Not only are these pictures two of Memling’s finest portraits but the male likeness portrays one of the most important and influential patrons of the arts during the latter half of the 15th century. They are also emblematic of the close business and cultural links which existed between the Netherlands and Italy.
Tommaso Portinari arrived in Bruges from his native Florence around the year 1440, in order to take up a position in a branch of the Medici bank which had been established in that city. For the next 25 years he worked in junior positions, all the while assiduously cultivating contacts and even gaining some influence in the Burgundian court. His ambition led him to lobby the Medici for preferment and in 1465 he was appointed as manager of the Bruges branch. Tommaso was now able to use his much improved status to greatly advance his parallel career in the Burgundian court where he became an advisor to two dukes of Burgundy. Needless to say, pecuniary advantages also came his way, which is more than can be said for his employers. Portinari’s promotion proved to be disastrous for the Medici bank – Tommaso saw fit to approve large and very risky loans to Duke Charles the Bold but when the duke defaulted on repayments (as was the way with so many princely debts) the Medici were forced to declare the branch bankrupt in 1478. Tommaso was recalled to Florence but was back in the Netherlands in 1480 attempting to recover some of the money.
Just before the consequences of Portinari’s poor judgement became all to painfully apparent, he commissioned an altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds from the Ghent painter Hugo van der Goes which proved to be one of the greatest and most influential works of art ever produced in the Netherlands. The huge triptych now known as the Portinari Altarpiece was installed in the Portinari chapel in the church of St Egidio in Florence where Hugo’s masterful use of oil paint exercised a considerable influence on Florentine artists.
Hans Memling hailed from a small town on the River Main near the German city of Mainz. In 1465 he was registered as a resident of Bruges where he probably moved after having worked in the studio of Rogier van der Weyden (who died in 1464). Shortly after his arrival he received a commission from Portinari’s predecessor as head of the Medici bank, Angelo Tani, for a large triptych of the Last Judgment. (Unfortunately this was captured by Hanseatic pirates whilst in transit to Italy and it has resided in Gdansk – Danzig – ever since.) Memling seems to have continued to attract rich clients. By 1480 he was one of the wealthiest men in Bruges.
This pair of portraits was probably painted to celebrate the marriage of Tommaso to Maria Baroncelli in 1470. Originally the two panels may have been the wings flanking a central panel depicting the Virgin and Child. Unusually, Memling has not included a pastoral scene as background for these paintings. His exquisite, distant landscapes seen in the margins of portraits and triptychs alike (seen to perfection in the very beautiful Portrait of a Man in the Frick Collection) were justly celebrated, and when a number of works found their way to Italy they influenced such painters as Perugino and through him Raphael.
Here, the dark backgrounds tend to concentrate one’s attention on the physiognomy of the faces and incidentally on the skill of the artist. Maria’s jewellery provides an outlet for some ostentation, otherwise a hushed austerity holds the stage. The serenity and stillness which pervades all Memling’s work is here in abundance but Memling also softens; a degree of idealised license seems to have been used in these portraits as a comparison between them and the likenesses of the same couple which appear in the wings of the Portinari Altarpiece will show. This might be seen as one of the reasons behind Memling’s popularity as a portraitist.
1470 Dieric Bouts, Christ Crowned with Thorns, London, National Gallery
c1470 Jacopo Pollaiuolo: Madonna and Child, Saint Petersburg, Hermitage
1472–4 Piero della Francesca: Madonna with the Duke of Urbino (Montefeltro Altarpiece), Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera