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Grafton Reflects On Portraits As Art

For The Heights

Published: Monday, November 19, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01


On Thursday, Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam Professor of History at Princeton University, gave a lecture as part of the Lowell Humanities Series. His lecture was titled, “The Florence Renaissance Portrait: Cultural Origins of a New Art Form.”
“[In the early 15th Century], Florence had become Italy’s preeminent place for artistic innovation, a place where artists experimented with new ways of representing just about everything,” Grafton said.
Artists were interested in the portrait because of the rise of humanism. This change led to the cultural glorification of the individual in art, literature, and philosophy. Grafton noted that the portrait, in the form of literature, was just as culturally significant as the visual portrait that most are familiar with.
“Nothing filled artists or patrons in Florence with more enthusiasm than the portrait, and no area of art saw more innovation. Florentine artists used every medium you can imagine to craft images of individuals. They molded metal, they carved marble, [and] they worked with soft clay,” Grafton said. 
Grafton’s lecture included a wide range of artists and their accompanying works, specifically those that influenced the evolution of the portrait during that time period. His lecture included mention of Brunelleschi’s use of one-point perspective and its artistic influence, and the many works of Leon Battista Alberti.
Alberti is regarded most notably for being an archetype of the “renaissance man.” Grafton described Alberti as a “prolific and expert portraitist” who believed that “man can make anything of themselves if they so wished.”
“In fact, Alberti tells his readers [in his autobiography] that he crafted his whole life as a work of art,” Grafton said. “‘Above all,’ he said, ‘one must apply the most sublime artistry in three things: walking in the city, riding a horse, and speaking. But a further art must be added to the other three, namely that none of these seem to be done in an artful way.’ Only by finding the supreme art that comes with no apparent effort could one become a hero of the sort Alberti hoped to be.”
Grafton said that Italian Renaissance portraits acknowledged human complexities, beautifully showcased artistic ability, and were key to human understanding. 
Virginia Reinburg, associate professor of history at Boston College, said, “Tony Grafton has become a singular spokesperson and advocate in recent years for the humanities in American higher education and public life, insisting eloquently that deep knowledge of history, philosophy, the classics and literature provide a necessary foundation for civic engagement and public discourse.”
Grafton has earned numerous humanities-related awards and honors. He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Balzan Prize for History of Humanities, and the Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award. He is also a member of the American Philosophical Society and the British Academy. Last year, he served as the president of the American Historical Association.
Grafton has written many critically acclaimed books, including The Footnote: A Curious History, Defenders of the Text: The Traditions of Scholarship in an Age of Science, Bring Out Your Dead: The Past as Revelation, Cardano’s Cosmos, and a biography titled Leon Battista Alberti

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