She holds the ermine firmly against her chest with long fingers. You can sense its rapid heartbeat and tensile energy at her touch as it digs its claws into the red velvet of her sleeve. Cecilia Gallerani is caught in motion, turning to greet someone while keeping her phallic-snouted pet under control. She beholds this invisible person calmly. Her self-possession is as striking as her gentle mastery of the fierce mammal in her arms.
Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, usurping ruler of Milan, is a secular parody of one of the holiest of Christian artistic themes: the Madonna and Child. In his youth Leonardo made explosively dynamic studies of children holding animals and women playing with children, including designs for a Madonna and Child with a cat. Yet when he first tried to progress from these sketches to painting the Virgin he came, by his standards, unstuck. The Madonna of the Carnation and Madonna Litta – if the latter is actually by him – are awkward paintings caught between stasis and eccentricity. He could not find in the traditional theme of Virgin and Child what he saw in his brilliant sketches of women, infants and animals on the move. He finds it instead in his portrait of Gallerani, which he painted in Milan c. 1489–91. He gives this young woman a squirming animal in her arms instead of a child. Cecilia Gallerani’s presence is electric, her nerves, muscles, bones all working from the duty of childcare. Instead, she symbolically exerts erotic power over the beast that embodies Ludovico Sforza.
A decade later, in April 1498, Isabella d’Este, marchioness of Mantua, an avid art enthusiast, wrote to Gallerani asking to borrow the picture. She had just been looking at portraits by the Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini, and ‘we began to discuss the works of Leonardo and had a desire to make a comparison between the two; remembering that he painted your likeness, we entreat that, with this rider whom we have sent for this purpose, you kindly send your portrait so we may satisfy our wish to see them compared, and also because I wish to see your face and as soon as we have made our examination we will return it.’
Gallerani gladly obliged, although she no longer looked like the same woman – the result of time’s changes, she assured Isabella, and not any failing by Leonardo. She could not even have had such an anxiety a century earlier because in the 1300s there were no convincing portraits to fix a face in time. One of the most instantly popular artistic innovations of the 15th century was the portrayal of people with mirror-like believability. It was not just faces but bodies that became more real; not just bodies but the rooms or piazzas where they posed. Italians called the new method that made all this possible prospettiva, ‘perspective’, an art grounded in the scientific analysis of space that could turn a flat surface into a window on a three-dimensional world. Out of that deep space conjured from flatness real people stared back at you or ignored you as they got on with their business of praying, washing, feeding a baby, holding an ermine. The new art saw people as unique realities in space – and in time. Gallerani is presented by Leonardo not in some frozen eternity but at a specific moment. Seconds earlier she may have bent down to pick up the ermine. Afterwards the animal may have dug its claws into her arm and broken free. But this is here and now.
This ability to look at the world at a given moment was a distinctive cultural development of Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. In Italy it was partly achieved by vying with ancient pagan Greek and Roman literature and the ruins of classical civilization. The architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote that Florence in the 1430s was creating wonders like those of ancient times. Botticelli’s Primavera, one of the best-loved of all Florentine paintings, both celebrates rebirth in nature and ‘rebirths’ the old pagan gods.
It was in the 19th century that historians elevated such a ‘rebirth’ into the historical period they called the ‘Renaissance’. The French Romantic writer Jules Michelet celebrated this ‘Renaissance’ as a secular reaction against the superstition and ignorance of ‘le Moyen Age’. That idea of a glorious escape from the Middle Ages, dancing towards the liberal modern society the Victorian age believed itself to be, is also celebrated in Jacob Burckhardt’s 1861 historical classic The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, which defines the spirit of this age as ‘the discovery of the world and of man’, and in Walter Pater’s sensual 1873 rhapsody on the art of Botticelli and Leonardo, Studies in the History of the Renaissance.
Today the very concept of the Renaissance is seen by many historians as a wheezing old steam train, a 19th-century construct that says almost nothing about what university courses define instead as the Early Modern period. If anything, the secular rational ‘rebirth’ happened in the 18th century – or never did. The Renaissance is still studied, but it is widely seen as a muted, peripheral phenomenon of elite culture rather than an explosive vanguard of modernity. ‘To speak of Renaissance may be helpful if we keep in mind the limitations of the context in which we use the word,’ J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad warn bleakly in the sixth edition of The Penguin History of the World, ‘but it falsifies history if we take it to imply a transformation of culture marking a radical break with medieval Christian civilisation.’
As an art critic who has been looking at Renaissance art ever since visiting Florence as a child and falling for Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli, I can’t share that cynicism. It is impossible to agree with Roberts and Westad when you walk through the chronologically arranged rooms of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and see how completely the nature of art was revolutionized in the 1400s. In early rooms, the medieval paintings of Giotto, Duccio and Simone Martini have their own power, yet there’s a sudden burst into bloom when you see the three-dimensional knights of Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, the delicate human face of Fra Filippo Lippi’s Virgin in front of a window looking out onto a hilly landscape, and soon the early works of Leonardo himself. The change is not a superficial one. Instead, it seems to me, the new eye for nature, reality and individual people reflects, or maybe created, a new way of experiencing the world. Renaissance eyes are fixed on this life, not the next. This is the art of a Europe discovering the world and itself.
That can be seen even more clearly if we step away from the very Italian story the Uffizi tells and head to Northern Europe instead. Perspective, the revolutionary new way of organizing perception, was proudly touted by Florence as a discovery. Yet it was already in use in a more polished form, heightened by the use of glossy oil paints, in early 15th century Bruges. This is not an attempt to play off Jan van Eyck against his Italian contemporaries. While this book sets North European art alongside Italian throughout, the point is not to belittle the Italian Renaissance. It is to understand it in Europe’s history. For if the same new eye for reality appeared independently at both ends of Europe at the same time in the early 1400s, that suggests the negation of the Renaissance as a historical phenomenon couldn’t be more wrong. This obsession with picturing bodies and faces in deep space appears to be nothing less than a transformation in mentalities, of a quite profound kind whose consequences are still reverberating.