The faces of power in the Renaissance

Un visitante mira el retrato de Pompeius Occo, de Dirck Jacobsz. A la izquierda, 'Reverse: Vanitas Still Life', de Barthel Bruyn El Viejo.
A visitor looks at the portrait of Pompeius Occo, by Dirck Jacobsz. On the left, ‘Reverse: Vanitas Still Life’, by Barthel Bruyn the Elder. Peter Dejong / AP

The portrait it has been requested throughout the history of art by kings, emperors, the nobility or citizens rich and vain enough to hire the artist of the moment. Established in the Renaissance as an autonomous pictorial genre, such a painting was also the best passport to the future: the model knew that the canvas or panel would be kept in good condition given its value. The desire not to fall into oblivion, to retain beauty and capture power, led in the 15th and 16th centuries to a pictorial display that is also a study of human physiognomy and presumption. The models posed in their best clothes on the background suitable for painters such as Dürer, Holbein or Titian. These, in turn, did the required double service. They executed masterpieces and fixed their clients in the collective memory. A hundred of these pieces now form the backbone of the exhibition Remember me, at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Remember me also sounds like a song chorus, and almost a whisper seems to run through the gazebo They claim that of the visitor in the Philips wing of the museum. “Rather than seeing each other, you feel the presence of those portrayed here, and it seems to create a kind of friendship with someone who is no longer there,” says Taco Dibbits, director of the Rijksmuseum, who recognizes the difficulties in organizing an exhibition like this during the pandemic .

The works have been brought from London, Washington, Vienna, Frankfort, Poland or Spain, and the restrictions of travel have made it even more difficult to move pieces that are “among the favorites of the rooms that keep them,” he adds. Distributed on a black wall background along nine themes, they cover the essential range of human desires and they are these: pray for me; the passing from one generation to another; authority; ambition; care for me; admire me; knowledge; draw me; this is me.

In the exposed period, enter 1470 and 1570, “the portrait flourishes, the artists experiment and the clients immortalize themselves in oil, in drawings, sculptures and reliefs; in engravings and medals, ”says Matthias Ubl, museum curator. Perhaps the most endearing example of the Remember Me in the title is the portrait of Jacob Cornelisz painting his wife, Anna, from 1533. Executed by his son, Dirck, it not only serves as a tribute to his parents shortly after his paternal death. “It is also the first known example of a painter at the easel”, explains the expert. They have brought it from the Toledo Museum of Art, from the same American city.

'El juego de ajedrez', de Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555. Cedido por la Fundación Raczyński, en el Museo Nacional de Poznan, Polonia.
‘The chess game’, by Sofonisba Anguissola, 1555. Provided by the Raczyński Foundation, at the National Museum in Poznan, Poland.

An unknown young woman appears in the catalog and is also the exhibition’s business card. Painted in 1470 by Petrus Christus, an artist among the Flemish Primitives, is dressed in black. He also wears a truncated cone-shaped headdress, worn by the ladies of the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie, and the hyperrealism of the painting stands out in three points. In the golden chest clip, the white fur collar that covers her cleavage and a complexion that looks like porcelain. The key, however, is in his enigmatic gaze, synonymous with inaccessible, as the verses of the court poets of the time used to say.

Coincidentally, the work, framed in the section Admire me , so captivated the director of the Rijksmuseum and the curator in his student days. Laughing, both admit to having had “a poster of the painting at home.” Its male equivalent could be another equally anonymous portrait of a model, signed by the Sicilian Antonello da Messina in 1476. In this case, a bourgeois male looks with arrogance and a certain reserve, and his features are painted in great detail. Even some rebellious eyebrows and the cartellino, a piece of paper where he puts the date of the painting and that looks real.

Portrait of a man, by Da Messina, illustrates the theme of Ambition. A few meters away, there are two Spanish monarchs that represent Power. They are Felipe II, and his father, Carlos V. The first posed in 1560 , to the 33 years, for Antonio Moro, born in the Dutch city of Utrecht. The full-length oil comes from the Royal Collections, the Royal Monastery of El Escorial, and has traveled to the Netherlands thanks to the National Heritage. Felipe II wears armor to commemorate the victory in the battle of San Quentin (1557) between the troops of the Spanish empire and the French army. It is also worn by Carlos V in the bronze bust on loan from the Prado museum. It is the one he carried in the Battle of Mühlberg (1547 ), the German city where he defeated the troops of the Schmalkalden League of Protestant Princes and Cities.

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  • MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 01: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY)  Two people attend  the 'Mythological Passions' (Pasiones Mitologicas) exhibition at the Prado Museum on March 01, 2021 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images)

    Mythological Passions, by Mario Vargas Llosa

  • Executed between 1553 and 1555 by sculptors Leone and Pompeo Leoni -father and son- a woman was added at the base carrying a palm branch as a sign of the winner. There is a much smaller table, but a prominent place has been reserved. It is the Portrait of an African (1525), by the Dutch painter Jan Mostaert. He is an anonymous model who may have been part of the guard of Carlos V, and “he is one of the first Africans to be portrayed and to do so as a powerful and not humiliated character,” says the curator. Hang in the Authority row.

    All of these portraits were commissioned to impress contemporaries and go down to posterity with the best face, at least the adults. But in the Renaissance there are also portraits of children, which mark the passage from one generation to another. Of newborns who did not exceed their first days of life, whose parents were immortalized with them in their arms, and also of children dressed in adult clothes. Like the two little ones, one blonde and the other brown -all innocence- by Holbein (1516). Or Ranuccio Farnese, whom Titian painted in 1541 long before he became a cardinal. He wears adult clothing, with the Maltese cross on his shoulders, but the artist captures the passage from adolescence to youth. And there is also the Italian Sofonisba Anguissola, “one of the first painters in history”, they indicate in the Rijksmuseum. In the self-portrait of painting of religious motif I had in motion. From a noble family, she painted for Felipe II and inspired other women to dedicate themselves to art. With her hair tied back and dressed in black with a white collar and cuffs, she looks strong and sensitive at the same time.

    Remember me is the translation of the title in English of the sample, Remember me. The title in Dutch is Don’t forget me (Vergeet me niet), which is another form, and the same, of memory. “We thought about it a lot before deciding, but deep down both reflect what we are looking for: the vision of faces – we all like faces – and after this crisis, in which we have missed the presence of others, these Renaissance faces bring back the presence of the people ”, acknowledges Taco Dibbits. The exhibition will be open from October 1 to 16 from January.

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