UNKNOWN MASTER, Italian
(15th century, Florence)
Tempera on panel transferred to canvas, 47,6 x 33,7 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
This portrait is among the first from the Renaissance. During the late Middle Ages, depictions of individual donors had often been included in religious paintings, but it was not until the early fifteenth century that independent portraits were commissioned. The earliest ones are simple -- even austere -- profile views. They were likely influenced by portrait busts and the profile heads on ancient gems and coins, which were avidly collected by Renaissance humanists. The popularity of the independent portrait was spurred by a new focus on the individual and an appreciation of individual accomplishments, the new concept of fame.
Matteo Olivieri's portrait -- his name appears on the ledge -- was originally paired with one of his son Michele, who may have commissioned both works. Though painted long after Matteo had died (he left a will in 1365), the portrait depicts a young man, as did the portrait of his son, who must have been at least sixty-five when the works were painted. Most portraits were probably commissioned as commemorations of the deceased by families who wished to remember them in the prime of life. As the Renaissance art theorist Alberti noted, a portrait "like friendship can make an absent man seem present and a dead one seem alive."