I can’t remember an exhibition that has created quite as much interest as the Faces of the Renaissance which is on at Berlin’s Bode Museum at the moment! My colleague and I had booked our “Early Bird” tickets quite some time ago which was just as well as pre-booking has now all sold out and the only way to get in would be to queue for the tickets first and then waiting for up to 5 hours to finally get in and coming face to face with some of the most beautiful paintings art has to offer.
Portrait painting is an art that has always fascinated me as anyone who read my blog about Botticelli’s young man at the National Gallery in London already knows! I always find myself wondering what the people depicted might have been like in real life, what they talked about as they sat for their portraits or what they did for a living to be able to afford having their portraits painted by some of the most well-known artists of their time.
The exhibition in Berlin is beautifully laid out concentrating on the centres of art in Italy, Florence and Venice, as well as the different courts with a special room just for the Medici. The rooms are kept pretty dark which makes the viewing of the portraits more intimate and you concentrate on every face much more intently. We could see clearly how fashions changed in the different decades and different cities, from hairdos and necklines in the women and different types of hats and caps for the men. Some of the men and women look incredibly modern similar to my beloved Botticelli and it always seems to be those who feel the least idealised.
The exhibition not only shows portrait paintings but also sculpture, drawings and medals. The drawings were a revelation – not only the fact that they have survived on paper for such a long time but also the immediacy and intimacy of them. Sometimes the drawings are hung next to the finished portrait paintings which gives you and amazing insight into how the artist worked. The marble and sometimes terracotta busts have a slightly unreal quality, especially the ones without pupils which makes them look very eerie!
The star of the show is Leonardo’s “Lady with the Ermine”, one of only four female portraits he painted. For a long time it wasn’t clear if the lady in question would be lent and she hasn’t made it into the catalogue but she is on bags, many postcards, magnets and much more arty kitsch. She will only be in Berlin until the end of October when she will travel to London for an exhibition on Leonardo. When I was in London in August I saw her everywhere on posters advertising the forthcoming show. Would the young Cecilia Gallerani ever have imagined that her portrait would be one of the most famous faces in the world hundreds of years later? I doubt it.
Cecilia has her own guard and is covered by protective glass but all this security doesn’t distract from the beauty of her delicate face. One thing that struck both me and my colleague, however, is her very masculine hand holding the ermine, something I had never noticed in all the reproductions I had seen of the painting. Once you have seen it, though, similar to the Mona Lisa’s smile, you can’t take your eyes of them and it the entire proportions of this wonderful portrait suddenly seem off. Don’t take my word for it, though, if you want to see for yourself, get down to the Bode Museum and take your place in the queue, it will be worth it, I promise!