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3 - Women in Profile Portraiture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 November 2022

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Summary

Abstract

In the fifteenth century, the formats commonly used for panel portraits were the profile and the three-quarter view. The former was popular in central-northern Italy, especially for female likenesses. With fifty-seven works, this chapter attempts a taxonomy of the Italian profile likenesses by studying the format's entwined aesthetic and conceptual origins, and its perceived suitability for portraying women. With analyses that also consider the spreading popularity of profiles to decorate nuptial and domestic items, it concludes that these paintings are “icons of urbanitas,” as I call them, because they represent the civic and civil ideals of the social network that commissioned and viewed these works. I foreshadowed this trajectory in the previous chapter's suggestion about relational and mnemonic conditions of spectatorship. Linked to this concept is a distinction that I introduce here between a mode of seeing-in of the northern audiences and seeing-as of the Italian audiences. I will expand the terms of this difference throughout the book.

Key words: Italy – Maiolica – Profile Portraiture – Seeing-as – Seeing-in

In the fifteenth century, the formats commonly used for independent portraits on panels were the profile and the three-quarter view. The latter's putative origin is considered to be the region of Flanders, then part of the Duchy of Burgundy, and its characteristics are discussed in the next chapter. The profile format was popular in central-northern Italy. Their commissions rose alongside those of sculpted likenesses, perhaps betraying an emulation of the ancient cultures that honoured the effigies of the dead as a reminder of ideal behaviours. Due to their unchanging characteristics, it is difficult to date the early paintings with precision, as the chronology of a Portrait of a Man, now in Washington DC, shows [Fig. 3.1]. From ca.1450, male portraiture developed a wider range of angles, but the profile remained steadily in use for women. The task here is to understand this phenomenon.

I have traced fifty-seven female portraits: seven from the central Italian principalities, one Venetian or Ferrarese, three from Venice, sixteen from the Duchy of Milan; and a staggering thirty from Florence. There may be more and, indeed, I have found others that are not included in the catalogue because I could not verify their originality. Yet, even if these leftovers were forgeries, they stand as an indication of the health of the market for these items.

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Netherlandish and Italian Female Portraiture in the Fifteenth Century
Gender, Identity, and the Tradition of Power
, pp. 91 - 118
Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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