"The aim of Art is to present not the outward appearance of things, but their inner significance; for this, not the external manner and detail, constitutes true reality” -Aristotle
Portraiture in the 1400’s collected the ideas of the Renaissance and bundled them into a frame which played an important role in elevating the human being. Scientific interest in the natural world and resurgence in the classical civilization of ancient Greece and Rome focused on the human as the center of the Universe that distinguished the “new birth” philosophy moving the culture to search for realism and emotion in art.
Valued as objects and as depictions of earthly success and status, distinctive likenesses in portraiture encompassed a personal identity. Above all of the art created at the time, portraits exhibited a very important materialization of the Renaissance in Europe. After many centuries in which nonspecific renderings of people had been customary, the face became a unique individual with their own personal story. Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were certainly the most well noted for the period’s artistic developments, as were the polymaths that gave way to the “Renaissance Man”, but also renowned as one of the most distinguished artists of the Quattrocento, Pisanello was noted for his portraits on medals, emulating the profiles of the Roman Caesars on coins in allegorical settings as well as in painting.
Throughout the Renaissance, the love and study of nature abounded. This fascination was evident in the use of flowers or leaves, true to species, as ornamental decoration on the portrait canvas that served as backdrops to the theater. Science and art were very much fused together in the early Renaissance as science relied on increased observation, and one thorough way to study the natural world was to draw it. Artists studied classical antiquity but also desired to study and imitate the beauty of intricate life on earth. As every flower and herb was linked to a story in mythology, their presence on the canvas had the power to express more than its scientific value and powerfully wove ancient legends into the unique character of the portrait sitter, using the elaborate details of the creatures to create a complex pattern in a balanced composition.
Portraiture expressed the concept of celebrity in a pictorial language, or at least that which was dictated by the patron, and enforced the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”, a public discourse by philosopher Pico della Mirandola, that centered all attention on human achievement. From the size of the painting, to the position of the sitter, how they were adorned in costumes and jewelry and where they were placed in settings of architecture or landscape, or simply surrounded by which collection of items, tools or symbolic plants and animals, the painter compiled an image of meaning that revealed the sitters role in society, their values or riches, and converted ideals into symbols, all of which were determined by the benefactor to communicate a message to the viewers. "Human vocation is a mystical vocation that has to be realized following a three stage way, which comprehends necessarily moral transformation, intellectual research and final perfection in the identity with the absolute reality. This paradigm is universal, because it can be retraced in every tradition." The Oration on the Dignity of Man (De hominis dignitate) Pico della Mirandola.
Pisanello, born in Pisa, designed and produced a commemorative portrait medal for the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaiologos in 1439 (6), which led the way to the Este residence and his work with them creating portraits in fresco but also portrait medals: intricate sculptures created in the same fashion as a low-relief bronze, a technique far above that of minted coins. The medals as well as the paintings integrated allegories, such as the unicorn in the portrait of Cecilia Gonzaga, a metaphor that described the noble quality of the princess.
Portrait of a Princess by Pisanello paints a story of a young woman (2), whose identity was never fully realized. Some say she could have been Margherita Gonzaga, the wife of Lionello d’Este, yet, the portrait highly resembles the portrait medal by Pisanello dated 1447 of Cecilia Gonzaga (4), the daughter of the duke of Mantua, the first known Renaissance medal to portray a woman. The medal inscribed with Pisanello’s signature and the words: “CICILIA. VIRGO. FILIA. IOHANNIS. FRANCISCI . PRIMI . MARCHIONIS. MANTVE.” made the identification of the medal portrait without question. Cecilia became a Clarissan nun at the monastery of Santa Paola in Mantua, and the medal commemorates her chastity. The nude personification of Innocence sits in a rocky landscape with a male unicorn that lays its head in her lap. The unicorn could only be captured by a virgin and was therefore a symbol of chastity. On the reverse side, Cecilia Gonzaga, the daughter of the duke of Mantua, is portrayed in profile and the image was very similar to the Portrait of a Princess dated between 1435-1449.
Those who said Portrait of a Princess is the likeness of Ginevra d’Este, identified her by the symbolism attached to her garment. The House of Este was a European princely dynasty, which was split into two branches, the House of Guelph, and the House of Este. The House of Este ruled Ferrara from 1240-1597and Modena and Reggio from 1288-1796, an enduring forceful power. Without a doubt the painting Portrait of a Princess described a member of the D’Este family based on the embroidered two-handled vase, a symbol of the Este family, on her sleeve. The same vase was found on the back of a medal which Pisanello designed for Lionello d'Este. But what gives further evidence the sitter was Ginevra D’Este is the sprig of juniper on the edge of the ribbed over-garment that signifies her name, the meaning of Ginevra.
The story of Ginevra D’Este, told against the scenery of the garden, flowered with carnations and columbines and moths and marked by a stem of juniper directly on her person, grippingly marks a marriage in the middle of a political battle. It was possible that the painting was created after her death in 1440, as the passage of time allowed the artist to shower the portrait with symbolism to be interpreted. Ginevra, the daughter of Niccolò III d'Este, Marquis of Ferrara from 1393 until his death in 1441, was married to her maternal relative, her uncle, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, also called the Wolf of Rimini (5). The legends of juniper plant attributed ambiguous magical powers to the shrub in the portrait which associated the sitter as a powerful person. Accounts said juniper would defend from demons, and also helped shield against contagious diseases. Juniper berries were recommended as a means of guarding against early death, yet, Ginevra D’Este was killed in 1440 when she was twenty two years old by her husband when, it was said, he discovered her infidelity. Ironically, the discovery of her alleged infidelity occurred days within a visit from another politically suitable wife for Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, Maria Bianca Visconti.
The Visconti family sent 6000 riders to threaten the territories belonging to Malatesta, and there were not many choices to resolve the dangers. A Visconti marriage could have served to influence the powerful condottieri, mercenary soldier leaders contracted by the Italian city-state and the Papacy throughout the Renaissance and Malatesta needed to be free to marry, a door that seemed to open at an opportune moment. Although he did not marry into the Visconti family, he did manage 2 years later to resolve some of his problems with a marriage to Polissena Sforza, allies in battle. However for the young bride Ginevra, it could be said that even the magical legendary juniper could not protect her when more forceful powers were at hand.
Botanical and zoological images in painting flourished throughout the Renaissance. Beyond their compositional value, flora and fauna became the key to a theme associated to the portrait sitter. A plant or animal life cycle and physical properties, as well as their shape, color, taste, smell, and season of blooming, usually lent themselves to an ethical implication. These elements played both the dramatic role of a theatrical stage, relating the story back to the well-known fables of Roman or Greek Classics, but it could also become a moral lesson to the viewers, who were expected to know the symbolic meanings. Therefore an herb or flower or insect could become a trait, and developed well the picture of characteristics of the sitter and his expectations in proper virtues.
The process of painting encapsulated a moment of time in the life of a young woman. As well, Pisanello captured the spirit of the Renaissance movement as he integrated the elements of nature alongside her image. The “Juniper Carpet” (Thera juniperata), a moth of the family Geometridae, whose larva feeds exclusively on junipers has perched just behind her shoulder. Could a correlation be drawn to the need of exclusivity and devotion from Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, to his Ginevra? Or could it be said the exploitation of the woman was like predator and prey?
The repeated pattern of the Columbine flower frames the face of the sitter in an herbal setting (1). Columbine is a toxic plant, and the moths that are attracted to it not only survive the toxicity, but need it to propagate their young, an attribute that could be said of some Malatesta style families. Pisanello’s choice of Columbine could also refer to the way in which Ginevra died by poison, and lends itself to the idea that the painting may have been done posthumously. The dove, or “Columba” the Latin root of the word, was the symbol of Venus, the goddess of love, and later became the symbol of the Holy Spirit in Medieval Europe. The dried flowers were brewed as a tincture and used as an antitoxin in Medieval medicine, an herb that brought in a way, a resurrection from the dead. The common knowledge of the herbs and their medicinal uses became the visual language used by artists to convey their story, and columbine was love, as well as restoration-a descriptive image in politics and religion.
The Greek name for carnation, dianthos, means "flower of God," and, according to the myth, the flower originated after the hunting goddess Artemis returned unsuccessful. She met a shepherd on the road playing the pipes, and she accused him of frightening the animals away. In her anger, she plucked out his eyes and threw them to the ground. Later, because of her remorse, the carnations grew where the eyes had been thrown. The flower of God account transferred easily to Mary’s tears of following Jesus on the cross, and where her tears fell grew the carnation flowers. Clearly, the symbol is one of loss and regret and is also a fixture in the Portrait of a Princess. Pisanello depicted nature true to form as he carefully chose the natural objects related to the subject. The painter, who was known for his detailed studies of animal and plant life, formed a poetic naturalism using the “flower of God” to surround a figure dressed in an elegant costume, interpreting a crafted message of lament to the viewers of his choosing.
The concept of the self was derived from the principle gaze of the sitter, and the setting in which they were placed, all of which were determined by the sponsor who follow their own desires to assert a high position in society. The identity however, must pass through the interpreter- the artist- executed through his technical skill and studied knowledge of history. Subtle shades of color made with finely placed brush strokes, a picture composed of negative and positive spaces, revealed the sitters role in society, their values, their riches, and converted ideals into symbols. The social, political and religious world could be viewed through a window peering on one face. The portrait, like all art, gave a glimpse of a moment of history, and in this portrait, nature related to time and place reveal not only a young woman with a hint of sadness in her eyes but also her family connections and the burden of being a princess. Portrait of a Princess connected us to a moment in time, and it’s finely composed image gave the noble daughter, the moths, the juniper, the carnations and the columbine an enduring unique colorful identity, something written history alone could never have said.
Text by Janette Wesley
- Germain Bazin, "The Louvre (New Revised Edition)", English edition trans. M. I. Martin, Thames & Hudson (1979)
- M.F. Todorov, L'Italia dalle origini a Pisanello (I disegni dei maestri), Fabri Editori (1970), s.v. "Antonio di Puccio Pisano".
- www.treccani.it/enciclopedia/malatesta-sigismondo-pandolfo-signore-di-rimini/ (Dizionario-Biografico)