A Renaissance Court Painter

For culture month I figured I would introduce a lesser known painter in the swirl of famous and erudite men who populated the courts of Renaissance Italy with their masterpieces. The most well-known court painters of this era range from the astute Leonardo da Vinci, intricate Jan van Eyck and the marvel Hans Holbein. But very few people have heard hear of Pisanello, the court painter for the d’Este family who held the city-state of Ferrara in Northern Italy. Despite his style being relatively old-fashioned for the time in which he was living and working, his work still stands out for excellence and skill to those who venture further into studying the art history of the cultural Renaissance.

Antonio di Puccio Pisano is thought to have been born in around 1395 in Pisa, Italy and is generally known by the name given to him by the Renaissance chronicler Giorgio Vasari as Vittore Pisano or Pisanello. He was trained under the distinguished Gentile de Fabriano, a man famous for his gold leaf encrusted altar piece The Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi Gallery, 1423) in Venice to learn the difficult talent of artistry. At the age of forty in 1435 Pisanello was commissioned to live in the ducal palace of Ferrera and work for Lionello d’Este, who was the head of the family at the time. It was during his fourteen year tenure here that Pisanello made his best known works including that of the Princess of the House of d’Este (Louvre, 1436-38) which is a personal favourite of mine. He was working at a time during the Renaissance that came to be known as Quattrocento, a period of transition in which the style of painting shifted from International Gothic to Naturalism from around 1400 to 1450, (Quattro comes from the Italian for 400, therefore marking the year of 1400).

The International Gothic style is the one which identifies with Pisanello’s work in most, the movement is from the late middle-ages to about the middle of the Renaissance to coincide or over-lap with the Gothic movement in architecture. You can always tell from the first look of whether a painting is of the Gothic style due to the figures having slender ‘s’ shaped figures and are highly idealised to portray the perfect beauty. They could be shown to be almost crude in bodily shape as there is no hint of a figure under the drapery typical of a Gothic portrait. It being known as International due to it being recognised from all over Europe, from the Courts of Burgundy and France to the English Isles and down to the Mediterranean and Spanish Peninsulas.

Pisanello worked with fresco, a medium which is known for the lighter, more airy colours yet still maintaining a distinct vibrancy that lasts even after several years, particularly when working with ultramarine blue. Fresco painting is synonymous with the International Gothic movement in creating a flat appearance. While fresco was still being used right into the 16th century, it was becoming an increasingly outmoded material in favour for oil paint that was able to produce a much more realistic and pronounced tone and definition in a painting, especially that of a portrait. Pisanello is the most known for secular paintings such as his portraits completed in Ferrara which all feature an image of one of the d’Este’s family, or of someone who joined the family through a marriage alliance, covering a couple of generations. He is also known for his medals in which he imprinted a portrait design onto metal, one of which is his one of John VIII Palaeologus (1438) who he saw while visiting Ferrara. A lot of his work has since been lost or destroyed so he is less well-known for his religious pieces such as The Vision of St Eustace (1435)and St George and the Princess (c. 1433)

When studying the life of a painter, especially during the Italian Renaissance, you can see that they are known to travel the length of breadth of their country between city states and even venture into the North, a region which celebrated the beginning of the Renaissance approximately 50 to 60 years after the beginning of the Italians. Pisanello is no exception as he has works listed to have been created in Rome, Verona, Milan, Venice and Genoa and all are attributed as commissions from nobility such as King Sigismund (Sigismund of Luxemburg) (1432-33). The king himself has impressive credentials of being the King of Hungary and Croatia, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor from 1433. The king is said to have been travelling in Mantua, home of the Gonzaga family who were vested as a marquis, a middling Italian city state when he commissioned this portrait of himself from Pisanello who is thought to have just returned from a sojourn in Rome. The painting now rests in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Pisanello would have had links to the Gonzaga family as it is Margarita Gonzaga who is thought to have been the sitter for his Princess of d’Este portrait as she married Lionello shortly before Pisanello joined the d’Este household.

While being in close professional bonds with several members of the Italian nobility, you could not exactly avoid being drawn in during periods of political trouble. Pisanello was staying with the Gonzaga family when the ruler of Milan declared war against the Doge and Republic of Venice in 1438. He joined and helped capture Verona from under the Venetian authorities who eventually labelled him a rebel and sentenced him to imprisonment; however an unknown benefactor contributed to Pisanello being cleared of all charges

After finishing his time in Ferrara, Pisanello retired to Naples in 1448 and worked for the rulers of Aragon which would have brought into close courtesy with the ancestors of Catherine of Aragon whose father Ferdinand of Aragon was born in 1452. Pisanello is thought to have died around 1454 leaving works scattered across Italy and Spain and today his works, particularly his portraits and preliminary drawings, can be seen in state art galleries and museums across Europe. He thought to be one of the forerunners of the High Renaissance but is constantly overshadowed by the work of da Vinci and Michelangelo to be seen with such importance today. On a last note his most accomplished and most forgotten is the impressive fresco cycle War and Chivalry (1447) in the Ducal Palace of di Mantova in Mantua which is his biggest piece that still survives today and is the typical and most paramount example of a late International Gothic painter.

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