Virtue and Beauty

Dommencio Ghirlandalo, Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, c. 1488/1490

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, c. 1488/1490, tempera on panel, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid


Profile Portraits

Pisanello, Cecilia Gonzaga (obverse), Innocence and Unicorn in Moonlit Landscape (reverse), 1447The profile view commonly used for early Renaissance painted portraits conforms to the format of portrait medals, which Pisanello introduced in the 1430s. His Cecilia Gonzaga, representing the daughter of the duke of Mantua, is the first known Renaissance medal to portray a woman. Reflecting the humanist fascination with the classical past, medals emulated ancient Roman coins depicting the Caesars in strict profile. As the profile view was also used for images of female saints, it was eminently suitable for portraits of young brides, who were expected to bring honor to their husbands' families through virtuous behavior. The upright posture and averted gaze dictated by the profile format reinforced the impression of moral rectitude and echoed the Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti's admonition that young women should comport themselves with self-restraint and "a grave demeanor." The painted profile portrait generally went out of vogue in the late fifteenth century, although it was still used under special circumstances. Domenico Ghirlandaio's Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, for example, is a posthumous portrait, apparently commissioned by Giovanna's husband to preserve the memory of his young wife, who had died in childbirth.


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