The Artist’s Models who made the Renaissance Masterpieces Possible

And their controversial relationships with their maestros

When viewing art, we are often only aware of two individuals — subject and artist. There is, for example, Mona Lisa and Leonardo DaVinci. And for simple portraits, this is as far as it goes. But there is often a third hidden figure in art, one we know very little about — the artist’s model.

By the very nature of their work, their identities are mostly erased, but we do know something about these people drawn from the highest and lowest rungs of society. Perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at the faces that made the masterpieces of the renaissance possible.

Caravaggio

Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–1599 or 1602

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was a complicated individual. He was one of the most celebrated painters of his age, but he was also a volatile and lustful man, spending the last years of his life on the run following a murder.

Caravaggio’s choice of models could also be controversial. Firstly, Mario Minniti. A fellow artist and one of Caravaggio’s go-to models, Minniti appears in Boy with a Basket of Fruit, 1593Bacchus, 1596 and Boy Bitten by a Lizard, 1593–1594Their working relationship lasted from around 1592 and 1600, though they seem to have been friends until Caravaggio’s death in 1610. He even provided shelter to the artist in Sicily during his time on the run. The flower behind the ear of Minniti in Boy Bitten by a Lizard, a common symbol of a prostitute,and the ‘close relationship’ between the two men have led some to speculate that they were lovers, but there is relatively little hard evidence to support this theory.

Two women often painted in tandem by Caravaggio were Anna Bianchini and Fillide Melandroni. In Martha and Mary Magdalene, 1598, Anna (right) can be seen as Mary Madelene, being convinced to give up her sinful life by her sister Martha (left), portrayed here by Fillide. The scene is a masterful study of light and emotion, typical of Caravaggio and the religious intensity of the scene is not undercut by the fact that Anna and Fillide were both courtesans.

That is not to say that using courtesans as models for religious figures came without controversy though. In his Death of the Virgin, 1505–6Caravaggio used the high-class courtesan Fillide Melandroni as the model for the mother of God. A controversial move for sure, though he was by no means the first to do so. She was also the model for Judith in Judith Beheading Holofernes, c. 1598–99 or 1602and as such is perhaps the most recognisable figure in Caravaggio’s art.

Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli, The Birth of Venus (c. 1484–1486)

Sandro Botticelli is one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance and his most famous work, The Birth of Venus, 1484–86 owes a great debt to the tragically short life of one woman — Simonetta Vespucci. Married to the cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, Simonetta became a favourite at the Florentine court of the newly resurgent Medici family and as such became a favourite of numerous artists. Botticelli here depicts her as the face of the Goddess of Love.

Given the nickname, La Bella Simonetta (the beautiful Simonetta), she is present in many of Botticelli’s paintings, such as Venus and Mars, 1485 and La Bella Simonetta, 1480–85. Sometimes, she can even appear multiple times in the same painting, as appears to be the case in Primavera, 1482.

As ever, such affinity for one woman has led many to believe that Botticelli may have harboured feelings for Simonetta, and while this is possible, there is no evidence that these were acted upon by either of them. Perhaps he had simply found a woman he believed to be the height of beauty and everything he stood for, as Beatrice was for Dante. Much like Beatrice though, Simonetta would die tragically young at the age of 23, from an unclear cause, though her beauty lives on as the face of Love itself today.

DaVinci

Leonardo DaVinci, Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?)

Perhaps it’s only fitting that the most famous artist model is associated with the quintessential artist of the Renaissance — Leonardo DaVinci. That model’s name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, a student and servant of Leonardo’s from the age of ten, who is remembered by history as Andrea Salaì or just Salaì.

While famous for his detailed studies of anatomy for his art, Leonardo also used models to great effect. Salaì is most strikingly rendered in the celebrated Saint John the Baptist, 1513–1516 (?), as well as Bacchus, 1510–15. It has also been erroneously claimed that Salaì is the real model for the Mona Lisa and her enigmatic smile, though this is disputed by most mainstream art critics and theorists. There is some similarity between the soft features of Salaì and Lisa del Giocondo (the suspected subject of the Mona Lisa). The letters of ‘Mona Lisa’ can also be rearranged into Mon Salaì (‘my Salaì’ in French). Neither the slight similarity of their features nor the apparent anagram has convinced most experts that Salaì is the Mona Lisa’s true subject, however.

Once again, the relationship between the two men has frequently been called into question. Leonardo was charged with homosexuality when apprenticed to Verrocchio, but he was acquitted. He is not recorded as having had a relationship with any woman, but there remains little compelling evidence of his relationship with men either.

The Face Behind the Art

Researching and understanding exactly who these models were can be challenging. Many wealthy patrons had portraits done of themselves, but many of the names behind the faces we today associate with the Renaissance have been lost to history. But understanding who these individuals are is crucial to understanding the art world of the Renaissance.

Even the most traditional of art can be made radical by understanding more about artists’ models, many of whom came from the lower classes. There is something wonderful in knowing that many of the faces we associate with sainthood and religious zeal belonged to people who in their real lives were prostitutes and ‘sinners’.

It could be argued that it doesn’t matter who the artist’s model is. Once they strike a pose, they are erased, becoming instead a character on the canvas.

But I think there’s more to it than that. We, as viewers, can enrich our appreciation of even these masterpieces by understanding the world they came from and the often simple, ordinary people that made them possible.

How Fresco Painting Works: Art Fundamentals

A difficult technique with unique artistic results

Detail from ‘Creation of Adam’ (c.1512) by Michelangelo. Fresco. Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museums, Vatican City.

When Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he not only held his posture of standing with his head craned backwards, with his arm raised for hours at a time, but he also had to work in the technically challenging medium of fresco.

Fresco painting has two supreme qualities: the first is that it involves applying paint onto freshly laid plaster, meaning it is apt for large murals that cover entire walls — or in the case of The Sistine Chapel, an entire ceiling too.

Annunciation (1440–42) by Fra Angelico. Fresco. Museum of San Marco, Florence.

The second quality of fresco is that it must be made with confidence and speed, since there is little room for error and incomplete sections usually have to be re-plastered and painted again. This aspect means that fresco paintings often have a vivid and monumental feel, where finer details must be simplified in favour of prominent and clear-sighted designs.

One of my personal favourite series of fresco paintings is at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, where the artist Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s living quarters with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary and Christ. These paintings are fine examples of the power of fresco: uncluttered, compelling and immediate.

The reason for speed is because with fresco painting the pigment is applied to fresh plaster whilst it is still damp. The word fresco is Italian for “fresh”. The artist must therefore work quickly to complete the apportioned section of plaster before it dries. The pigments, which are made by grinding dry-powder colour in pure water, are painted whilst the plaster dries to become a permanent part of the wall.

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1424) by Masaccio. Fresco. Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence.

In order to achieve this, the artist must plan out the stages of the painting carefully, dividing the image into appropriate sections.

If you look at the image shown here, of The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio, you can see how the wider work would have been split into days.

With each day, a thin layer of wet plaster called the intonaco (Italian for ‘plaster’) is applied to the area to be painted. The artist must work within the plaster’s curing time — a day’s work, or a giornata in Italian.

If you look closely, you can see the dividing lines between each section of giornata. A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours, perhaps as much as nine or ten, giving the artist time to complete a single section in a day.

The fresco mural technique has its origins in antiquity, going back at least as far as the Minoan civilization, as seen at Knossos on Crete. It was also widely used by the ancient Romans as decoration for important rooms.

Over time, two alternative fresco techniques emerged. Up until the age of the Renaissance, the secco method tended to be more prominent. In this method, the paint is applied onto plaster that is already dry. Essentially, this is painting directly onto wall. Usually the pigment is mixed with a binding medium — either egg white or lime —to act as the glue. It is an easier method but has the drawback that the pigments are not completely absorbed by the plaster and may flake in time.

Cross-section of late-medieval fresco painting. Image by author.

The second method is known in Italian as buon fresco or “true fresco” and results in a more durable finish. Many of the outstanding fresco works of the Renaissance were made using this technique.

In this method, a coat of rough plaster (arriccio) is applied to a stone or brick wall. Once dried, the artist makes a preliminary drawing onto the wall. This initial drawing is reinforced with red paint (sinopia) to give a more finished quality to the sketch.

The purpose of the sinopia underpainting is to flesh out the planned image before the final coat of plaster is applied. It makes it easier to plan for the various days to come, and also allows the commissioning patron a chance to see the work and give their approval.

A ‘sinopie’ for a fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco (1290–1341). Museum of Sinopie, Pisa.

Finally, a smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is applied to as much of the wall as will be painted in that session — at which point the artist gets to work.

Since the wetness of the plaster naturally changes over the course of the day, the artist must dilute their paint with water to keep the same tone across the giornata. Once dried, no more buon fresco can be painted on that area. If mistakes have been made, it is not unusual for the whole section of plaster to be removed and then repainted the following day. The alternative is to add finer details using the secco method.

Fresco paintings have a particular look and feel. As the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented with the plaster. The surface texture is dry and opaque, giving rise to an appealing chalky feel, since the paint is an integral part of the wall surface.

When put to best use, the fresco effect can be lively and expressive, with bold designs and well-defined figures. When a fresco occupies an entire wall space or sometimes the whole interior of a building — as in the decorations for the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua by Giotto — then the results can be spectacular.

Scrovegni Chapel (1304–06) by Giotto. Fresco. Padua, Italy.

Ann Treboux