraits’, Art Bulletin, 47, 1965, pp. 315–34. 

9          Leon Battista Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, in his Opere volgari, edited by Cecil Grayson, Bari, 1960, vol. 1, p. 110; translated by Renée Neu Watkins in The Family in Renaissance Florence, Columbia, S.C., 1969, p. 115. 

10        Several examples are given in Giovanni Morelli, Ricordi, edited by Vittore Branca, Florence, 1956, p. 210, n. 1. 

11        Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, pp. 110–11; translated by Watkins, in The Family in Renaissance Florence, pp. 115–16. 

12        For instance, in Domenico Veneziano’s St Lucy altarpiece, Filippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child with angels, and Piero della Francesca’s Duchess of Urbino, all in the Uffizi, Florence; and Paolo Uccello’s Young lady of fashion in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston. In Baldovinetti’s London profile panel (fig. 2) the pearls are solid, but finely painted with a stippled effect. The pearls in the Uffizi profile attributed to Antonio Pollaiuolo (fig. 6) are more like those in Melbourne, but their detailing is laid over a thicker ground. 

13        L’Oreficeria nella Firenze del Quattrocento, Florence, 1977, no. 194. 

14        ibid., no. 193, for the Pollaiuolo profile in the Uffizi, dated c.1475; Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner, Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School, New York, 1971, pp. 124–25 for another. Precision and clarity in the handling of paint in the Melbourne panel differs from the dry, quick and sketchy strokes employed by the Pollaiuolo brothers for many of their details, such as the fur, brooch and chain in the Uffizi profile or Christ’s body on the crucifix held by Faith in the same gallery. For this and other reasons, an attribution of the Melbourne panel to either Pollaiuolo brother does not seem justified. An engraving of a fanciful head in profile, surrounded by elaborate jewellery, is sometimes called Pollaiuolesque: Alberto Busignani, Pollaiuolo, Florence, 1969, p. xlix; Leopold D. Ettlinger, Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo, complete edition, with a critical catalogue, Oxford, 1978, p. 170 (a rejected attribution). 

15        Zeri and Gardner, op. cit., pp. 85–7; for pendants see L’Oreficeria, nos 186–92. 

16        In general, on Verrocchio see G. Passavant, Verrocchio: Sculptures, Paintings and Drawings, complete edition, London, 1969. Interesting comments are made by John Shearman, ‘A Suggestion for the Early Style of Verrocchio’, Burlington Magazine, 109, 1967, pp. 121–27, who offers in passing the suggestion that Verrocchio may have been trained as a painter by the Pollaiuolo (p. 125). Also, when Verrocchio paints jewels, ‘which he does with more love and at the same time more discretion than Antonio Pollaiuolo, he does it with an intimate and precise understanding of techniques and materials’. 

17        L’Oreficeria, nos 188. 187. A profile portrait based on Ghirlandaio’s portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (fig. 3) and attributed to the artist’s brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi, includes a large brooch with a female head above a crescent moon, perhaps an allusion to Diana: Elizabeth Pomeroy, The Huntington: Library, Art Collections, Botanical Gardens, London, 1983. p. 55 (colour reproduction). 

18        Metallic utensils are also painted by Ghirlandaio in S. Maria Novella with attention to their sheen: L’Oreficeria, no. 165 (where the child’s head in the Birth of the Virgin is also like the structure of the head in the Melbourne brooch) and no. 170. 

19        Alessandra Macinghi negli Strozzi, Lettere di una gentildonna fiorentina del secolo XV, edited by Cesare Guasti, Florence, 1877, p. 446; translated in Lauro Martines, ‘A Way of Looking at Women in Renaissance Florence’, Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 4. 1974, p. 26. 

20        Renaissance Princes, Popes and Prelates: The Vespasiano Memoirs, Lives of Illustrious Men of the XVth Century, translated by William George and Emily Waters, New York, 1963, p. 462; Alberti is quoted at n. 11 above. 

21        Alberti, ‘I libri della famiglia’, p. 224; translated by Watkins, in The Family in Renaissance Florence, p. 213. 

22        Pietro Gori (ed.), I dodici avvertimenti che deve dare la madre alla figliuola quando la manda a marito, Salani, 1885, p. 16; Paolo da Certaldo, Libro di buoni costumi, edited by Alfredo Schiaffini, Florence, 1945, p. 129. 

23        The first comment is by Juan Luis Vives, from Ruth Kelso, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance, Urbana, 1956, p. 97; the second by Paolo da Certaldo, op. cit.,p. 73. 

24        L’Oreficeria, nos 214, 219, 224–25. 

25        Detroit Institute of Arts, Catalogue of Paintings, second edn, Detroit, 1944, pp. 139–40 for the profile portrait formerly attributed to ‘Verrocchio or Leonardo da Vinci’, now attributed by the Museum to ‘Ghirlandaio Workshop’. See also Passavant, Verrocchio, passim. For Leonardo see A. E. Popham, The Drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1946, especially pls 179–81, 209–11, 279–82. 

26        L’Oreficeria, no. 234, reproduces a detail of the angel, whose ringlets and transparent pearls are also relevant. Whilst the wipsy handling of this hair seems Leonardesque, as a hair style the locks hanging near the cheek appear in other late fifteenth-century portraits, for example, the Giovanna Tornabuoni (fig. 3), Ludovica Tornabuoni (fig. 8) and the female portrait attributed to Sebastiano Mainardi in the Museo Nazionale, Florence. 

27        Jewellery, curling hair and energetically shaped outline are Verrocchesque, but the eye socket is unlike the very ovoid and large one with a heavy lid which recurs in works from the Verrocchio school. Late fifteenth-century miniaturists in Florence, some of whom had contact with the Ghirlandaio workshop, include Francesco di Antonio del Chierico, Gherardo and his brother Monte di Giovanni del Fora, Attavante degli Attavanti and Francesco Rosselli. 

28        On the ‘Adimari wedding’ see Ugo Procacci, La R. Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, Rome, 1936, p. 39, and L’Oreficeria, no. 168. 

29        Joseph Breck, ‘A Double Portrait of Fra Filippo Lippi’, Art in America, 2, 1914, pp. 47–48. Since he relied on an inaccurate, early date (c.1421) for the ‘Adimari’ panel, his overall chronology may shift upon further investigation of hair styles. 

30        Several women display them in The Queen of Sheba’s Visit to Solomon by Piero della Francesca in S. Francesco, Arezzo: Kenneth Clark, Piero della Francesca, London, 1951, pl. 39. The woman in the engraving cited above (n. 14) wears lappets and the peaked head-dress. Several embroidered scenes of the Baptist’s life, designed by Antonio Pollaiuolo between 1469 and 1480, feature the head-dress (Ettlinger, op. cit., pls 38, 48, 51, 52), as does a Birth of the Baptist in a Florentine manuscript documented at 1474 (Eugenio Casalini et al. (eds), Tesori d’arte dell’Annunziata di Firenze, Florence, 1987, pi. LXVII and p. 267). 

31        For example, Giovanni Boccaccio, The Corbaccio, translated by A. K. Cassell, Urbana, 1975, pp. 25, 42; Diane Bornstein, The Lady in the Tower: Medieval Courtly Literature for Women, Hamden, Conn., 1983, p. 50; Franco Sacchetti, translated in Harold Acton and Edward Cheyney (eds), Florence: A Travellers’ Companion, London, 1986, pp. 238–39. 

32        Diane Owen Hughes, ‘Sumptuary Law and Social Relations in Renaissance Italy’ in John Bossy (ed.), Disputes and Settlements: Law and Human Relations in the West, Cambridge, 1983; idem., ‘La moda proibita. La legislazione suntuaria nell’Italia rinasci mentale’, Memoria, nos 11–12, 1984, pp. 82–105. 

33        The 1598 English translation of Alberti’s Ecantonfilia, as cited by Donald Keith Hedrick, ‘The ideology of ornament: Alberti and the erotics of Renaissance urban design’, Word and Image, 3, 1987, p. 117. 

34        loc. cit. 

35        Developed in Simons, ‘Women in Frames’. 

36        Iris Origo, The World of San Bernardino, London, 1964, p. 68. 

37        Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite … , edited by Gaetano Milanesi, Florence, 1906, vol. II, p. 616; translated in Acton and Cheyney, op. cit., p. 295. 

38        Alberti, Ecantonfilia, as cited by Hedrick, op. cit. p. 117. 

39        loc. cit. (Hedrick’s paraphrase). 

40        Vasari, Le Vite … , pp. 620–21; translated in Acton and Cheyney, op. cit., p. 295. 

41        The Earl of Crawford to Daryl Lindsay, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, 7 July 1945 (Gallery files). 

42        Hoff, ‘Renaissance and Baroque Painting’, p. 20, from which all subsequent quotations are taken.