BA Art History and History

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Portraiture: Image and Identity

Unit code AHCP24121
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course explores the development of portraiture from antiquity to the present day, focusing in particular on the Renaissance period. Even though today it is recognized as one of the main genres of art, portraiture has a complex history with a major turning point in the Renaissance. As it deals with the human face, portraiture raises important issues concerning realism and idealization, identity and social performance, imitation and artistic interpretation. As such, throughout history portraiture has participated in important debates about the superiority of poetry over the visual arts, the construction of a ‘civilized’ persona, role-play, and the role of images to mediate between a lover and his/her beloved, or between life and death. The course explores portraiture across a variety of media (including painting, sculpture, medals, prints, photographs) and connects it with key poetic and literary discourses, investigating devices and visual strategies to make the sitter ‘present’.


  • To present an overview of portraiture from antiquity to the present day;
  • To explore the key debates about portraiture, including Petrarch and the Renaissance theories;
  • To investigate the role of portraiture in reflecting on individual identity;
  • To explore how portraiture contributed to political propaganda, expressed moral concerns, or allowed artists to reflect on their status and role.

Knowledge and understanding

 By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Describe the evolution of portraiture across the centuries;
  • Recognize and interpret a variety of allegorical or symbolic devices used to convey further information about the sitter;
  • Connect the practice of portraiture with parallel critical or theoretical debates on art and representation.

Intellectual skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Make meaningful connections between images and allegories/symbols;
  • Situate different portrait practices in historical context and have a sense of their intended audience;
  • Produce a solid analysis of artworks by relying on a diverse body of knowledge, both visual and textual;
  • Engage critically with select primary sources (in translation) and with a variety of approaches in secondary literature.

Practical skills

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Produce detailed and informed visual analysis;
  • Recognize a variety of iconographical schemes (religious, mythological, secular);
  • Develop an argument in an essay, using relevant sources;
  • Discuss their research with the class and engage in a productive exchange of ideas.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

By the end of this course students will be able to:

  • Evaluate, synthesise and deploy material from diverse sources;
  • Present in public in a clear, compelling and sophisticated manner (including responding to critique);
  • Collaborate with peers to produce a presentation;
  • Produce a clear, sustained and engaging written exposition of a given topic;
  • Manage time effectively to deliver work to a deadline.

Assessment methods

Assessment task Formative or Summative Length Weighting within unit (if summative)
Group presentation 1 Formative

5 minutes

(500 words)
Group presentation 2 Formative and Summative

5 minutes

(500 words)
Essay Formative and Summative 2000 words 40%
Exam paper Summative 2500 words 50%


Feedback methods

Feedback Method Formative or Summative
Written and oral feedback on presentation P1 formative, P2 summative
Written feedback on essay Summative
Additional 1-to-1 feedback (by appointment) Formative


Recommended reading

  1. BURCKHARDT, Jacob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (any edition): ch. 2 “The Development of the Individual”.
  2. CHRISTIANSEN, Keith, and Stefan WEPPELMANN, eds.. The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini (New York¿: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2011): available online]
  3. PERKINSON, Stephen. “Rethinking the Origins of Portraiture,” Gesta 46:2 (2007): 135–57 (Jstor).
  4. POINTON, Marcia. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993).
  5. POPE-HENNESSY, John. The Portrait in the Renaissance (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966): available to borrow on
  6. STRONG, Roy. Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987 – or any subsequent edition).
  7. WOODALL, Joanna. “Introduction: Facing the Subject,” in Joanna Woodall, ed., Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1997).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 33
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ilaria Bernocchi Unit coordinator

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