by Elizabeth Zelvin
One of the many advantages of living in the Big Apple is access to some of the great museums, and thus some of the great art, of the world. One exhibition I’m glad I didn’t miss was the giant show of Renaissance portraits that I saw back in early 2012.
The Met is a ten or fifteen minute jog across the park for me, though I don’t get there as often as I would like. I particularly like portraits, which feed the fascination with people, the curiosity about what they’re really like inside, that led me to my two careers of writer and therapist.
Getting your portrait painted was serious business back in the quattrocento, much like Victorian portrait photography, though more expensive, I imagine. No spontaneous poses, no “Say formaggio!”
In the early portraits, both men and women were invariably shown in profile (“Do you think they were familiar with Egyptian art?” my companion asked), unflattering as that view was to some of the sitters’ aquiline or otherwise generous noses.
Wonderful as the paintings are, the portrait that fascinated me most, in a creepy kind of way, was a cast of the death mask of Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Not only did I find this intimate glimpse of Lorenzo mesmerizing, but it also raised a lot of questions. Have we killed celebrity by glutting the market? Has the flood of new information and constantly emerging personalities made it a lot less likely for people’s reputations to live on? Would you want the world to be interested in what you look like five hundred years after you die? Would you want them to see you dead? How long a shelf life do you think today’s photographs will have? You post them on Facebook as soon as you take them, and then they're gone. For that matter, how long a shelf life does the planet have these days?