Have you ever wondered why the blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman is often considered the Western paradigm of ideal beauty? For the answer we turn to Renaissance Florence and to the humanist and poet Francesco Petrarch. Upon meeting an enigmatic woman named Laura, Petrarch was so enraptured by her beauty that he dedicated much of his remaining life’s work to its praise. LeCanzoniere, or The Sonnets, a series of 366 poems written between 1327-1368, describe Laura and her charms, most famously her blonde hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Penned in the Italian vernacular, the work was widely read and thus Petrarch’s feminine ideal quickly became the standard source-book for artists wishing to depict beautiful women. We asked our art historians in Florence to help us understand this concept of ideal beauty through a selection of paintings in the Uffizi Gallery.
One of Lippi’s most beloved works, this delicate and serene image of the Virgin and Child perfectly exemplifies Petrarch’s writings. Lippi’s Madonna is graceful and her softness contrasts with the sharp rocks in the background landscape. She has pure and pale skin, light eyes, and blonde hair that is intricately tied back into an elaborate arrangement of lace and pearls. This and countless other Early-Modern depictions of the Virgin Mary, a woman who, given her geographic origins, was emphatically not of Petrarch’s ideal, demonstrates that the conception of perfect beauty and its inherent sanctity and purity was more important at the time than physiognomic accuracy.
Here we have an example of Petrarch’s standards used to idealize a contemporary woman. Commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, Piero della Francesca painted in this diptych a portrait of Battista Sforza facing a likeness of her husband. Moreover, as docent Molly Mcllwrath notes, Battista’s style of dress, detachable sleeves, makeup, and hairstyle all demonstrate fifteenth-century notions of beauty and fashion. This idealization contrasts with the more naturalistic depiction of Federico, especially with his famously misshapen nose, and this difference in appearance may provide commentary on Battista’s pious nature versus her husband’s reputation as a strict ruler.
Each of the female allegories in Botticelli’s famous La Primavera are representative of the Renaissance standards of ideal beauty, but as Context docent and art historian Patricia Rucidlo comments, the figure of Flora may have inspired the writing of Agnolo Firenzuola, who published the Dialogo delle bellezze delle donne, or The Dialogue on the Beauty of Women, in 1542. Second from the right and clad in a white patterned dress with garlands around her neck and hair, Flora is the personification of Spring and scatters flowers on the forest floor. Additionally, Molly Mcllwrath reminds us that “Botticelli was surrounded by poets, banquets, dances, and discussions of Neo-Platonic love while in the Medici household, and Lorenzo il Magnifico’s own poem on youthful beauty comes to mind.”
In Firenzuola’s Dialogo, the poet reinforced and elaborated upon Petrarch’s model by adding a plethora of additional traits required of a beautiful woman. Parmigianino’s Madonna of the Long Neck is the finest example of an artist following Firenzuola, as we see in the Virgin Mary not only blonde hair and fair skin, but also an elongated neck, a small mouth, high forehead, flushed cheeks, and delicate hands, all of which are mentioned in the Dialogo. Many of these same attributes are also seen in the angels standing on the left of the Virgin and in the Christ Child himself. Although several aspects of this painting remain enigmatic in meaning, the urn held by an angel on the left and the column in the background on the right may also be indicators of Firenzuola’s conception of beauty.
Our final example is found in Titian’s mid-sixteenth-century Venus of Urbino. Here the goddess of love relaxes upon a bed of white linen and invites the viewer into the scene with her outward gaze. Similar to other paintings by the artist we can see, as Molly Mcllwrath describes, a softer and more “naturalistic” beauty. Although several of Petrarch and Firenzuola’s hallmarks are represented here, it is the goddess’ pure and ivory skin that is especially worth noting. Bright and unblemished, if Renaissance artists had Photoshop with which to perfect their paintings, this is how the result would appear.
When visiting Italy today one can walk down any street and notice the predominance of Italian men and women with dark hair and dark eyes. Although this mediterranean coloring claims ancestry from antiquity and has persevered into the modern world, when visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, whether on your own or with a Context scholar, you will now have a better understanding for the ubiquitous blonde-haired and blue-eyed woman seen in the most famous of Renaissance paintings.