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“How has the concept of beauty been defined differently for men and women in portraiture?”

” … A thing of beauty is a joy forever :

It’s loveliness increases ;

it will never Pass into nothingness … ”

John Keats

What is beauty? Seemingly a continually evolving and infinitely elusive ideal – mankind has been obsessed with the concept of beauty throughout the ages. Portraiture, as an essential channel of visual communication, has traditionally been the medium through which definitions of beauty are graphically expressed. Particularly in the Renaissance where portraiture often served celebratory or commemorative purposes, it was crucial that portraits were accepted as aesthetically pleasing reflections of the social ideals of the time. Hence by comparing and contrasting a range of different portraits of depicting men and women of the Renaissance such as Titian’s La Bella, Bronzino’s Eleonora de Medici, Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self Portrait, Vasari’s Alessandro de Medici, Bronzino’s Cosimo de Medici as Orpheus and Pedro Berruguete’s Portrait of Federico da Mentelfeltro, viewers can gain an understanding of the conceptual differences in definitions of masculine and feminine beauty during this period.

Titian’s La Bella – Portrait of a Woman in a Blue Dress (1536) is a captivating example of Renaissance ritratto (portraiture) demonstrating ideals of feminine beauty. It presents the image of a vibrant young woman. With smooth, light skin tone and delicate rounded face the woman is clearly defined as an exceptional beauty. Framed at a slight angle to the picture frame, La Bella emerges from the dark neutral background with subtly averted gaze, at once both inviting and refrained. Through the conflict of La Bella’s seductive yet submissive presentation, the portrait captures the essence of Renaissance female beauty perfectly, presenting the mildly sensual nature of the woman’s image as a joy in itself.

To complement her dignified demeanour, La Bella wears an amazingly intricate and extravagant blue gown. For a period when women were without a public voice and remained dependant on signs of visual identity such as clothing and jewellery, such a display of finery implies significant wealth and social status. Considering the seductive rendering of the fabric utilising costly lapis lazuli, it is clear Titian desired to present an image of ultimate feminine loveliness.

The portrait is free from overt artistic mechanisms or devices – Titian simply defines her through her exceptional yet anonymous beauty – as the title indicates. Clearly for him the concept of feminine beauty could be defined simply as physical attractiveness. She has no attributes or companion to assert specific personal characteristics. According to Renaissance logic, her good looks are obviously the outward manifestation of her inner virtues of mind and soul. Therefore it is clear that the concept of feminine beauty of this time was directly and inextricably linked to pleasing physical appearance, the depiction of which viewers derived great pleasure from.

Placed in the social context of the time, this type of portrait portraying unidentified, beautiful women in modern clothing was extremely popular in Venice. Common features which bound these portraits into a genre now labelled as “generic beauty portraits” include the illustration of women with milky alabaster skin, wavy reddish-gold hair, large dark eyes, detailed texturised draping clothing with their figures presented in half or three quarter stance. The combined effect of these different characteristics was to present an‘ideal woman’ – a visual embodiment of the ultimate feminine vixen. Overall the effect was to create an erotic and sensual invitation for viewers to reach out and touch these unattainable images of perfection.

Examining portraiture of married women of the time also highlights the differences between concepts of masculine and feminine beauty in the Renaissance. Portraits such as Bronzino’s Portrait of Eleonora de Toledo (1545) highlight the correct demeanour and presentation required by married women in order to appear virtuous and hence beautiful.

Eleonora, who was the wife of Cosimo de Medici, was highly regarded as the image of elegance and grace. The Duchess is shown seated, in a three-quarter length pose. Her hair is pulled back in a gold hair net decorated with pearls which gently reflect the pale luminosity of her smooth skin. Her gaze meets the viewers with calm serenity, with her arms gently resting around the shoulders of her first son. The dynastic nature of the portrait celebrates not only her fertile feminine virtue as a bearer of Cosimo’s first son, but also her role as a Mother ensuring the propagation of a new Medici dynasty. The use of brilliant blue sky paling behind her head, lends her almost religious grandeur. Unlike La Bella, this portrait does not invite viewers to interact with the subjects. Instead Eleonora’s beauty is defined by her aloofness – she is an image of untouchable regal elegance and nobility.

The most stunning feature of the portrait however, is Eleonora’s amazingly intricate and luxurious gown. Bronzino has created an image of pure opulence, with golden thread, buttons and pucker of the cream brocade and black cut velvet reproduced with extreme attention to detail. The delicate fingers of her elongated left hand, point towards a pearl tassel decorating her jewel studded, golden belt, a subtle indication of her extreme wealth. She would have only worn such an ornate gown when attending special function at court – a time where the display of her beauty and grand affluence was of vital importance in the power game between rulers.

This particular portrait was a component of a series of portraits which served as political propaganda to promote the wealth, power and status of the Medici family. In order to secure their hold on Florence and Tuscany, Cosimo and Eleonora pursued a campaign of artistic patronage to create for themselves well recognised images. As beauty was synonymous with virtue, Eleonora’s fine looks were utilised as political tool – a public display of sophisticated grace necessary to further Cosimo’s aims. Here feminine beauty is used as a vital means of communication – becoming an essential instrument for the demonstration of status and power in Renaissance political arenas.

Overall this portrait presents an image of female beauty that is an icon of power and elegance. Contrary to the sexually charged La Bella, the concept of female beauty here lies in Bronzino’s depiction of Eleonora’s vital role as a Mother, and in her royal demeanour which defines her superior position in Renaissance society.

Another interesting portrait which also contributes to the definition of feminine beauty in the Renaissance is Self Portrait at the Easel (1556) by Sofonisba Anguissola. For a time when women were admired and portrayed primarily for their physical appearance it is unusual to find a portrait illustrating a young woman austerely dressed, engaged in a process requiring such talent and dedication as portraiture.

Sofonisba presents herself honestly, seemingly without elaboration or idealisation. Her hair is braided simply around her head, tied back securely with simple hair net. Her gaze is calm and direct – her large eyes meeting the viewers with unruffled composure. She is plainly dressed in a dark ascetic smock with little trim. She is shown in the process of creating a devotional image, grasping paintbrush and mahlstick, with the tools of her art in front of her.

Anguissola has created for herself an image of modest loveliness, which is striking with its lack of pomp and pretension. Through her painting viewers can admire both the portrait itself and the skill of the woman who painted it. Although she lived in such a time when it was not common for women to work as commissioned artists – her outstanding skill and creativity obviously provided the means for her to forge an artistic career. Through her art, viewers are given another insight into the definition of feminine beauty in the Renaissance, where all women were not merely objectified for their beauty – she represents a gentle, attractive woman who was also highly educated, intelligent and dedicated to her art. Overall her works contribute to the concept of a ‘beautiful woman’ being an accomplished and inspiringly talented member of Renaissance society.

Masculine beauty in the Renaissance could take many forms, but traditionally relied on well-defined images of power, leadership and intelligence. This idea is illustrated clearly through Giorgio Vasari’s portrait of Alessandro de’ Medici – Duke of Florence (1534). Obviously as this was a commissioned portrait, Vasari was very concerned with portraying a visually pleasing image of the Duke. He achieves this by not merely recreating the Dukes physical likeness, but also employing extensive and complex iconographic imagery, revealing to viewers the Dukes personal characteristics which define his beauty.

The Dukes wears armour to represent his military power and courage and to show that he is prepared at any time to defend his country. The armour also serves as a mirror, ‘such that his people may be able, in the actions of their lives, to reflect themselves in him’. He holds the golden baton of power to rule as prince and to command as captain. The draping red fabric represents the blood shed by enemies of the Medici family; the portion covering Alessandro’s leg shows the Medici themselves have shed blood.

This use of powerful, aggressive imagery is balanced by the view of a peaceful, prosperous Florence in the background which Alessandro looks over. The blazing helmet lying on the ground represents eternal peace, which results from Alessandro’s good government and insightful leadership. The vision of the thriving city is paralleled by the image of the dead laurel sprouting new shoots, which is also a metaphor for the regeneration of the Medici family itself.

Overall Vasari’s portrait of Alessandro is composed of a plethora of fascinating yet obscure metaphorical references. The purpose of such intensive heraldic imagery is obviously to impress upon viewers the supreme accomplishments of Alessandro as a leader and member of the Medici family. It provides a perfect of example of how in the Renaissance the stereotypical concepts of masculine beauty were primarily defined by the depiction of military success, ambitious leadership and social status. Clearly this energetic, passionate image demands respect from viewers, which is clearly a very different response than the reaction viewers had to the pretty yet visually simple depictions of feminine beauty of the same period.

Another interesting example of male beauty depicted in the Renaissance is the portrait of Cosimo de’ Medici as Orpheus. During this time period the mythological character Orpheus was seen to symbolise a number of different roles such as devoted lover, philosopher and discoverer of male homosexual love. In this unusual and intriguing portrait, where Cosimo assumes the role of Orpheus viewers are presented with an image which alludes to Cosimo also possessing such lurid sexual characteristics.

Cosimo is shown naked, without the protection of defensive armour or clothing. The expanse of taut, muscular nude flesh combined with the Cosimo’s seductive, over the shoulder gaze accentuates the carnality of the situation. His lithe frame is twisted into a supple pose, celebrating the power and attraction of a young man in his prime. As his arms and hands are positioned to gently caress the instrument he holds, he is shown as a charmer who uses his musical talent to seductively soothe the savage beasts in the background.

This portrait with its soft sensuality and mythic proportions undeniably presents Cosimo as a beautiful man. Although it diverges from the traditional stereotypical representations of beautiful Renaissance men – nonetheless it provides another definition of the concept of masculine beauty in the Renaissance – beauty not found in the vision of a stern distant military leader, nor is it particularly effeminate prettiness, but more a representation of beauty found in the powerful muscularity and sexual virility of a young man in his prime. Obviously this type of portrait, such a celebration of sexual liberation, would never be seen in the context of feminine beauty in the Renaissance.

A final example of the conceptual difference between masculine and feminine beauty in the Renaissance can be found be examining Piero Berruguete’s portrait of Federico da Montefeltro and his son Guidobaldo (1476 – 77). Federico became the Duke of Urbino from 1474, and through his extensive patronage of the arts he established Urbino’s status as the ideal Renaissance court. The humanist Paolo Cortese went so far to describe Frederico and Cosimo de Medici as the two greatest artistic patrons of the fifteenth century.

This particular portrait was painted in the prime of his career, and his supreme confidence of that time is clearly expressed. He is shown reading solemnly at a lectern, yet underneath his glorious, rich robe he is dressed in armour, with his sword strapped to his side. This contrasting imagery alludes to his serenely harmonious devotion being made possible by the prudent conduct of war. It also refers to his continuous vigilance and awareness, even when engrossed in religious contemplation. By advertising his moral dedication and pious religious reverence, Federico is portrayed as a beautiful Christian ruler.

He is pictured in profile, exposing only the left side of his face. This perspective hides the hideous scarring on his right side where he had lost his right eye while involved in a joust when he was younger. Viewers can clearly make out the numerous marks and scars on his face and the protrusion of his bulbous nose indicates where the once shattered the bridge of his nose failed to heal correctly. Despite his many scars and disfigurements, the Duke exudes an extremely regal and dignified bearing. He is proud of his many achievements and is presented surrounded by a number of prestigious chivalric awards. Although does not conform to the stereotype of a good-looking Renaissance man, by exuding such poise and nobility of character the Duke adds another aspect to the image of masculine beauty.

The Duke has also included in his portrait his greatest treasure – his son Guidobaldo. Angelic yet radiantly fragile, Guidobaldo bears the sceptre that signifies the continuation of the Montefelro dynasty. By including the image of his son Federico alluding to the dynastic assurance of the Montefeltro succession, while also celebrating the importance he places on the Family and particularly his role as Father.

Obviously the concept of beauty presented in this portrait contrasts vastly with the depiction of feminine beauty described previously. Although the Duke seeks to downplay his hideously disfigured features, he certainly does not conform to a stereotypical image of attractive Renaissance masculinity. Despite the fact he was a professional soldier, the Duke presents himself in a reverential setting with his son – highlighting his well-rounded nature and the importance he places intellectual pursuits and his role as a parent. Through his mission to enlighten and cultivate artistic excellence the Duke came to represent the Christian ideal of an active and contemplative man. Clearly it is not the concept of physical appearance which defines the Dukes beauty in this portrait, rather it is the virtuosity and dignity of the image presented that unmistakably identifies the Duke as a representation of beautiful man of the Renaissance.

By examining a number of different portraits of men and women of the Renaissance such as Titian’s La Bella, Bronzino’s Eleonora de Medici, Sofonisba Anguissola’s Self Portrait, Vasari’s Alessandro de Medici, Bronzino’s image of Cosimo de Medici and Pedro Berruguete’s Portrait of Federico da Mentelfeltro viewers can gain an understanding of the different concepts of beauty for men and women of this period. Obviously traditional stereotypes existed for both men and women, where masculinity strength and power were celebrated as male beauty, while elegant aesthetically pleasing women were regarded as the definition of great feminine beauty. Portraits which conform to standard images of the ‘beautiful woman’ and ‘handsome man’ include La Bella and Alessandro de Medici. However, just to accept these aesthetic ideals as the only acceptable interpretations of beauty of the time is to over-simplify the concept of beauty in the Renaissance. Beautiful portraits including that of Eleonora de Toledo and Federico da Montelfeltro often had powerful political significance and were often used as vital means of propaganda communication. Beyond these conventional images we have such images as Cosimo de Medici as Orpheus and Self Portrait by Sofonisba. Which, although rare, were recognised as beautiful portraits of the time, and present and much more unusual and intriguing visions of beauty.

Through the exploration of this diverse range portraiture, the contrasting ideals of masculine and feminine beauty in the Renaissance have been explored. Yet overall, no matter what the gender orientation of the subject, it the discovery of such passionate and artistic talent presented which is essentially ‘beautiful’. Consequently, the grand appeal of such glorious images is still appreciated today, and will continue to delight viewers for generations to come.


Paola Tingali

Women in Italian Renaissance Art (Manchester 1997)

Geraldine A. Johnson & Sara Greico

Picturing Women in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (Cambridge 1997)

Patricia Simons

Portraiture: Facing the Subject ed Woodhall (Manchester 1997)

Lorne Campbell

Renaissance Portraits (Yale 1990)

Alison Cole

Art of the Italian Renaissance Courts (Everyman Art Library 1997)

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