Written by Jessica Graybill
A familiar theme in Italian ceramics are the regal portrait platters that depict Italian nobles. Naturally, portraiture has been commonplace for centuries throughout many different cultures, but the remarkable skills necessary to produce these ultra-refined paintings on ceramics is truly an impressive feat.
These portrait platters (and sometimes bowls, urns and vases) came about due to dramatic development in the art of portraiture during the Renaissance in 15th century Italy. This was part of a larger cultural phenomenon in which the stature and accomplishments of the individual were increasingly celebrated. Growth of trade, and a new emphasis on self-governing created a growing number of wealthy and politically powerful individuals who wanted to honor their stature and preserve their likeness for posterity. A portrait was a complex communication in which the subject’s piety, virtue, learning, and prosperity — even one’s soul were highlighted.
Typically with the portraits we receive from Deruta, we see blue sky behind the subject, giving way to lighter striations of clouds which creates the illusion of atmospheric perspective; a style developed in Venice by Giovanni Bellini. Depicting the sitter outdoors with land and sky in the background allowed not only the play of natural light to reveal in the person’s features the depth of their religious devotion, but also to suggest that the subject was “of the world” and possessed stature in that realm.
Leon Battista Alberti, Italian sculptor, painter, theorist and writer, strongly endorsed portraiture as a demonstration in the “divine force of painting” in his treatise on painting (c. 1435):
“Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. . . Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting”
Indeed, a good portrait can seem to resurrect the life of someone long departed – making me reconsider selfies altogether and making me want to pick up my long-forgotten paintbrush once more! We can all stand to be a bit more present in our day to day lives.