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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Lippi, Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement

Fra Fillippo Lippi, Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement, tempera on wood, c. 1440 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. David Drogin, Dr. Beth Harris  . Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) Female: This is a really strange painting, I think, with this man sticking his head into this room and this woman taking up this space He looks very stiff. Every time I see it at the Met I pause in front of it bcause it seems so odd. Male: It is a very unusual painting to our eyes. At the time, it was painted around 1440, it was actually very innovative for the Italian Renaissance. This is exactly the period when portraiture emerged in Italy as its own independent type of painting. Female: How come there weren't portraits before that? Male: Well, there were portraits before that but they were usually integrated into larger compositions, like a historical or biblical narrative. It's around 1440 in Florence and Ferrara and north central Italy that portraiture becomes its own type of painting. Female: So before that, a person could appear in a painting as a donor. Male: In a way, this painting is typical of early Renaissance portraiture because we see the main subject, the woman, in profile. The profile is the standard format because it was part of the revival of Classical antiquity. Of course many coins and metals had survived from ancient Greece and Rome, and they show people in profile, so that's the format painters and sculptors chose in the beginning. Female: There's a kind of formality and seriousness to that pose that I think is important for them, right? Male: Absolutely. Since the sitter is represented in profile, not looking out at the viewer, the artists were really limited in terms of how they could represent a person's facial expressions or character, and so the way that was usually done was mostly through symbolism. Rather than using facial expressions to describe what someone's interior characteristics and personality was like, they would use symbols and iconography. Like for here, for instance, we see the very pale skin, representative of purity; the very expensive clothing, representative of her wealth. Generally, female beauty was taken as a real sign of interior virtue. So we're supposed to understand that she is very virtuous from the way that she looks. Female: And that was considered to be very beautiful to have a very high forehead, wasn't it? Male: They plucked their hairline. It's also worth noting, in terms of this being a representation of a woman, that this is probably one of the very first Italian Renaissance wedding portraits. These kinds of portraits were used in arranged marriages for the purpose of introducing the man to his fiancee. They probably never met before, but her family or his family commissioned Fillippo Lippi to paint this portrait of her to show the husband-to-be what she looked like. Female: So this is interesting, also, from the point of view of it being a a portrait of a woman, she's very much in an enclosed space where the man is outside of that space. Male: He's in the outside public realm. She is confined to the domestic sphere. She's also represented very passive, very object-like. In a way, she's just another beautiful object like her fancy broach or her fancy clothes that he's looking inside at and appreciating. Female: Literally, she was property. Male: Absolutely. When a woman married a man in the Renaissance, she and all her belongings became the legal property of her husband. Female: Let's look at another example of a portrait of a woman, a famous portrait of a woman, from, what, about 50 or 60 years later, in the High Renaissance and Leonardo does something really very different than Frau Fillippo Lippi did, because we really see her face here. Male: Sure. Here, Leonardo did something rather revolutionary for portraiture of women. He's turned her so that her face is looking out at the viewer. This is what we call a three-quarter profile, that's not entirely frontal, but there is a direct engagement. Rather than sitting there passively not returning the viewer's glance, the Mona Lisa looks us right in the eye and engages with us, almost as an equal rather than a passive object. Because she looks us right in the face, Leonardo takes the opportunity to suggest what she's like, suggest her personality through her enigmatic facial expression. You'll notice she's not wearing any jewelry. Her clothing is not that particular. She doesn't have a fancy headdress. Leonardo is giving up, he's not using iconography and symbolism to describe what someone is like, but he's actually representing what someone might be like. Now, what we should understand is that this painting was probably painted for her husband, and that might explain why she's positioned and looking the way she is. If you look at the chair, you'll see that she's actually sitting sideways out on a balcony, and yet her face turns toward us. So maybe the suggestion is that the Mona Lisa was sitting in her chair on the balcony, her husband approaches, and she turns and looks at him, and this is the expression on her face, of recognition and intimacy. This is not a wedding portrait. This is for a couple that is already married. When we look at this, we should imagine the husband standing in front of it. Then it makes a lot more sense. (jazzy music)