This apparently simple portrait of a young man was revolutionary in Italian painting. Until this moment, artists painted people either in profile view, so only half their face was visible, or by turning them three-quarters to face the viewer.
Here, Botticelli paints the boy head on, mapping his whole face – the fleshy nose, dimpled cheeks, warm brown eyes and determined, protruding chin. Images of the whole face were usually reserved for so-called ‘portraits’ of Christ used for private prayer; showing a young man in such a way was radical.
The boy is dressed simply in brown, his dark blond curls escaping from beneath his red cap. His features are individual but his overall look resembles Botticelli’s idealised males, particularly Mars in his painting Venus and Mars, also in the National Gallery’s collection. Renaissance portraits often beautified their subjects because outward beauty was supposed to reflect inner virtue: the portrait was an eternal witness to the person’s soul as well as their appearance.
This portrait of a young man was revolutionary when it was painted. The man’s dress – a plain brown doublet lined or edged with fur – is tied with cords at the neck; his red cap is similar to the one worn in Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man. The two portraits also share plain dark backgrounds, and close and detailed observation of the features made possible by the strong lighting from the left. These elements are features of Northern European, specifically Netherlandish, portraiture. This was very fashionable in late fifteenth-century Florence, partly because members of the large Florentine community in the trading city of Bruges returned home with portraits of themselves made by northern painters, inspiring artists and patrons alike.
Before this trend for the northern style of portraiture emerged, Italian portraits were mostly in profile, showing only half the face. Painters like van Eyck, who worked in Bruges, were turning their subjects to face the viewer – a view we now take for granted – as you can see in Portrait of a Man (‘Léal Souvenir’) and Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?). Italian painters began to pick up on this as it offered a more direct communication with the viewer. Botticelli has gone one step further: he shows the boy head-on, his shoulders parallel with the picture’s horizontal edges.
Until this point the frontal view had been reserved for a particular kind of image of Christ. These were copies of the so-called Sudarium, the veil on which Christ wiped his face on the way to the Crucifixion and which had been miraculously imprinted with his face. The veil was thought to reveal Christ’s humanity and divinity – his physical and spiritual presence. As such, it became the new model for secular portraits that were intended not only to record, convey and preserve the sitter’s appearance but also to act as memorials for their souls after their death.
Both aspects of the man are portrayed in this portrait, through the detailed record of his features and the idealisation of his features. The young man looks like the handsome and athletic gods in some of Botticelli’s mythological paintings, particularly Mars in Venus and Mars (NG915), sharing his curly hair, strong bone structure and fleshy features. He has a rounded nose, dimpled cheeks and a prominent chin. Idealisation was an important aspect of Renaissance portraiture. Renaissance writers and thinkers were influenced by the ancient Greek ideas about appearance and its meaning. One philosopher, Marsilio Ficino, wrote in 1469 that internal perfection produces the external; in other words, outer beauty was a sign of inner virtue. As a lasting memorial to the sitter, Botticelli intended to show that this youth is both good and beautiful.
When this picture was first purchased by the National Gallery, it was thought to be a self portrait by the Florentine artist Masaccio, who was working in the decades before Botticelli, mainly on frescoes and large-scale altarpieces. This idea seems unusual now because we do not know of any portraits by Masaccio and because a self portrait by an artist in this period would have been highly unusual: artists did not generally begin to paint self portraits until the following century. The theory might have developed because the close-up view that focuses on the boy’s face is so direct and unassuming, or because he appears so at ease while being painted. The picture is now agreed to be by Botticelli, but the identity of the youth remains a mystery.
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