Friday, February 10, 2012

Poem: "The Death Mask of Lorenzo de' Medici"

"The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini" at the Met is a fabulous show of paintings, sculpture, drawings and commemorative coins. It begins with artwork commissioned and executed in Florence, the center of the early Italian Renaissance, before moving to the courts of Milan, Bologna, Ferrara and Naples, ending finally with another burst of splendor in Venice.  If the profile portraits at the beginning of the show obeyed Leonardo da Vinci's advice to look for three important points of a face--forehead, nose and chin--the portraits at the end of the show examined the human face from many more angles. Along the way the Dutch influence is introduced by way of Memling and other Low Countries artists, to create a more psychologically acute and intimate style.

Almost all the people portrayed belonged to the wealthy or noble families of Italy. There are a few ecclesiastical portraits, including the unexpectedly voluptuous "Fra Teodoro of Urbino as Saint Dominic" by Giovanni Bellini, but the sitters were overwhelmingly the rich and the powerful outside the Church, of men and of women. Fra Filippo Lippi's "Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement" could have been painted for a nuptial union. I love the knowing smile in Antonella da Messina's "Portrait of a Young Man." Domenico Ghirlandaio's "Portrait of an Old Man and a Boy" is most moving in its evocation of intergenerational ties. I also like very much the formal abstraction in paintings such as Antonio Pisano's "Leonello d'Este Pisanello" and Gentile Bellini's "Portrait of a Doge."

The stand-out pieces for me were depictions of two brothers. Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici, the de facto rulers of the Florentine Republic, were attacked by assassins sent from a rival family. Lorenzo escaped with a stab wound, but Giuliano died. The bust of Giuliano wrought by Andrea del Verrocchio probably just before his death shows a noble and lively young man, his beauty set off by the horrible face of Medusa on his medallion. The other work, a death mask of Lorenzo de' Medici, made such an impression on me that I wrote a poem about it this morning.

It is a face on which vie
every part for prominence.
From a full sensual mouth
the lower lip thrusts a ledge,
while the clear forehead
overhangs, like a cliff,
a dizzy switch of space
into thick feathery brows,
and separated on the banks
of the broad shattered bridge
of the nose, in bone caverns
doubling as an image must,
the eyes quiz the universe
even when they are closed.

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