Angela Marisol Roberts
Queen’s University: PhD Dissertation (2007)
Although the donor portrait was extremely popular throughout Europe and mainland Italy during the late Middle Ages, the few art historians who have addressed the subject have concluded that the motif was not popular in fourteenth-century Venice. The political structures of Venice and its citizens’ supposedly innate abhorrence of public expressions of individuality in the Republic are often cited as reasons for the absence of individual donor portraits; the examples that have survived are commonly interpreted as direct reflections of state or communal values. This dissertation challenges these previous conclusions and poses the following questions: Was donor portraiture popular in Venice, and in what forms? And how did the appearance and function of donor portraits in Venice compare with those from Europe and Byzantium? The evidence examined here includes a catalogue of 83 examples dated approximately between 1280 and 1413.
I have attempted to reconstruct the social, political, and physical environments for these examples, and for those images that have been lost through centuries of changing trends and political upheaval. Through case studies of donor portrait subjects from a cross-section of Venetian society, including doges, nobles, cittadini, confraternity groups, and patrician women, it becomes clear that such images were, in fact, popular in late medieval Venice and that they were mostly intended for public viewing. Furthermore, the fact that donor portraits are rarely mentioned in the extant documents suggests that such imagery was considered conventional and that it posed no significant threat to the ideology of the Venetian state. Further examination of these visual documents, and analyses of socio-historical developments in the period indicate that donor portraits in Venice, like similar portraits in Byzantium and mainland Italy, mainly reflect personal concerns about family, status, wealth, and salvation. Their physical appearance likewise suggests that these images were intended for display within the confines of city parishes and that ultimately, in this context, donor portraiture in late medieval Venice was no more likely to reflect state ideologies than donor portraiture in other parts of Europe.