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The representation of the human face through an artistic interpretation dates from the earliest civilization. In ancient Egypt, sculptors were ordered to chisel the king’s head and put it in the tomb with the deceased pharaoh. However, these works were not intended to be enjoyed. The pictures and models found in Egyptian tombs were connected with the idea of providing the soul with helpers in the other world.[1] Afterwards, Romans used the pictures to celebrate their status and pass on their traits to posterity, insisting on the ability of their models to hold public positions.[2] It is in the Renaissance when the concept of portrait acquires its modern significance.[3]

The portrait is able to transmit an intimate sense of presence alive even from a distance in time, property belonging to this genre of painting. This is due to the attribution of authenticity from our subconscious attach to portrait: when the viewer contemplates a portrayed person is expecting a faithful representation that shows us what the sitter was really like.[4] However, the picture is not only likeness. They are works of art that engage with ideas of identity, such as character, personality, social status … which are issues that can only be suggested or evoked.[5]

This essay firstly aims to examine the portrait in the ancient Egypt, where the death plays an important role in capturing the likeness in the portraiture. Secondly, to analyze how the Roman portrait not only was concerned with capturing the realistic and detailed individual characteristics, but also the moral will of those who made the Empire. Finally, to examine how the Italian Renaissance portrait presumed the commemoration of individual identity.

In the first place, in Egyptian portrait, the most important aspect was not beauty but perfection. The portraits found in Egyptian tombs are related to the idea of ​​soul mates provide the deceased in the next world. The mission of the artist was to represent everything as clear and perpetually as possible. Nevertheless, they had their own strict rules that secured the perfect clarity of all elements of the portrait. Thus, in the Portrait of Hesire (c.2778-2723 BC, The Egyptian Museum, Cairo), the front eyes are placed in a side view of head, thorax viewed from the front side of a leg and, interestingly, two left feet. This simple, almost childlike, bore a rational scheme and a no less beautiful than in later times order. However, there is not a perception problem. Rather, the Egyptian artists were limited to a rule that allowed them to insert into the human form everything considered important so that the model reproduced stay as realistic as possible.[6]

In the second place, the Roman portrait sought general attribute within the particular attribute. On the one hand they were aware of the importance of making the resemblance to the portrait sitter, so it was possible to associate a human being with the model. But on the other hand, these portraits were idealized to reflex those qualities they believed were worth being flattered and imitated.[7] Art historian E. Panofsky claimed that the portrait has, by definition, two main objectives:

‘On the one hand it seeks to bring out whatever it is in which the sitter differs from the rest of humanity and would even differ from himself were he portrayed at a different moment or in a different situation; and this is what distinguishes a portrait from an ‘ideal’ figure or ‘type’. On the other hand it seeks to bring out whatever the sitter has in common with the rest of humanity and what remains in him regardless of place and time; and this is what distinguishes a portrait from a figure forming part of a genre painting or narrative’.[8]

An example could be found in Constantine’s bust portrait (c.AD 315–30), who was the Roman emperor most famous for founding Constantinople, promoting Christianity, and for his patronage of architecture. It was an enormous dimensions sculpture, forty feet sitting, presiding center stage of the new forums (the apse of the Basilica of Maxentius). Its size responds to the repeated need for imperial propaganda that the Romans had inherited from the East (from Egypt to Mesopotamia). The portrait, originally adorned with a metal crown, is grand and solemn. In the compact structure of the face and squared enormous eyes dominate pupil deeply marked and upturned. The hairs form a fringe crowd in which compact tufts, slightly ribbed, differentiate furrow while the aquiline nose, long lips and prominent chin just highlighted in the rigid geometry of the face. The image, through rather classical way, is treated with the intention of declaring a domain of a celestial land ideal.[9] There are still realistic features but has lost all individual character of the sitter. It is not really a person, it is a symbol.

Finally, Italian portraiture in Renaissance, particularly towards the end of fifteenth century, emphasizes the distinction between external capture of realistic features of the subject and the representation of the internal character of the person represented.[10] Although the fifteenth century in Italy meant a proliferation of portraiture, in addition to invention of a new type and form of portrait, the resemblance was not a novelty. The biographer of Italian artists Giorgio Vasari and the philosopher Pietro d’Abano agreed in indicating the painter Giotto di Bondone, significant painter, sculptor and architect of the Italian Trecento, as the first artist to enter the picture clearly from the nature of living people, which was a revival of art gave way to style modern.[11]  However, the arrival of the Renaissance marked a return to interest in human motives and character. The recognition of these two factors converted human beings into individuals and it is this vision of Renaissance self-sufficient nature of man which marks the beginning of modern portraiture, the development of independent portrait.[12]

The conquest of the physical and psychological appearance is at the same time related to a change in the role of the artist, who goes from being an observer to an interpreter who explores the mind and for whom the inspection involves the analysis.[13] From the point of view of reproduction, Renaissance portrait is a novelty to in facing the expressiveness of the model. The organs of the human body, particularly the face, it becomes something more than mere qualities to represent faithfully. Thus, eyes are considered as organs that reflect and perceive light.

For instance, portrait of Antonello da Messina Portrait of a Man, which was given the title Il Condottiere (Musée du Louvre, Paris), attracts the viewer’s attention to the face of the man portrayed. The artist does not represent the model with attributes that define their social position or profession. Instead, the artist emphasizes the way in which the sitter looks towards the viewer, thus providing the portrait of power and vivacity.[14]

In conclusion, to capture the likeness of the model has been one of the main purposes of the portrait, but not the only one. In view of the evidence presented here, I would argue that, although the uses of the portrait have been modified from the beginning according to the needs of each society and each specific moment in history, it has always been committed to the idea of shape the identity of the person portrayed. However, identity is not only to capture the physical features of the portrait, likeness, but refers to the character, personality, social position … The portrait has served to many functions throughout the history of art and this has been closely linked to what the artist was trying to capture in his or her artwork. It has been an artistic genre which has allowed the artist to show beyond the resemblance of the portrait subject.


[1] E. H. Gombrich, La historia del arte (Honk Kong: Phaidon Press Limited, 1999) p. 32

[2] S. Walker, Arte romano (Madrid: Ediciones Akal S. A., 1999), p. 23

[3] J. Pope-Henessy, El retrato en el Renacimiento (Madrid: Akal Universitaria, 1985), p. 9

[4] N. Schneider, The art of the portrait (Italy: Taschen, 1992), p.12

[5] S. West, Portraiture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p. 11

[6] Gombrich, La historia del arte, p. 52

[7] West, Portraiture, p. 27

[8] West, Portraiture, p. 24

[9] West, Portraiture, p. 66-67

[10] S. Weppelmann, ‘Some thoughts on likeness in Italia early Renaissance portraits’ in K. Christiansen et al., The Renaissance portrait: from Donatello to Bellini (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), p. 64

[11] P. Rubin, ‘Understanding Renaissance Portraiture’ in K. Christiansen et al., The Renaissance portrait: from Donatello to Bellini (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012), p. 3

[12] Pope-Henessy, El retrato en el Renacimiento, p. 9

[13] Pope-Henessy, El retrato en el Renacimiento, p.  10

[14] Schneider, The art of the portrait, p. 46

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