Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 1, 2000
Joanna Woods-Marsden Renaissance Self-Portraiture: The Visual Construction of Identity and the Social Status of the Artist New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 285 pp.; 57 color ills.; 109 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300075960)

This book takes on the challenging topic of Italian (despite its title) Renaissance portraiture and self-fashioning, but with a particular focus, that of artists’ self-portraits. The author’s premise is that the increasing number of such self-portraits over the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries marks the changing status of the artist within the culture from craftsman to intellect. Such an evolutionary claim is certainly supported by historical evidence familiar to students of the period, most notably the application of the epithet of “divino” to artists like Michelangelo and Titian toward the end of the period Woods-Marsden discusses and by Castiglione’s assertion in Il Cortegiano (ca. 1508–28) that skill in painting was one of the attributes of a gentleman. Reading through the exhaustive compendium of images that Woods-Marsden presents in essentially a chronological order does indicate an increasingly vivacious and reflexive self-imaging over time, although one might wonder if Annibale Carracci’s self-portrait in the Brera of ca. 1588–90 is any more direct or self-assured than Ghiberti’s own portrait bust on the Gates of Paradise (finished in 1452).

At the outset of her project, Woods-Marsden claims that she will only consider “autonomous” self-portraits defined as “self-sufficient easel paintings within whose frame one (on rare occasions two or three) portrait head or a half- or full-length figure appears—in other words, the isolated self as both subject and object” (1). Self-portraits in religious, narrative, or genre paintings are, therefore, placed outside the boundaries of the study although they do occasionally appear peppered throughout the book. Such a restrictive focus seems a curious one, especially since the number of discrete self-portrait images in Italian art for the period between 1300 and 1600 is already limited. In the end, Woods-Marsden seems to realize the constricting nature of her boundaries and includes a number of examples where artists appear within religious narratives (Filippo Lippi, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Raphael, and Federico Zuccari among the most obvious) and within historical narratives and even genre images (Sofonisba Anguissola). By underscoring her original claim and then ignoring it, however, Woods-Marsden implicitly raises questions about why she did not include more kinds of narrative images or why she did not consider self-portraits within sacred narratives in light of the type of painting in which they appeared. For example, depictions in religious paintings, while perhaps claiming status for the artist vis-à-vis the patron and his consorteria (also depicted), might well reveal the devotional life of the artist as well. They also show the interaction of the artist with other (male) members of his society, much as Antonio Manetti’s story of Brunelleschi and the fat woodworker suggests easy interaction between artists and men of means in the culture of Renaissance Florence. Even the familiar (autonomous) self-portraits of Mantegna in the rinceaux patterns of the Camera Picta in Mantua, or of the fictively framed portraits of Perugino and Pinturicchio within the architectural elements of frescoes in the Collegio del Cambio in Perugia and the Baglioni Chapel in Spello cannot be read out of context as independent images, as Woods-Marsden suggests in her discussion of the Mantegna. The very interruptive nature of the Perugino and Pinturicchio images argues for a larger yet more particular social interaction between portrait and context. The unspoken assumption throughout this book, however, seems to be that self-portraits function solely within a social trajectory of upward mobility.

A notable omission among the numerous artists considered in this book succinctly illustrates the problem of the “autonomous” self-portrait. Michelangelo is noticeable for his virtual absence (he appears in a brief coda), although his own painted self-portraits are numerous and his poems provide some of the most profoundly penetrating self-reflection and self-depiction of the century. Michelangelo’s self-portraits suggest the range of possibilities within the category of portraiture for this period. Some are direct and recognizable as in the head of Holofernes in the Judith and Holofernes pendentive in the Sistine Ceiling or the head of Nicodemus in the Florentine Pietà; some are disguised as in the mask of Night in the New Sacristy; some are metaphorical as in the head of the David in Florence (a reference used contemporaneously by Giorgione); and some are even caricatures as in the quick sketch accompanying Michelangelo’s sardonic poem describing the physical ailments resulting from painting the Sistine Ceiling. Of these, only the last, strictly speaking, fits the category of “autonomous” self-portrait (if one eliminates the text), but the others are revealing of the man, although they do not fall into the polemic of the evolving social status of the artist.

Woods-Marsden structures her book along the lines of the artistic biography, with twelve of the twenty-five chapters carrying an artist’s name and with three others focused on the work of Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana. Perhaps such organization is inevitable in a book concerning self-portraits. It does, however, tend to segregate those chapters into discrete case studies on a Vasarian model, contrary to the opening chapters of the book that discuss the “intellectual, social and psychic contexts” for the artistic self-portrait. This model seems especially apparent in the chapters dealing with the female artists mentioned above where, for example, one of the paintings discussed is of Sofonisba’s sisters and a serving maid and not a portrait image of the artist at all. Despite the very welcome attention to these artists, one still would like a more thorough discussion of the images other than that—unlike male artists of the time—Sofonisba’s socially imposed domestic isolation forced her to turn to such genre pictures of her sisters playing chess. Fredrika Jacobs, for example, has discussed the belief that portraiture, as an act of replication (procreation), was more suited to women than men, whose intelligence allowed them the power of invention (see her Defining the Renaissance Virtuosa: Women Artists and the Language of Art History and Criticism [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997]). Moreover, although the chess game seems to reference the intelligence of her sisters as Woods-Marsden suggests, Sofonisba also includes more female chess pieces on and at the side of the board than the game would warrant. In addition, Sofonisba shows a servant maid in this picture and in another self-portrait, a tantalizing inclusion, especially since she includes a reference to that “ancilam” [sic] in the inscription along the edge of the chess board being used by her sisters. In this case there are parallels to male portraits of soldiers and pages by artists like Giorgione and Sebastiano del Piombo that might usefully be explored.

Despite fascinating material on Alberti, Filarete, and Leoni, sculpture seems to be cast in the role of poor relative in this book even though sculptural self-portraits functioned almost exclusively in the public domain. Although the Ghiberti portrait busts on both the north and east portals of the Baptistry are discussed, Jacopo Sansovino’s similar image a century later on the doors of the Sacristy of San Marco (ca. 1565–70) is not mentioned. This later self-portrait suggests that the social trajectory outlined by Woods-Marsden may be more uneven than she suggests and raises questions of whether differing self-depiction by sculptors and painters may enter into the paragone debate where sculptors were still cast as hard-laboring craftsmen rather than as gentlemen, despite Michelangelo’s nominal office in the Florentine Academy. When Michelangelo depicts himself he often wears the humble practical turban associated with sculptors, as does Antonio Rizzo in his putative self-portrait on the Scala dei Giganti in the courtyard of the Palazzo Ducale in Venice (not included in the book). The issue of craft is raised also in the tomb of Andrea Bregno (1506) mentioned by Woods-Marsden where, despite the classicizing frame and inscription, the objects depicted include hammer, chisels, mallet, plum line, and T-square, in other words images of labor. To be sure, the overall antique style of the Bregno tomb (including the imago clipeata image of the sculptor) differs from the stark realism of the probable self-depictions by Guido Mazzoni and Niccolò dell’Arca in their polychromed terracotta Lamentation groups (also not mentioned by Woods-Marsden), but the pairing of ennobling style and iconography with objects of labor indicates a somewhat more complex history of the artist’s evolving social status than might be evident at first glance. Moreover, the decoration of the Bregno tomb differs from the more restrictive and sparce (and, to be fair, weaker) classicizing ornamentation of the presumably slightly earlier double tomb of Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo (not included in the text), attributed to Luigi Capponi and dated to ca. 1500. There the somewhat plodding and realistic double imago clipeata portraits are bereft of any identifying attributes and look decidedly uncomfortable within the classicizing aediculae, perhaps pointing to the tenuous steps made by artists toward improved social status; Antonio and Piero were, after all, sons of a poultry man.

Woods-Marsden is to be complimented for bringing together an important subset of portrait imagery and for providing an opening wedge into a reconsideration not only of the changing role of the artist in the culture, but of the artist’s own role in the creation of a public persona.

John T. Paoletti
Wesleyan University