Birkbeck art historian uncovers earliest known case of ‘facsimile portraiture’

Using digital analysis, Dr Jacobus reveals that two portraits of an early 14th-century Paduan businessman, created by different artists 25 years apart, had identical underlying bone structures. She shows that the sculptures are the first known examples of portraits using mechanical means to show an exact physical likeness of their subject – something which did not become a standard feature of portraiture until the advent of photography six centuries later.

Pre-restoration effigy of Enrico Scrovegni

New research, published in the journal Art Bulletin and conducted by Birkbeck art historian Dr Laura Jacobus, has shown for the first time that portraits using mechanical means to create an exact likeness of their subject existed in early 14th-century Padua, more than 600 years before the invention of photography.

Using digital analysis, Dr Jacobus and her colleagues have discovered that the bone structure of two sculptures of Paduan businessman Enrico Scrovegni was identical, despite the fact that they looked very different as they were made at different stages of his life. The only way in which the exact likeness could have been achieved is by using a ‘life mask’, where the subject lies prostrate with breathing tubes in their nostrils, while plaster of Paris is painted onto their face. The two artists would then have taken exact measurements from the masks to create their portraits. Irregularities around the periphery of the two sculptures’ faces support this theory as the mask only captured the central features of Enrico’s face, leaving the artists to invent the rest as best they could.

Dr Jacobus said: “These portraits tell us that this was a very particular moment in time where suddenly people were interested in preserving accurate physical likeness. It was an important idea because it’s really the basis of modern portraiture, and is also the antecedent of other forms of facsimile portraiture – things like photography or 3D printing today. It’s an idea that was 700 years ahead of its time. ”

Dr Jacobus gave an interview with Birkbeck Voices, the College’s podcast series, where she talks about the significance of these findings, how the approach taken by Enrico Scrovegni fitted into the broader artistic trends of the time and how this served as an antecedent to today’s portrait-saturated society, where creating an exact physical likeness or a portrait’s subject is the norm.

Listen to the podcast:

Further Information