Uncovering 5 Portraits From the Renaissance

Were portraits from the Renaissance more than just beautiful paintings of people? What purpose did portraits really serve, and what can be learned from them?

Jun 30, 2024By Brittany Reichel, BA Art History and Archaeology

portraits renaissance uncovering


The Renaissance had no shortage of portraits. Whether these portraits were created for personal families or public figures, their purposes go beyond being a simple image of their subjects. By examining these portraits, several answers can be uncovered, including who these people were, why their portraits were created, what purpose these portraits serve, and what hidden meanings can be found. Renaissance portraits were often used as a means of documentation, though these works of art could also function as a tool to further one’s status and position.


1. Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1488

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Created in Quattrocento Italy, the period otherwise known as the Early Renaissance, this painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio is dated 1488 and is an example of a Florentine portrait. The painting was commissioned by the subject’s husband shortly after her death as a way of commemorating her. The sitter, the young Giovanna Tornabuoni, was a member of the wealthy Albizzi family. In 1486, she married Lorenzo Tornabuoni, a relative of a well-known Florentine family, the Medici.


The portrait image of Giovanna was most likely based on a previously made medal by Niccolo Fiorentino. Among the medals depicting members of the Tornabuoni family, there are variations that portray Giovanna. The portrait by Ghirlandaio and the image on the medal by Fiorentino share similarities. In both cases, Giovanna is presented in profile with a similar hairstyle.


There are a few elements in her portrait by Ghirlandaio that give a nod to the classical and humanist influences of the Renaissance. First, Giovanna is depicted in profile, a style reminiscent of Roman coinage in which the subjects were also shown in the same manner. Another example is found in the background. Behind Giovanna is an inscription of a quote by the Roman poet Martial. The quote translates to “If art could depict character and soul. No painting on earth would be more beautiful.” Not only is she honored with a beautiful quote, but she is also presented as an idealized woman and surrounded by symbolism to reflect her qualities.

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Giovanna Albizzi, Wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni (obverse) by Niccolò Fiorentino, 1486. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Renaissance portraits were often about showing more than a literal representation of the subject. These works of art also provided information about not only who was depicted but their family as well. The portrait of Giovanna captures the image of the young woman who passed on while also giving insight into her relationship with her new family, the type of person they wanted her to be remembered as, as well as providing a glimpse into the culture of Florence at the time.


Giovanna is depicted as an idealized woman. She is adorned with jewels, which not only hold symbolic meanings about her character but also show the wealth and status of herself and her family. There are various personal items set around her. Two of these items are a prayer book and a rosary, both of which symbolize her as a pious woman. All the details included in the portrait resonate well not only with Giovanna but also with her husband’s family. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is an excellent example of a Renaissance portrait being created to hold the memory of a loved one in a way that reflects positively on the one who has been lost as well as the surviving family.


2. Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’ Benci, 1474/1478

Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, 1488. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


The Mona Lisa might be Leonardo da Vinci’s best-known portrait, but Ginevra de’ Benci was one of his first. The portrait was created by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence from 1474 to 1478 and is named after the portrayed young woman from another wealthy Florentine family. The painting was created around the time Ginevra was 16. She is depicted in a 3/4 view, and the painting was made using oil paints. Both facts are significant as they were new innovations in Italian art, meaning that this portrait was one of the first of its kind in both aspects.


The purpose of the portrait was possibly to commemorate either Ginevra’s engagement or marriage to Luigi Niccolini, who is believed to have commissioned the piece for one of the occasions. It is interesting to note that, unlike other engagement or marriage portraits of the time, Ginevra is not adorned with fine jewelry. In any case, there is another possibility of who commissioned the portrait of the young woman.


Though perceived to be less likely, some would argue that it was commissioned by another man, Bernardo Bembo, an ambassador from Venice. He was known to have a relationship with Ginevra; however, it is believed to have been platonic and less scandalous in nature. Yet, for those who support this theory, the question of who the commissioner was takes an interesting turn when looking at the back of the portrait.


Wreath of Laurel, Palm, and Juniper with a Scroll inscribed Virtutem Forma Decorat (Reverse) by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1474-1478. Source: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


On the opposite side of the canvas, another painting can be found. This painting is of Ginevra’s emblem, which features a juniper and her motto. Interestingly, her emblem shares elements of Bembo’s own; both include laurel and palm. After further examination of the back painting using infrared, Bembo’s motto was found beneath Ginevra’s. However, this is still considered insufficient evidence for the ambassador’s commission of the front portrait, as some would argue that he could have simply commissioned the back.


When looking at the front of the portrait, there are several things to be noted. Aside from the innovative 3/4 view and use of oil paint, Ginevra is also depicted outdoors, another deviation from the norm of the time. A juniper bush behind her could have been a symbolic choice, as it symbolizes chastity, an attribute important for a young woman during Ginevra’s time. The juniper bush could also have just been a play on Ginevra’s name, as juniper in Italian is ginepro.


The painting has also been shortened; the bottom had been cut off sometime in the past. Luckily, based on sketches by Leonardo da Vinci, it is known what the missing portion showed: Ginevra’s hands. Based on the surviving sketches, Ginevra was shown holding small flowers. These flowers and their positioning could have held symbolic meanings, hinting at her devotion and virtue and her affection for the commissioner.


3. Agnolo Bronzino, Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, c. 1545

Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1545. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni by Agnolo Bronzino is dated to 1545. The portrait of the Duchess Eleonora, wife of Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duke of Florence, and their son was completed in Florence by their court painter, Bronzino. Though the painting may seem like a sweet image of a mother and her young son, it holds significance beyond portraying Eleonora as a loving mother and the devoted wife of a Duke. The painting is a statement to the viewer, an example of a Late Renaissance or Mannerist portrait being used to benefit the image of an influential family. This state portrait showcases the family’s wealth and power, as well as the power of Eleonora herself, in strategic ways.


Eleonora and Cosimo had several children; however, Eleonora was never depicted with any of their daughters. In Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni, the young child in the painting alongside Eleonora is the couple’s second son. By portraying Eleonora with one of their sons as opposed to alone, this portrait becomes an example of a dynastic portrait, a way to show viewers the continuing strength and future of the Medici dynasty. Furthermore, with Giovanni being the second son, this portrait is also used to show that the Medici family line of succession is practically ensured to continue through one of the couple’s sons.


Portrait of Eleonora di Toledo with her son Giovanni (detail) by Agnolo Bronzino, c. 1545. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The wealth and power of the family are also represented when looking at the lavish jewelry and clothing of the two subjects. Eleonora herself would have been the one to pick the clothing the pair were wearing. Her dress, in particular, holds its own significance. Not only is her dress made of a fabric sought after in Eleonora’s home country of Spain, but the dress also gave the artist a chance to showcase more of his skills. Bronzino spared no effort in capturing the details of the beautiful silk brocade fabric. The textures are shown in such a realistic way that, for some, Eleonora’s dress is a work of art in its own right. Eleonora is also adorned with numerous pearls and precious gems, as well as an impressive diamond pendant and a stunning belt.


A rich and vibrant blue provides the background of Eleonora and Giovanni’s portrait. The background was created with no ordinary paint. The expensive pigment used to create the stunning blue paint was once used solely in paintings of the Virgin Mary. A glow surrounds Eleonora in a halo, highlighting her striking stare. Together, they not only emphasize her position but also allude to the power that she wields.


4. Hans Holbein the Younger (Workshop of), Henry VIII, c. 1537

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein the Younger (Workshop of), c. 1537. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Walker Art Gallery’s portrait of the infamous king, Henry VIII, is one of several based on Hans Holbein’s Whitehall Mural of 1537. Commissioned by the king himself, the mural was painted in Whitehall Palace by court painter Hans Holbein the Younger. The mural featured one of the first full-length, life-size images of a reigning monarch. Whitehall Mural was created sometime between Henry VIII’s marriage to Jane Seymour in 1536 and her death in 1537. Henry VIII and Jane Seymour were not the only subjects in the Whitehall Mural. Also depicted were the parents of Henry VIII, Henry VII, and Elizabeth of York.


The mural is considered to have been painted to promote the Tudor dynasty, and it certainly represented Henry VIII’s power as a ruler. Sadly, the Whitehall Mural was lost in a fire in 1698. Luckily, however, sketches (or cartoons) of Hans Holbein’s work did survive and provided artists with one of the ways to replicate the image of Henry VIII.


One of these replicas is the Walker Art Gallery’s portrait of Henry VIII, created sometime after 1537. What is notable about this specific painting is that there are shared similarities between the portrait and the mural. These similarities lead to several possibilities: the artist could have seen the original mural, had access to resources from part of its creation process, or was a follower of Hans Holbein the Younger; perhaps they had even worked in his workshop.


King Henry VIII, King Henry II by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1536-1537. Source: Wikimedia Commons


This portrait of Henry VIII was probably commissioned by someone who had seen the Whitehall Mural and wanted to show their allegiance to the king. Though the original mural is lost, its significance, purpose, and details are not; instead, they are recreated in the Walker portrait.


Considered one of the iconic images of Henry VIII, the portrait holds a political purpose: to show Henry VIII as a powerful ruler. His power and position are not represented by a crown or the presence of a scepter; instead, they are alluded to in other ways. Henry VIII is shown in an authoritative stance with his feet planted firmly apart, barrel-chested, and wide shoulders, his pose hinting at his brutality. The king’s wealth can be seen through his attire, luxurious clothing, and expensive jewelry.


Hans Holbein the Younger and the other artists who recreated and helped disperse the image of the king contributed to bringing about a phenomenon that had once been common before falling out of practice. Once again, the face of a leader was widely shown among many people. Hans Holbein and those who recreated his iconic image of Henry VIII helped move portraits out of private spheres and into public ones. This new role of portraits in Renaissance England did not stop with Henry VIII but continued with his daughter Elizabeth.


5. Unknown Artist, Armada Portrait, c.1588

Armada Portrait (from the National Maritime Museum, London) by Unknown Artist, c.1588. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Arguably one of the best-known monarchs of English history, there was certainly no shortage of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. Earlier portraits of the queen were typically intended for marriage arrangements; however, portraits of Elizabeth I evolved over time. Not only did portraits of the queen change in how she was depicted, but also in their purpose. As the queen got older, her portraits, like those of her father, became a political tool to show herself as a strong ruler and strengthen her position as queen.


The Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was created after the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 to commemorate the important event. There are three copies of the Armada Portrait today. The identity of the artist is unknown, as it was common practice in England at the time for a painting to have multiple copies based on an original idea. However, two artists have been considered: George Gower and Nicholas Hilliard.


This portrait is less about capturing Elizabeth I’s likeness and more about how she is represented as a ruler. The areas around Elizabeth I are just as important as the queen herself. Over her right shoulder, the English ships sail on calm waters toward their adversaries. However, over her left shoulder, the Spanish fleets are facing peril and defeat in rough waters. Though the sea scenes in this version of the portrait are later editions, they have a similar theme to the other copies.


Armada Portrait (from the National Portrait Gallery, London) by Unknown Artist, c.1588. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Armada Portrait not only captures and commemorates the English defeat of the Spanish Armada but the depiction of the victory is used to reinforce Elizabeth I as a powerful ruler by giving a literal depiction of her might. There are several other strategic elements shown in the portrait. One of the most notable is that the painting provides insight into future endeavors. The queen rests her right hand over a globe, her fingers landing on the Americas, a hint into the ambitions for her royal empire.


Elizabeth I was not able to depict herself in the same authoritative way her father had. Instead, she balances her femininity while showcasing herself as a strong leader. Like her father in the Whitehall Mural, Elizabeth does not wear a crown; rather, the symbol of the monarchy’s power is set on a table behind her. The queen is depicted as featuring the beauty standards of the Renaissance, otherwise known as the Elizabethan era after the queen. There is also significance in the queen’s attire. For example, she is dressed in her official colors, black and white, each holding their own symbolic meaning. Her clothing and jewelry show her wealth as well as hide her feminine body by acting almost as a sort of armor. She is adorned with an extraordinary number of pearls, a symbol of purity and the perfect gem for her iconic title as the Virgin Queen.




Campbell, Stephen J., and Michael W. Cole. Italian Renaissance Art. Thames & Hudson Inc., 2012.

Hartt, Frederick, and David G. Wilkins. History of Italian Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture. 6th ed., Prentice Hall, 2007.

James, Sara Nair. Art in England: The Saxons to the Tudors: 600-1600. Oxbow Books, 2016.

Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. II, Cengage Learning, 2016.

Simons, Patricia. “Giovanna and Ginevra: Portraits for the Tornabuoni Family by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli.” I Tatti Studies in the Italian Renaissance, vol. 14/15, 2011, pp. 103–135, JSTOR.

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By Brittany ReichelBA Art History and ArchaeologyBrittany holds a BA in Art History and Archaeology from the University of Missouri. Her interests are in classical art, archaeology, and art history of the renaissance, particularly in portrait paintings and depictions of mythology in Italian Renaissance art. She enjoys traveling to new places to learn about their history and culture, visiting museums, reading, researching, and writing.