Newsletter 32 (20 July 2016)

I started re-reading Robert Graves’s Count Belisarius before the June trip to Ravenna, but only finished it recently. The following sentence from the Introduction (by John Julius Norwich) intrigued me: ‘The narrative is a perfect blend of scholarship and imagination, its effect rather like that produced by a brilliant portrait of an unknown sitter; the face is unfamiliar, but the individuality so strong that one instinctively recognises a perfect likeness.’ I thought, yes, that’s absolutely right: that’s the effect of a good portrait. But then I began to feel uneasy about some of the underlying assumptions. How can one recognise the likeness of an unknown sitter? (I’m not sure I ever trust sentences about what ‘one’ thinks or feels.) What is strong individuality? Could it be no more than a few features — warts or beetling eyebrows — that depart from some undeclared norm, some lurking sense of how ‘ordinary’ people look?

Ravenna had some wonderful examples to ponder: in San Vitale there is the Emperor Justinian (eyebrows strong, if not beetling), surrounded by his bishops and generals (including perhaps Belisarius himself), all differentiated from each other, extraordinary mid-sixth-century portraits in fine mosaic, and matched on the opposite wall by Theodora, Justinian’s dancing girl wife and her retinue. In a nearby church there is another mosaic that announces itself as Justinian, but its features are quite different. This is actually an image of Theodoric the Goth, his likeness simply appropriated for the purpose of honouring the Roman Emperor, and thereby effacing that great barbarian ruler. So the mosaicists seem to have had little interest in the authenticity of their portraits, and it’s perfectly possible that none of them had any idea what Justinian ‘really’ looked like.

Next up for me is Bergamo, only a few weeks away. I’ve been trying to think about portraits: the gallery there has some magnificent examples. However much I find to admire in religious paintings, it is still sometimes a simple pleasure to turn a corner, leaving behind the Madonnas and Crucifixions for a room full of secular works, most often portraits, pictures suddenly of ‘real’ people.

Of course there was always a place for the ‘real’ in many religious scenes: the donors, often diminutive, kneeling on the fringes of the group of saints and angels; the townsfolk gathered into the protection of Mary’s robe in Piero’s Misericordia in Sansepolcro; and the saints themselves are often models of realism, whether the painters attempt a traditional likeness, the pinched, sharp-chinned toothless visage of San Bernardino for example, or prefer to imagine how some fierce St John the Baptist or selfless San Rocco might look. But might admiring the secular aspects of a religious work, the land- or skyscapes, or inscrutable goings-on in the background, be purposefully to miss the point?

In the middle of the Uffizi there is a large room dedicated to Botticelli’s elegant Virgins and idealised goddesses (though legend says some were modelled on a married noblewoman, Simonetta Vespucci). Yet in the midst of all this flawless beauty is displayed a triptych by Hugo van der Goes, brought in 1483 to Florence from the Netherlands by the banker Portinari. Florentine artists were fascinated by the painting’s medium (oil on wood), but also the startling realism of some of its figures, notably three gnarled shepherds praying before the infant Jesus. This unexpected Flemish attention to knotty hands and weathered faces gradually makes its way into Italian art, finding its complete expression in the dirty feet of Caravaggio’s saints a hundred years later.

Portraits have always demonstrated changing ideas of individuality, and what matters to a particular society. Renaissance portraiture started with kings, queens, princes, doges and condottieri, and then quite swiftly moved down the power scale to encompass merchants and their wives, scholars, and then hundreds of unknown persons of all ages, mostly rich enough to want to be immortalised. And then come the elderly, the ugly, and the poverty-stricken.

In the modern age the camera has made the portrait available to everyone. We can all be portraitised, to coin an ugly word. Yet we still feel mortally attached to the value of our own unique selfhood. I believe a thorough investigation of the nation’s photograph albums would reveal the essential sameness of so many us, and our lives. When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, it will only make the slightest ripple in the ocean of time.

And what of selfies and social media? What might they tell us about contemporary ideas of individuality? Passing by Rome’s Trevi fountain one night, I found myself in a throng of excited people. The statues and the churning, foaming white water were magnificently illuminated, incredibly thrilling. The hubbub was terrific. Everyone was laughing and shouting. And everyone was taking selfies, standing with their backs to the fountain and gurning at their telephones. Thousands of photos of wild grins, with a marble horse’s head, or part of a river god and a bit of spray in the background, were going to be broadcast to other phones and computers all over the world, in minutes. Of course it made me feel old and inclined to judge it all as meaningless and trivial, but the truth is that for a few minutes it was strangely intoxicating, as if we had all inhaled some touristic ozone that had brought us together in a wild but innocent party of strangers of all ages and nationalities, celebrating some extraordinary joy, half understood.