"A Woman, Possibly a Nun of San Secondo", approx. 3"x 4", by Jacometto Veneziano, oil on wood , ca. 1485 - 1495
Robert Lehman collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Alvise Contarini", by Jacometto Veneziano, approx. 3 1/2" x 5", oil on wood,
Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Recently I had the pleasure of seeing several very special shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Italian art from the Renaissance, and in particular, The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini held my interest for hours! What a fascinating show it is, which winds up not only revealing the early history of portraiture, but also becomes a virtual survey of some of the important transitions which artists were making at that time from the medium of egg tempera to oil, and variations thereof.
Among larger masterpieces and sculptures were many profile portraits, so characteristic of this period, but also these two miniature paintings, which happen to be part of the Met's permanent collection. An early 16th century reference identifies this pair as Alvise Contarini and a nun of San Secundo. Possibly they were once a couple and the woman later became a nun after the death of her husband. She certainly looks nun-like to the contemporary eye, yet according to Renaissance dress codes, she is still wearing secular garb in her portrait.
But looking at how these are painted, is it possible that what is labelled 'oil on wood' might actually be tempera grassa, which could account for the very fine level of detail in the woman's hair and in the man's zazzera, a fashionable Renaissance haircut? Tempera grassa, also known as egg-oil emulsion, is a version of egg tempera which is made with oil and egg instead of water and egg, or sometimes oil in combination with water and egg. Tempera grassa recipes vary to this day, but still carry the feeling of an oil painting. In this show some of the paintings were labelled 'tempera and oil on wood'. If it's possible these miniatures were not exclusively done in oils, Veneziano may have either used a layered combination of the two mediums or tempera grassa itself. In any case, as an egg tempera painter, it was fascinating for me to see the ways in which tempera and oil were being used, and even how the application of the paint itself imitated egg tempera brush 'hatching' in some of the early oils in this show which spans 100 years or so.