Marino: a cosmic self-portrait

Frans Pourbus the Younger, Portrait of Giovanni Battista Marino, 1619, Detroit Institute of Arts. Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

In his sonnet Sul proprio ritratto (di mano di Bartolomeo Schidoni) – published in 1620 within La Galeria, a collection of poems conceived as descriptions of, and dialogues with, figurative artworks – Giovan Battista Marino suggests that to depict his portrait a painter should employ the harshness of ice and fire, the terror of the shaded dark of night, the paleness of death, the imperfection of nature, and colours sharpened with whispers and tears. Continue reading

Manzoni: grimaces of power

In chapter XIII of Alessandro Manzoni’s I promessi sposi, Renzo, one of the two betrothed, is involved in a riot in Milan, where people, exasperated by food shortage, start assaulting the bakeries. To placate the rioters and rescue an official who risks being lynched by the crowd, the Chancellor Antonio Ferrer is forced to intervene. Manzoni represents in his portrait all the hypocrisy and duplicity of power embodied by Ferrer. While cutting through the raging crowd with his wagon, Ferrer shows a hyperbolically smiling face, «a countenance that was all humility, smiles, and affection». He also tries to enhance his intervention with gestures, «now putting his hands to his lips to kiss them, then splaying them out and distributing the kisses to right and left». Ferrer pronounces the empty keywords that are supposed to please the crowd: bread, plenty, justice. But at the end, overwhelmed by the pressure of voices, faces, and bodies surrounding his vehicle, he draws in, puffs out his cheeks, gives off a great sigh, and shows a completely different expression of intolerance and impatience. Continue reading

Parini: last days of aristocracy

In 1763 the Abbot Giuseppe Parini composes the poem Il Giorno, a satirical text addressing the inactive, lazy, superficial life of the aristocracy. Pretending to be an ode written in praise and for the education of a Young Gentleman, the poem harshly criticises the parasitic emptiness of noblemen and women. As a parody of a eulogy, Il Giorno deforms the classical poetic style, applying the language and rhetoric of epic and mythological tradition to the frivolous daily activities of the gentleman. The text provides a series of caricatures: first, the Young Lord is scared to death by the word “work”, and his hair stands on end (vv. 54-56):

Ma che? Tu inorridisci, e mostri in capo,
qual istrice pungente, irti i capegli
al suon di mie parole?

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Of monkeys and men

In 1540 Niccolò Boldrini engraved this surprising caricature after a drawing by Titian. The deformation of a renowned and deeply respected image such as the Laocoon affirms caricature as a deviation from the idealization implied in the Renaissance revival of antiquity and ridicules the obsession with the imitation of classical models of beauty, perfection, and symmetry.

Niccolò Boldrini, Caricature of the Laocoon, after Titian, 1540, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., public domain.

Michelangelo: a self-caricature

Caricature misshapes the masks that society applies to the human face. This is why artists use deformation to build self-representations that contradict the social stereotypes of self-fashioning. In one of his poems, Michelangelo Buonarroti portrays his physical and psychological dejection creating a proper self-caricature: bluish coloured eyes, rotten teeth, a face that is fit to terrify, damaged clothes, injured ears and laboured breathing. The self-caricature involves not just the body of the artist, but also his own work of art: his writings become valueless scribblings, and his sculptures are seen as useless rag-dolls. Continue reading

Leonardo: the first caricaturist

While reaching an outstanding complexity in the improvement of the human portrait, while exploring the perfection of the human body’s proportions and symmetries, Leonardo da Vinci sketches several experiments in deformation and exaggeration of the human figure.

Scholars refer to Leonardo’s deformations as proto-caricatures, because of their lack of explicit satirical aims. Indeed, Leonardo’s misshapen figures are entangled with his more general inquiry on the human subject, on the inherent shape, both physical and psychological, of the human individual. In this perspective, the caricature can be considered as the exploration of divergent possibilities of representation of humanness, and also a form of criticism against the canonization of the Renaissance portrait, that adopted idealized models screening off the observation of reality.

Alcina’s double portrait

In the seventh canto of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1532) Ruggiero arrives at the island of the sorceress Alcina. The sorceress encounters him on the threshold of her wonderful palace. She appears as the image of beauty itself. «Her person», Ariosto writes, «is as shapely and as fine / As painters at their most inspired can show», and her face presents a «perfect symmetry». The long description accurately depicts every detail of Alcina’s face and body. (OF, VII, 11-16):

Di persona era tanto ben formata,
quanto me’ finger san pittori industri;
con bionda chioma lunga ed annodata:
oro non è che più risplenda e lustri.
Spargeasi per la guancia delicata
misto color di rose e di ligustri;
di terso avorio era la fronte lieta,
che lo spazio finia con giusta meta.

Sotto duo negri e sottilissimi archi
son duo negri occhi, anzi duo chiari soli,
pietosi a riguardare, a mover parchi;
intorno cui par ch’Amor scherzi e voli,
e ch’indi tutta la faretra scarchi
e che visibilmente i cori involi:
quindi il naso per mezzo il viso scende,
che non truova l’invidia ove l’emende.

Sotto quel sta, quasi fra due vallette,
la bocca sparsa di natio cinabro;
quivi due filze son di perle elette,
che chiude ed apre un bello e dolce labro:
quindi escon le cortesi parolette
da render molle ogni cor rozzo e scabro;
quivi si forma quel suave riso,
ch’apre a sua posta in terra il paradiso.

Bianca nieve è il bel collo, e ’l petto latte;
il collo è tondo, il petto colmo e largo:
due pome acerbe, e pur d’avorio fatte,
vengono e van come onda al primo margo,
quando piacevole aura il mar combatte.
Non potria l’altre parti veder Argo:
ben si può giudicar che corrisponde
a quel ch’appar di fuor quel che s’asconde

Mostran le braccia sua misura giusta;
e la candida man spesso si vede
lunghetta alquanto e di larghezza angusta,
dove né nodo appar, né vena eccede.
Si vede al fin de la persona augusta
il breve, asciutto e ritondetto piede.
Gli angelici sembianti nati in cielo
non si ponno celar sotto alcun velo.

Avea in ogni sua parte un laccio teso,
o parli o rida o canti o passo muova:
né maraviglia è se Ruggier n’è preso,
poi che tanto benigna se la truova.
Quel che di lei già avea dal mirto inteso,
com’è perfida e ria, poco gli giova;
ch’inganno o tradimento non gli è aviso
che possa star con sì soave riso.

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