Renaissance Painters "Corrected" Portrait Features
May 10, 2005 Forensics Reveals Renaissance Art Tricks
By Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News
Eleonora da Toledo's Portrait
Renaissance artists acted like plastic surgeons by changing the shape of noses, chins and jaws in their portraits, new forensic technology has revealed.
Developed by Italian researchers during an investigation of 16th century skeletal remains, the procedure has turned into an invaluable tool for art historians.
"Indeed, the study offered a chance to use forensic methods to investigate an intriguing theme: the likeness of a Renaissance portrait," Franco Rollo of the University of Camerino and colleagues write in the current issue of the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
Rollo developed the new technique while studying a skeleton at the Church of Santa Chiara in Urbino, Italy. The remains were thought to belong to the Duchess Eleonora Gonzaga della Rovere (1493-1550), a member of one of the most prominent families of the Italian Renaissance.
But experts could not rule out that they belonged to the Duchess of Urbino Battista Sforza, the wife of Duke Federico of Montefeltro.
"Our examination of the skull and our age estimate — Eleonora died at 56, Battista at 25 — suggested the skeleton belonged to Eleonora, but the final evidence came from a newly developed technique of cranio-facial superimposition," Rollo told Discovery News.
Rollo superimposed digital pictures and three-dimensional scanning of the skull onto the face of Eleonora Gonzaga, as it was portrayed by Titian in the painting on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
"The picture of the skull was pasted onto that of the portrait and its opacity reduced to 50 percent of the original. At this point, the dimensions of the skull were modified, keeping their relative proportion constant, to fit the portrait," said the researchers.
It emerged that Titian's painting of Eleonora matched the skull fairly closely except for the length of the nose, which is clearly exaggerated.
In an attempt to shed some light on the meaning of this alteration, the researchers examined other six idealized female characters painted by Titian in the years 1514-1555: "Sacred and Profane Love" at the Borghese Gallery in Rome; "La Bella" at Palazzo Pitti in Florence; "Salome" at the Doria Pamphili Gallery in Rome; "Venus with the Mirror" at the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and "Venus of Urbino and Flora" at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
"We discovered that the original portrait of Eleonora basically matched the six idealized women. It means that Titian painted his portraits following the standards of his own canon of beauty, which included a longer than average nose," Rollo said.
Applied to the Medicis
The researchers also applied the cranio-facial superimposition to several famous portraits of the Medicis, the family that dominated the Florentine Renaissance.
"Many members of the Medicis are being exhumed in a project which aims to reconstruct how they lived and died. We could not miss the chance to compare their skulls with the Renaissance portraits," Rollo said.
Working with the Medici project leader Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the Pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, Rollo has so far applied the technique to the remains of Cosimo I, his wife Eleonora da Toledo, their sons Giovanni and Garcia, the Grand Duke Francesco I and his wife, the Archduchess Joanna of Austria.
"We discovered that the Renaissance artists carried out their plastic surgery mostly on the males of the Medici family. Cosimo I had a heavy and large jaw, but in the portrait by Bronzino kept at the Uffizi Gallery he appears with sweeter traits," Fornaciari told Discovery News.
Grand Duke Cosimo I (1519-1574) was responsible for the expansion of Florence to control most of Tuscany and for the creation of the Uffizi, first intended to house the government, and now one of the world's greatest art galleries.
"Cosimo's large jaw was consistent with his image of a powerful man, so it might appear strange that the artists softened his traits. But the purpose was to show a reassuring, cultured man," Fornaciari said.
His forensic investigation revealed that Cosimo I's wife Eleonora da Toledo (1522-1562), beautifully portrayed by Agnolo Bronzino in a painting on display at the National Gallery in Prague, was five feet tall (1.58 meter), had a protruding chin, twisted legs, suffered from toothache and had shin splints, caused by an inflammation of the outer layer of the bone that occurs often during the later stages of syphilis.
"However, the portrait shows a beautiful lady, and comparison with the skull reveals that the painting is rather realistic, except for the chin. The artist portrayed her from above, using a perspective trick. In this way the chin appears more regular," Rollo said.
According to art historian Antonio Paolucci, the superintendent of museums in Tuscany, the forensic research "is intriguing."
"It reveals new and very interesting aspects of the way Renaissance artists worked," he said.