Setting the Stage: The Portrait Genre – Functions for the 16th century

Art historian Paola Tinagli examined purposes of portraiture in her book Women in Italian Renaissance Art.  According to Tinagli, portraiture was a means to celebrate the life of the sitter.  This function was powerful because the patron and artist work together to defy the nature of life – the living are able to summon to mind the dead by viewing their representation.  Portraits can also indicate the status of a sitter, commemorate a significant event that happened to the sitter or even communicate their beauty, particularly in terms of female portrayals.  In order to commemorate someone, portraits could be given as a gift to remember the likeness of a far away friend.  The receiver would articulate their love for the patron when looking at the image.1

Raphael. Count Baldassare Castiglione. 1514-1515. Musée du Louvre. ARTstor.

An example of this was Bronzino’s commission to paint a double portrait of Cosimo I de’Medici and Eleanor of Toledo, the Duke and Duchess of Florence, to be given as a gift to the Bishop of Arras in 1549.  Also, Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier, commissioned Raphael in 1514 to paint his portrait for his wife so she could gaze at it while he was away on trips and still express affection for him.2  Overall, portraits have the ability to convey a person’s living qualities through his or her representation.

  1. Paola Tinagli, Women in Italian Renaissance Art (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 84.
  2. Tinagli, 84-85.
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