One of the central intuitions of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy is that ‘Renaissance man’ differed in fundamental respects from his medieval forebears. As Burckhardt expresses it,

In the Middle Ages, both sides of human consciousness—that which was turned within as that which was turned without—lay dreaming or half awake under a common veil … Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category. In Italy this veil first melted into air … Man became a spiritual individual [and] recognized himself as such. (p. 98)

Conceiving of human, worldly life as an arena in which glory could be sought, rather than as a vale of tears, Renaissance man sought to excel, developing his innate physical, intellectual, and creative powers to the maximum. In the process, he proudly differentiated himself from his fellows, becoming a ‘phoenix’, a species unto himself—a popular rhetorical compliment of the time.

Burckhardt’s notion of ‘Renaissance man’ as defined by individualism has not fared well in recent scholarship. Modern historians have emphasized that the collective identity frames which Burckhardt portrayed as having ‘melted’ with the advent of the Renaissance in fact remained firmly in place throughout the entire period. Family and lineage remained crucial to men’s and women’s social identities in this period, especially within the moneyed elites, where family identities were reinforced through such vehicles as genealogies, heraldry, ancestral portraiture, family chapels, and family tombs. Other collective identity frames were offered by religious institutions such as religious orders and lay confraternities; by professional and trade institutions such as guilds; and by cultural associations such as the literary academies that flourished in every Italian city and town in the later sixteenth century. Neighbourhood identities within cities were also often strong, and reinforced by civic rituals and sporting events, such as the horse race known as the Palio still fiercely contested by the city wards, or contrade, of Siena. Less official neighbourhood-trade groupings included the Venetian gangs or civic factions of the Castellani (mainly dockyard workers), and the Nicolotti (mainly fishermen).1 These met annually in the autumn for bloody fist fights on bridges. Although notionally illegal, these were in practice one of the highlights of the Venetian social calendar, attracting sponsorship from local patricians and gambling interest from all social ranks.

Overarching all these more local and parochial identity constituents was civic identity, which had immense force in the period. This was reinforced throughout the year through rituals and had a strong religious component that endowed state institutions with a quasi-sacred aura. Venice, perhaps the Italian city with the richest array of civic rituals, celebrated the fifth-century foundation of the city on 25 March, coinciding with the Feast of the Annunciation, in a way that aligned the birth of the city with the spiritual redemption of mankind. Every city had a patron saint—many more than one—and many could muster a miraculous icon that might be paraded in supplicatory processions in case of drought or plague or war. Bologna had an image of the Virgin purportedly painted by St Luke; Lucca, a crucifix said to have been carved by Nicodemus, eye-witness to the crucifixion; Turin, the famous shroud, supposedly imprinted with the face of Christ, that is still an object of pilgrimage today. Grandest of all, Rome and Venice could boast the bones of two apostles, respectively Peter and Mark (the latter stolen from Alexandria in the ninth century by a party of pious Venetian merchants and transported out in a barrel of pork). The possession of relics and shared sacred legends served to bond civic communities, as did memorialization of past military victories and political accords. Florence celebrated St Barnabas’s day on 11 June with a horse race and fireworks, to commemorate the Battle of Campaldino in 1289, when Florentine government forces had defeated a powerful party of political exiles. Venice’s famous Ascension Day ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea, in which the Doge ‘wedded’ the sea with a ring on behalf of the city, commemorated both Venice’s conquest of Dalmatia at the turn of the tenth century and a twelfth-century Venetian-brokered peace accord between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.2

Once we consider these multiple, overlapping collective identities, it becomes clear that it is simplistic to consider Renaissance identities purely in terms of individualism—just as it would be similarly simplistic today. Modern social psychology distinguishes between an ‘individual self’ (comprising those aspects of a person’s self-conception that differentiate him or her from others); a ‘relational self’ (comprising those aspects of self-conception formed through interpersonal interaction within defined social roles); and a ‘collective self’, ‘achieved by inclusion in large social groups and contrasting the group to which one belongs (the in-group) with relevant out-groups’.3 The same analysis may be usefully applied to the period we are looking at here, although most scholars would agree that the relational and collective components of self-conception and identity were far more dominant in Renaissance culture than they are today, at least in the West. Contemporary cultural neuroscience has dramatically exposed the profundity with which cultural differences shape individuals’ self-conception, so that Chinese experimental subjects show a different cognitive style of self-representation than Western subjects, emphasizing interdependence and relationality over psychic autonomy.4 It seems licit to speculate that a time-travelling cultural neuroscientist projected back into Renaissance Italy would find comparable differences between Renaissance and modern-day Western minds.

The notion of the relational self is especially useful within a society such as that of Renaissance Italy, in which family and kinship ties were a more powerful force than they are today, and in which much of professional, social, and political life was conducted on a patronage-clientelage basis. Men of social standing poured vast energies into cultivating relationships with those more powerful than themselves, and gaining social capital through the public allegiance of less powerful men. The discussion of ‘friendship’ (amicitia) in the fourth book of Leon Battista Alberti’s 1430s dialogue On the Family, one of the most insightful analyses of Renaissance social dynamics of the period, is largely devoted to a speaker’s account of his techniques for winning the patronage of princes and popes.5 The skills of positioning oneself accurately within a hierarchical network and behaving accordingly were fundamental in this society, and they were inculcated young. Earlier in Alberti’s dialogue, in a discussion of the upbringing of children—or, more precisely, of boys—a speaker emphasizes with great insistence the undesirability of allowing young boys to play alone, or to spend too much time in the company of their mothers. Instead, they must be brought into adult male company early, and taught to ‘show themselves reverent’ to their elders.6

We find similar concerns expressed in practice in a letter of Baldassare Castiglione, the author of the Italian Renaissance’s most famous conduct manual, The Book of the Courtier. Castiglione wrote to his mother in 1524, expressing pleasure at a letter he had received from his four-year-old son Camillo, who was being brought up by his grandmother after the tragically young death of his mother, while Castiglione’s professional commitments kept him from home. Castiglione asks that Camillo be instructed henceforth to sign his letters to his father ‘your respectful son and servant’.7 Although, to modern eyes, this instruction may seem pompous and cold, the reason Castiglione gives is revealing: not that he is concerned for his own dignity, but that he wishes Camillo to ‘make a start on learning to be humano’.8 The term might be translated as ‘civilized’ or ‘mannerly’, but literally, of course, it means ‘human’. To be fully human in Renaissance Italy was to be socialized to a relational culture in which each quasi-instinctively knew his place.


Although it is certainly important justly to weigh the importance of the relational and collective elements in Renaissance selfhood, Burckhardt’s thesis of the Renaissance as the birthplace of individualism does not need to be completely discarded. The modern Western notion of the individual self did not spring into life fully formed in the Renaissance, as Burckhardt suggests, but nor did it emerge only later, from the Enlightenment or Romanticism. Rather, it was the product of a long evolution, in which the period in which we are interested here forms an important chapter. In investigating Renaissance individualism, we do not need to embrace Burckhardt’s particular, heroic, self-sufficient model of the individual. Individualism may be conceptualized more neutrally, as a set of practices and discourses geared to articulating and memorializing what are perceived as the distinctive physical and moral traits of particular people. Understood in this sense, it seems indisputable that the Italian Renaissance saw individualism on the rise.

The most dramatic sign of this is the re-emergence in this period of a tradition of realist portraiture, intended to preserve the physical appearance of particular individuals. Throughout the long centuries of the Middle Ages, the impulse to such distinctive physical memorializing does not appear to have been keenly felt. Kings, queens, popes, powerful barons were content to be recorded through generic images, evocative of rank and majesty, but not the haecceitas (‘thisness’) of the individual person (to quote a revealing scholastic concept, first formulated in the thirteenth century). By contrast, from the fifteenth century onwards, we can register a great tide of realist portraiture, not merely of rulers and dignitaries but of the urban and cultural elites in general: medics, lawyers, merchants, academics, writers, artists, actors, buffoons.

Numerous factors, economic, social and cultural, may be adduced as contributing to this new attention to the individual. The emergence of urban, commercial societies in Italy and the Low Countries in the late Middle Ages, and the secularization of values that accompanied this development, encouraged more robust and affirmative attitudes to human attainment and human potential. At the same time, increasing wealth and the rise of consumer culture produced new material vehicles for self-expression, through dress, jewellery, ornament, art. Developments within religious culture may also be adduced, such as the spread of the practice of individual, private (‘auricular’) confession in the thirteenth century, which, it has been speculated, encouraged the development of more self-conscious forms of subjectivity.9 Even technological advances, for example in mirror-making, had a part to play in fostering the new culture of individual selfhood. Convex glass mirrors were available in Europe from the fourteenth century, along with more traditional metal mirrors, but, from the fifteenth, Venetian mirror-makers evolved a new and clearer species of glass known as cristallo. In the sixteenth century, fresh technological advances allowed for the production of large-scale, flat cristallo mirrors, silvered with mercury. Renaissance man could see himself more clearly than his medieval forebears in a very literal sense.10

Also important in the development of Renaissance individualism, initially at an elite level, was the recuperation of classical culture. This refamiliarized Renaissance thinkers with the sophisticated resources Graeco-Roman culture had evolved for representing the individual. In addition to the tradition of realist portraiture, evinced most accessibly through portraits of emperors on Roman coins, classical literature offered a rich and articulated body of writings that served to represent historically identifiable individuals, whether objectively or subjectively, ranging from biographies like Plutarch’s Lives and dialogues featuring historically identifiable speakers, like Plato’s or Cicero’s, to the gossipy, informative letters of Cicero and Pliny and Horace’s autobiographical verse epistles. All these writings contain an element of portraiture, or self-portraiture, and the first-person writings, in particular, engendered an enticing illusion of knowing a complex and distinctive self from within.

The significance of humanism as a cultural frame for the re-emergence of individualism is well illustrated by the fact that some of the earliest realist representations we have of identifiable individuals in this period stem from the contexts in which humanism first flourished. The Paduan banker Enrico Scrovegni, a contemporary and compatriot of the early fourteenth-century humanist Albertino Mussato, discussed in Chapter 2, commissioned no fewer than three portraits of himself for his funerary chapel, the famous Arena Chapel, frescoed by Giotto. In addition to a painted donor portrait by Giotto, Scrovegni is represented in two anonymous sculptures, one a reclining tomb portrait, the other a free-standing statue, both remarkable for their precocious naturalism.11 At the end of the century, still in Padua, the first realist portrait medals of the Renaissance were struck, representing Francesco I Carrara and his son.12

The humanist context was also important for the re-emergence of modes of realist literary portraiture and self-portraiture. Petrarch is the outstanding figure here, important especially for his vast collection of letters, written over a period of some 40 years, from the 1340s, following his discovery of Cicero’s letters to Atticus in Verona. In the early fifteenth century, Leonardo Bruni wrote the first neo-Ciceronian dialogue featuring speech-portraits of contemporary intellectuals, and the first self-standing humanist biographies (of Cicero, in 1413, and of Dante and Petrarch, in the 1430s). In 1438, Leon Battista Alberti composed the first humanist autobiography, written in the third-person form of Caesar’s Commentaries. Other classical autobiographical genres revived by the humanists included the Horatian verse epistle, the pastoral eclogue, and the love elegy in the manner of Catullus, Ovid, or Propertius, the latter cross-fertilizing with a existing tradition of love lyric rooted in the medieval Christian culture of courtly love. These revived classical (and classical-medieval fusion) genres became some of the most widely practised literary forms of the Italian Renaissance in the sixteenth century, serving as the prime humanistic vehicles for the crafting of idealized social selves.

Visual and literary portraiture developed across the fifteenth century with equal impetus and sometimes in parallel. Petrarch was not only the founding figure in the humanistic literature of self-representation, but he was also the first poet to celebrate the art of portraiture in verse, in two famous sonnets describing a supposed portrait of his beloved Laura by the Sienese artist Simone Martini. Alberti, the author of the first humanist autobiography, also sculpted the first artistic self-portrait of the age, on a bronze plaque of the 1430s. As the tradition of visual portraiture developed, painters sought means to vivify their portraits, partly in order to counter poets’ jibes that painting was limited to surfaces, while poetry could convey a person’s inner moral qualities and mental life. Thus the profile format of early portraiture, based on ancient coins, gave way to the three-quarters and the full-view portrait; painters incorporated suggestions of movement and fugitive expressions such as smiles to enhance the sense of human presence and suggest temporality; and stage-setting became common in portraits, with ‘props’ like books, antiquities, and letters introduced to evoke sitters’ intellectual and emotional lives.

In addition to portraiture, by the sixteenth century, new vehicles had developed for individual self-expression, reflecting the spread of consumer culture. Fashion was one. Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier advises that a man should follow ‘usage’ in dress, but acknowledges that such usage varies widely in modern Italy, to the extent that ‘anyone is free to dress as he wishes’.13 It is quite clear from Castiglione’s discussion, however, that dress is viewed both as a key form of self-expression and a potential minefield, if mismanaged. A man must ‘decide how he wishes to seem, and to be considered by others, and dress accordingly’, knowing that poor choices may lead him to be regarded as foolish or lacking in taste.14 Castiglione’s letters to his mother, who acted as his main wardrobe mistress, document very well the attention to detail needed to follow this prescription, in a culture in which a fashion dynamic was beginning to establish itself, with the result that clothes needed to be not merely of fine quality, but also to correspond to the latest stylistic shifts. A plaintive letter of 1509 records that ‘since I had that marten-fur lining made, the fashion [usanza] has arrived here of cutting garments more amply, so that I’m finding it much too short for the type of things we wear now’.15 Castiglione requests a cloak from his mother in Mantua as a matter of urgency, claiming that a garment of sufficient quality is not to be found in Urbino, where he is stationed. His only alternative would be to seek one out in Rome at an exorbitant price.

Perhaps the most striking manifestation of the Renaissance culture of individualism was the popularity of ‘emblems’ or ‘devices’, which constituted a kind of individual heraldry to complement the traditional collective heraldic imagery worn by noble families or chivalric orders. Emblems consisted of an allegorical image accompanied by a motto, in Latin, Greek, or Italian. They were intended to express the moral qualities or personal philosophy of a given individual, and, more implicitly, his erudition and wit. One of the earliest and most famous emblems is that of Leon Battista Alberti: a winged eye, shedding thunderbolts, accompanied by the cryptic motto, quid tum? (‘What then?’ or ‘So what?’). The image, Alberti explained, represents the divine capacity to survey all things, his inspiration as philosopher and artist, while the motto, a Virgilian allusion, has sometimes been taken as an ironic reference to Alberti’s illegitimacy.16 Originating in humanist circles in the fifteenth century, the practice of devising emblems was popularized in the sixteenth, to the point of becoming a positive craze. The wealthy had emblems woven into their garments; sculpted on the reverse of portrait medals; painted on their tableware. By the second half of the sixteenth century, printed compendia of emblems were available glossing the emblems devised by prominent figures, making this aristocratic practice of public self-definition available to a wide public.

Quite how rich the repertoire of vehicles for the expression of individualism was by the sixteenth century is best illustrated by a famous example. Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, marchioness of Mantua, won herself a Europe-wide celebrity far in advance of that which her status, however exalted, would automatically have conferred on her. She was one of the first dynastic consorts in Italy to reach out beyond the ‘safe’ formula for cultural self-expression that had established itself as a norm for aristocratic women, centred on the patronage of convents and other ecclesiastical institutions. Instead, Isabella’s prime energies in the field of art patronage were concentrated on antiquity collecting and the crafting of domestic space to project a learned and sophisticated humanistic self-image—forms of self-expression largely limited before her time to men.17 Her various studioli and other palace spaces, decorated by artists of the calibre of Andrea Mantegna and Antonio da Correggio, are justly some of the most-studied interiors of the period.18Besides paintings proclaiming Isabella’s moral virtues, such as Mantegna’s image of an armed Minerva, goddess of wisdom, expelling a horde of grotesquely rendered vices, Isabella’s studioli were studded with ingenious emblems and with a famous motto, Nec spe nec metu (with neither hope nor fear), which positioned Isabella as a Stoic sage.

In addition to these more oblique cultural self-portraits, Isabella was a serial commissioner of literal, physical portraits (which often recycled previous images of her, as she did not have the patience to sit long). Among the most famous was a portrait medal of 1498 by Giancristoforo Romano, showing Isabella in her mid-twenties, with a learned reverse showing an allegory of Peace, together with an inscription that Isabella commissioned from the poet Niccolò da Correggio (having rejected an earlier proposal by Correggio on the revealing grounds that it was not unique to her). The medal was widely distributed, and other portraits were almost certainly based on it, including a famous drawing by Leonardo now in the Louvre. Giancristoforo Romano was also responsible for a marble bust of Isabella, now lost, and probably for a highly idealized terracotta statue of her now at the Kimbell Art Gallery in Fort Worth, while a lost painted portrait of her by Francesco Francia as a youthful beauty survives in a copy she ordered from Titian at the end of her life. Other artists’ efforts pleased her less, almost certainly because their representations were less idealizing. An early portrait of her by Mantegna was destroyed on her orders with the irate comment that ‘he has portrayed us so ill that it does not resemble us in the least’.19

In addition to these more established means of self-expression, Isabella d’Este pioneered others, especially fashion. Her iconic status in this regard may be measured by a 1515 letter from her son Federico Gonzaga, temporarily stationed at the French court as a political hostage, asking for a fashion doll or dolls, illustrating ‘the fashions that become you, in shirts, sleeves, undergarments, outer garments, dresses, headdresses, and hairstyles’.20 Federico notes that this was at the request of the king of France, François I, who wanted this information so that he could use it to have clothes made for the ladies of his court. Federico also seems to have been besieged by the French court ladies themselves, intrigued by accounts of Isabella’s prolific palace perfume laboratory; in a letter of 1516, he requests from her ‘perfumes in large quantities to give to these ladies … and sufficient gloves [to perfume, as was the custom], and a jar of hand soap that is large enough to give to many women, and, again, oils, powders, and waters’.21

As this episode illustrates, a powerful individual ‘brand image’ such as Isabella d’Este forged could have considerable currency within an increasingly fashion-conscious Europe. Co-ruler of a small Italian state, Isabella exploited her taste and ingenuity to lever herself soft power within one of the most powerful courts in Europe. She managed her brand cannily, noting in one letter of 1516 that she would be happy to release a sought-after recipe for an ointment to the queen, but not just to any lady of the court.22 Further evidence of Isabella’s reach is offered by a fascinating letter from the Mantuan ambassador in Naples in 1507, reporting on the reactions of the queen of Spain, Germaine de Foix, and the daughters of the Spanish Viceroy of Naples, Gonzalo de Córdoba, on seeing Isabella’s medal by Giancristoforo Romano, with its classicising portrait and humanistic reverse. The queen, in the ambassador’s report, comments not only on the beauty of the image, but the indications it gives of Isabella’s ‘great intellect’, of which she had heard very often.23 Although there is clearly a large element of flattery here, we can also read this as a response to the novelty of the image that Isabella presented, and the possibilities she revealed to her aristocratic observers of how they might fashion themselves in turn.


A useful concept in understanding the way in which Renaissance Italians of the social elite constituted and articulated their social identities is the rhetorical notion of ethos. Together with logos (reasoning or argument) and pathos (the management of emotion), this was one of the key components of rhetorical persuasion, within the Aristotelian-Ciceronian tradition of eloquence. A speaker’s ethos is composed both of the cultural capital he brings to his speech from his external reputation, and the impression of character he creates for himself through his speech and gesturality. These should be carefully calculated to project qualities such as dignity, intellect, sincerity, and poise. The notion of ethos implies an element of conscious and artful performance, of acting: a parallel Cicero underlines in his dialogue De oratore when he has a speaker declare himself ‘not the actor of another’s persona, but the author of my own’.24 Importantly, ethos had a relational and interactive aspect, very different from our own, more stable notion of a person’s ‘character’. The orator was instructed to modulate his speech according to the audience he was addressing and the circumstances of his speech, and his ethos must vary accordingly. Flexibility was hence a core element in the orator’s skill-set. Rather than a sole, God-given character, he needed to be able to dispose of a repertoire of ‘characters’ almost in the literary sense, finely calibrated to different occasions and agendas.

This notion of identity as flexible, malleable, performative is one of the most distinctive and intriguing features of Renaissance elite culture. One important philosophical work of the period, a speech by Giovanni Pico della Mirandola popularly known as Oration on the Dignity of Man(1486), places the potential for self-metamorphosis at the very core of what it is to be human, comparing man to the shape-shifting ancient sea-god Proteus. For Pico, God had created all creation on a ladder of ascending dignity (the ‘scale of being’), with angels at the top, followed by animals, plants, and inert matter. All were fixed in their positions in this quasi-feudal, static structure, with no possibility of deviating from their God-given nature. Man alone, created last, when this structure was already in place, was endowed with the freedom to craft himself as he wished. According to his moral choices, he may descend to the level of a beast, or he may rise through philosophical contemplation to attain union with the divine. In the words Pico gives to God, in a stirring address to the first man, Adam: ‘We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in the form you will prefer.’25

While Pico develops his notion of man’s chameleon nature in an essentially optimistic manner, emphasizing the philosopher’s ability to transcend his mortal state, others regarded this same capacity for change with greater wariness. A popular moral theme of the day was man’s capacity for simulation and dissimulation. ‘Our souls harbour so many dark nooks and recesses’, a speaker notes in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, ‘that it is quite impossible for human prudence to discover the simulations that lurk within.’26A recent study argues that a key cultural feature of the period was an enhanced awareness of the distance between potentially conflicting ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, ‘private’ and ‘public’ selves, reinforced in the climate of increasing religious intolerance in the second half of the sixteenth century, when many Italians of heterodox belief retreated into a prudent ‘Nicodemism’ (outward conformity to the dominant religion).27 Within political life, Machiavelli, in The Prince, notoriously identified an ability to simulate and dissimulate flawlessly as a key professional skill for the ruler. Where Pico had spoken of man ascending to the nature of the angels or descending to that of the beasts, Machiavelli argues that the prince must learn to be a ‘centaur’, a simultaneous amalgam of man and beast.28

Conceiving of Renaissance elite identities as a form of rhetorical performance can be helpful in understanding the portraiture of the period, though here, of course, the performance is a dual one, a collaboration of artist and sitter. The crafting of ethos in Renaissance portraiture often has an emphatic, even a hyperbolic quality, so that the portrait serves simultaneously as an evocation of an individual and an encapsulation of the qualities of an ideal type, whether prince, cardinal, humanist, lover, poet. Good examples are offered by Titian’s 1530s portraits of the duke and duchess of Urbino, Francesco Maria della Rovere and Eleonora Gonzaga (Figs 25 and 26). The duke, a well-known condottiere, or mercenary captain, is figured as the epitome of the Renaissance warrior, clad in dark gleaming armor, with a splendid, dragon-crowned helmet behind him. His assertive virility—one of the most striking features of the image is the superabundance of phallic weaponry with which the duke is surrounded—is sharply contrasted with the demure, contained figure of the duchess, the eldest daughter of Isabella d’Este. A pair of sonnets by Pietro Aretino in praise of the portraits, underlines the sharply differentiated ethos of the two sitters, he with terror gleaming from his brow and boldness in his eyes; she chaste, modest, and prudent, a figure whose inner moral harmony matches the harmony of Titian’s palette. Both portraits depict the sitters performing to perfection their sharply differentiated gender roles. 29

The difference between Renaissance and modern notions of self and identity is well illustrated by the different expectations sixteenth-century readers and modern readers bring to first-person genres such as lyric poetry. The post-Romantic reader tends to approach lyric poems as sincere expressions of the writer’s thoughts and emotions, and as windows on a writerly self conceived of as unique and individual; hence our preoccupation with originality of ‘voice’. When we approach them with these expectations, most Italian Renaissance lyrics appear stereotyped in their treatment of emotion, while their adherence to a common lexicon and style, imitated from Petrarch’s love poetry, makes individuality of voice at first difficult to discern. For much of the twentieth century, critics tended to dismiss this entire lyric school as artificial and inauthentic, only recognizing merit in poets who could be construed as rebels against Petrarchist norms. It is only relatively recently that scholars have begun to approach this body of poetry with a more sympathetic and historicizing perspective, recognizing that the poetic ‘I’ of Renaissance Petrarchism was a very different construct from the poetic ‘I’ we look for today. Renaissance readers turned to poetry in order to enjoy the spectacle of a flawless performance of what was essentially a collective, consensually defined identity.30 Poets individualized themselves within this code through their mastery of language and the subtlety with which they manipulated their inherited repertoire. Renaissance verse is no more a record of what poets ‘really felt’ than Renaissance portraiture is a straight record of what sitters really looked like. Both register less an expression, than a self-conscious enactment, of self.


Fig. 25: Titian [Tiziano Vecellio], Francesco Maria della Rovere, duke of Urbino, 1536–8.


Fig. 26: Titian [Tiziano Vecellio], Eleonora Gonzaga, duchess of Urbino, 1537–8.


A useful term in discussing Renaissance identity, much in use in scholarly discourse, is ‘self-fashioning’: a concept that originated in an influential 1980 book by the literary scholar Stephen Greenblatt.31 Influenced by the French cultural theorist Michel Foucault, Greenblatt was concerned with the ways in which state agency inflected the construction of identities—so that the subject of the verb ‘to fashion’ in the original conception of the term is society and power, rather than the person being fashioned. Today, the term ‘self-fashioning’ is generally used in a rather different sense, to indicate the way in which Renaissance men and women consciously or unconsciously crafted their social personae: a process profoundly influenced by cultural norms and power structures, but also allowing for some degree of individual agency. Here, I propose to use the term with a more specific significance, to pick out those forms of identity construction that give salience to the individual self rather than the collective self: the ‘I’, rather than the ‘we’.

One immediate thing that we may note if we survey the Renaissance Italian culture of self-fashioning, understood in this limited sense, is that the practice is not evenly distributed. Some social groups were distinctly more concerned with the expression of individuality than others. At one extreme, we may point to members of a powerful social group such as the Venetian patriciate, possessed of an unusually stable and prestigious collective identity, which was rigorously reinforced. The patriciate was a closed class, confined to a fixed number of families, the oldest of which could trace their ancestry back for many hundreds of years. They were the only Venetian citizens who could participate in government, although a lesser elite class, the ‘original citizens’ (cittadini originari) were entrusted with running the civil service. The patriciate practised something close to formal endogamy, allowing patrician status only to the legitimate offspring of patrician fathers married to women of appropriate status. Patricians and original citizens were even distinguished from their fellow Venetians by a corporate dress code. After the age of 25, men of these classes were required to wear a long black robe (with colour variations for governmental office holders) whenever they appeared in public—a rule so sedulously observed that men claiming citizen status often produced witnesses to testify that they and their fathers and grandfathers had not been seen wearing class-inappropriate clothes.

As the detail of dress suggests, the expression of individual identity was regarded with a certain suspicion in Venetian patrician culture, not least for political reasons. As one of the last surviving republics in a land in which most cities had fallen into the hands of the most ambitious of their citizens, Venice regarded with suspicion any attempt by a powerful individual to distinguish himself too sharply from his class. Venetian patricians were rarely active or creative self-fashioners, and the class produced relatively few strikingly individualized figures capable of serving as cultural role models to those outside their own immediate context. Compared to their aristocratic peers to the west and south, Venetian patricians tended to style themselves, and have themselves portrayed, in a relatively uniform manner. Only gradually, as wealthy Venetians began to invest more heavily in land and villas on the mainland, and to become more culturally assimilated with the mainland aristocracy, did the discipline of their corporate ethos begin to fade.

An exception who proves the rule of Venetian patrician ‘collectivism’ is the poet and humanist Pietro Bembo, the most famous Venetian patrician of the sixteenth century and one of the most influential cultural figures of the age. Bembo came from one of the most distinguished patrician dynasties of the city and was the son of a prominent diplomat. Like any talented man of his background, he might have been expected to advance to a career in the service of the Venetian state. Instead, Bembo struggled to find acceptance among his peers, spending his late twenties and early thirties being proposed for diplomatic and governmental posts and being rejected for each by substantial majorities, despite his father’s political influence. A proposal put forward in December 1500 that he be sent as Venetian ambassador to Hungary was defeated by 142 votes to 17.32

It seems likely that this diffidence reflected a perception of the young Bembo as somehow not quite ‘one of us’. Rather than spending his early years assiduously building up his contacts in Venice, as young patricians were supposed to, Bembo had spent much of his youth outside the city, spending two years, for example, studying Greek in Sicily, and a further two or three enjoying the glamorous court culture of Ferrara. Where Venetian patricians characteristically prepared for their political careers by gaining business experience or studying law, Bembo’s interests were literary and philosophical, more than practical, and took a vein more characteristic of contemporary court culture. One of his earliest works, written during his Ferrarese sojourn, was a vernacular philosophical dialogue on love set at the tiny court of Asolo, seemingly inspired by an unhappy love affair. Bembo published it in 1505 with a dedication to Lucrezia Borgia, duchess of Ferrara, with whom his name was romantically linked. The following year, now in his mid-thirties, Bembo came to what was an extraordinary, even scandalous decision for a Venetian patrician, entering into the service of a foreign ruler, the duke of Urbino. At the same time, he began his path to an ecclesiastical career by taking minor orders: a choice that led to important posts such as that of papal secretary in his mid-forties, and cardinal, at the end of his life. Although Venice eventually recognized Bembo’s immense cultural prestige, and conferred on him the office of civic historian and director of the Library of San Marco, he did not settle back in the city, preferring the university city of Padua instead.

Important as a poet, as a critic, and as a linguistic theorist, Bembo was also a master of self-fashioning, leaving highly curated collections of published verse and letters and a rich legacy of visual representations. Five portraits survive of him, three from the period of his cardinalate (a splendid painting by Titian showing Bembo gesturing eloquently in his cardinal’s robes (Fig. 27), and a bust and a medal by the Tuscan, Veneto-based sculptor Danese Cattaneo); and two from an earlier time (a painting by Lucas Cranach the Younger and a medal by Valerio Belli, showing on the reverse Bembo poetically reclining in a pastoral landscape, dressed in a toga). Two other portraits, by Raphael and by Titian, are recorded, while there is evidence that Bembo also sought a medal-portrait from Benvenuto Cellini.33 Where literary self-portraiture is concerned, Bembo’sverse collection, first published in 1530, played a key role in shaping the characteristic sixteenth-century format for such volumes, mingling love poetry in the Petrarchan manner with occasional verse addressed to aristocratic friends and patrons, so as to show off the poet both as melancholy love-obsessive and well-acquainted man about town. Bembo also well exemplifies the role of collecting in humanist self-fashioning. His house in Padua was famed for its remarkable collections of Roman coins, inscriptions, and statuary, and for its rich library, which included treasures such as a fourth-century illustrated fragment of Virgil, one of only a handful of illustrated codices to survive from the ancient world.34


Fig. 27: Titian [Tiziano Vecellio], Cardinal Pietro Bemboc. 1540.

As the example of Bembo illustrates, some social environments in Italy—notably the courts—were better suited than others to individual self-expression. This was true for men, but it is even more markedly so for women of the social elites. Venice, again, marks a kind of extreme. It was noted in Italy for the seclusion in which it kept its noblewomen, and the strictness of the mores it imposed on them. Chastity, modesty, and submissiveness were the qualities most prized in Venetian wives, while cultural attainment and social sophistication seem to have been relatively undervalued. If we except the errant Bianca Cappello, who eloped at the age of 15 with a Florentine banker and became the lover and finally wife of Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, it is difficult to think of any Venetian noblewoman of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries who became a cultural celebrity during her lifetime, or who was sufficiently distinctive as a personality to act as a role model for others. It is primarily the courts which produced women of this type, as we saw with the figure of Isabella d’Este.

In addition to these geocultural considerations, a further general point that may usefully be made about the practice of individual self-fashioning in Renaissance Italy is that some of the most virtuoso self-fashioners in this period were men and women whose social status was relatively fluid or ambiguous. Leon Battista Alberti, whom we noted above as a pioneer of autobiography and self-portraiture, offers an intriguing example of this dynamic at work. Alberti was born into one of the wealthiest and most powerful Florentine merchant-banking dynasties, but his family had been exiled from Florence for political reasons, and he was born in Genoa, to a Genoese mother. Alberti was, moreover, illegitimate and, although he was raised and educated in a manner befitting a man of his patrician status, he was never legitimized. He made his career in the papal court, and in various other court settings, relying on his intellect and talent to make his way, more than family connections. He never lived for an extended period in Florence, although he visited the city after the Alberti family’s exile was revoked. His life was hence very different from that of a man of his class born legitimately and residing for his entire life in his city, embedded from birth in the social and familial networks he would remain in until old age. Although Alberti was highly successful in career terms, enjoying the patronage of popes and princes, he remained deliberately disengaged from certain powerful, identity-shaping social choices. He never married, nor did he embrace full clerical status, taking only minor religious orders. The same is true of Petrarch, another key figure in the history of Renaissance self-fashioning, and another deracinated Florentine bachelor, born to a family in exile.


Fig. 28: Anon., portrait medal of Pietro Aretino with a reverse of a satyr’s head made up of phalluses.

A further very striking example of a figure of ambiguous background who crafted himself a memorable, distinctive, and highly individualized persona is Pietro Aretino, name-checked above as the author of a letter on Titian’s portraits of the duke and duchess of Urbino. Aretino came from a humble background; he was the son of a shoemaker of Arezzo who abandoned his wife when the young Pietro was a child. Pietro was raised by his mother, who had become the mistress of a wealthy nobleman, and he clearly received some form of education, although nothing like the refined humanist education of a man like Alberti. It is not clear that he even studied Latin. Initially trained as a painter, Aretino made his career mainly as a prodigiously prolific writer for the press, known for his letter-collections, his comedies, and his satirical and erotic writings. After a youth spent mainly at the papal court in Rome, and a brief spell in Mantua, Aretino lived for most of his mature life in the printing capital of Venice, where it was possible to make an independent career as a professional writer. He never married, and made no secret of his libertine lifestyle; one of his many portraits, a medal, depicts on the reverse a satyr’s head concocted, Archimboldo-style, out of an agglomeration of phalluses (Fig. 28).35 One of the most distinctive figures of the age, Aretino excelled as a self-publicist, mesmerizing his contemporaries by the spectacle of his hyperbolic enactment of self. In an age that revered politeness and decorum, he created himself a deliberately outspoken persona, as a fearless speaker of unwelcome truths (the poet Ariosto coined for him the epithet ‘the scourge of princes’). In an age that saw study and imitation as the chief means to developing style, he proclaimed himself the ‘secretary of Nature’, writing spontaneously what came to his pen.36 In many ways, Aretino was the antithesis of the kind of polite, polished, courtly self to which so many of his contemporaries aspired, and a figure like Bembo was more influential as a role-model. Only with the Venetian libertines of the seventeenth century did Aretino’s irreverent and provocative style come to acquire a new appeal.


‘Uniqueness’—the basis of Burckhardtian individualism—was certainly a concept available to Renaissance thinkers. The encomiastic literature of the time was replete with bold claims for the singularity and unrepeatability of the person being praised. Sonnets, funeral orations, florid book dedications never tired of repeating that the subject of praise was rare, singular, matchless, unique of his kind. The poet Bernardo Accolti was celebrated with the nickname l’Unico Aretino, ‘the Unique Aretine’—a title that must have lost something of its lustre when Pietro Aretino rose to the height of his fame. The poet, singer, and philosopher Tarquinia Molza, one of the most accomplished women of the later Renaissance, proudly chose l’Unica as her academic name when she was elected to the Parmese ‘Academy of the Unnamed’ (Accademia degli Innominati).

Given this, it seems difficult to deny a degree of truth to Burckhardt’s thesis about the Italian Renaissance as an age of individualism. The aim of the present chapter has been to attempt to ascertain precisely how far that individualism went. It certainly did not constitute a kind of proto-modern atomism, in which relational and collective identities were attenuated. Most Renaissance Italians were deeply embedded in social contexts that called such common identities to the fore. Only, perhaps, in an avant-garde social context such as the cosmopolitan circles surrounding the print shops of Venice, where Pietro Aretino played out his extraordinary career, do we begin to see something approaching the kind of environment where a more modern ‘individual’ might thrive.

The present chapter has concentrated on self-fashioning within the elites, but it is a question worth asking how far down the social hierarchy this practice extended. Interesting recent work in social history suggests that modes of material self-expression associated with the Renaissance elites, such as fashion, domestic luxury, and fine dining, had found some purchase within the households of upper artisans by the mid-sixteenth century. Inventories of artisans’ homes in Siena in 1549–50 record a tailor, Pietro, as possessing a gilded marble bowl, a gilded all’antica cup, two gilt knives, and a gilt fork—the utensils presumably to be used in tableside carving—while a shoemaker, Girolamo, had a display credenza decorated with an ornamental basin, a tablecloth, and a textile hanging emblazoned with his family coat of arms.37 In Venice, there is evidence of servant-class women running into debt by renting clothes and jewellery, presumably of a higher quality than the work clothes with which their employees supplied them, while literary texts comment on artisans’ wives dressing sumptuously in gold chains and pearls.38

There are intriguing suggestions, as well, that the practice of portraiture was beginning to spread beyond the elites by the mid-sixteenth century. Pietro Aretino snobbishly complained in 1545 that ‘tailors and butchers’ were appearing in portraits, while the art theorist Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo commented reprovingly in 1584 that such works were being commissioned by ‘plebeians and the base’ (plebei e vili).39 It is not easy to find empirical evidence to bear out these claims that artisans commissioned portraits, although a noteworthy exception is discussed in Chapter 5, in the form of Giovanni Battista Moroni’s The Tailor. While Moroni’s sitter is portrayed with the tools of his trade, however, making identification simple, it does not seem obvious that all artisans commissioning portraits would wish to be portrayed in this manner. It is quite possible that some of the many sixteenth-century portraits of unidentified sitters that we find labelled in galleries as ‘Portrait of a Man’, or even as ‘Portrait of a Gentleman’, silently attest to this tradition of artisan portraiture, just as some works labelled ‘Portrait of a Lady’ may represent ambitiously dressed artisans’ wives.

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