15th Century Florentine Portraits

Portraiture in Fifteenth Century Italy was often commissioned to reflect the high-status of marriages at royal courts and to document other important events. Two examples of such paintings are 'Portrait of a Woman with Yellow Sleeves' by Baldovinetti (c.1465), and 'Man with a Medal' by Botticelli (c.1475).

Portrait of a Woman with Yellow Sleeves, c.1465

This profile style portraiture arose in the Early Renaissance due to Florentine coins and medals. Interestingly, women in paintings remained in profile much longer than men, because it was not considered appropriate for women to make eye contact, and it was thought to be easier to flatter them. In this sense women were very much objectified as this stripped them of a personality and simply made them a possession.

This painting was commissioned as a marriage portrait, and there are two main signs of ownership by her husband. Firstly, his coat of arms have been painted on her sleeve. Secondly, the jewellery she wears most likely belonged to her husband. Women were only allowed to keep a small collection of paraphernalia after they married.

She is highly idealised and flattered, for example she has pale, marble-like skin which was considered very beautiful. However, she does have some distinguishing features which make her recognisable.

She also conforms to the beauty and fashion of the age. Firstly, she has a receding hair line, because at that time prominent nobles shaved the front of their head so they had a high profile, to which she draws attention with the hairband. Secondly, she is extremely flat-chested, which suggests that both she is probably only around 12 years old, and that women wore constricting under garments.

Man with a Medal - Botticelli, 1475

This painting was commissioned with a different aim in mind - to connect him with the Medici Family. This man is holding a bronze-coloured medal depicting Cosimo de Medici, which is either to identify him as a de Medici, or he worked for the Medici Family. The latter is more likely as he holds the medal out in front of him as if to suggest it is more important than him, for example, in terms of wealth. In other words, this man is a sycophant.

In contrast to the previous portrait, this man makes direct eye contact with the spectator. However he is also flattered, while still being recognisable. He can also be identified as a scholar due to his clothes. The painting itself is an example of remarkable talent as the background has been used to make the figure appear 3-Dimensional.

These paintings show two very different and changing ideals; the man is illusionistic, whereas the woman is simply on show - a 'trophy wife'. This also helps illustrate the difference of treatment between the two genders in 15th Century society.

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