This summer I discovered the pleasures of cycling to beaches in Mallorca with crystal clear water and those perfect shades of blue. We would climb down to the most remote of them to snorkel and swim among the rocks, chanting songs about life being good. Once I abruptly stopped: nearby was a woman holding a selfie stick. I had got used to them on land – but not in this big bath-tub we call the Mediterranean. Might they soon be banned in the sea?
Whatever our view on the selfie culture, 21st century people are not the first to invest a lot in sharing how they look like. In the past, men and elites usually took the lead.
Learned Renaissance men created a strong culture of friendship. They wrote extensively to each other in intimate terms even though they sometimes never met. Chatting globally has its predecessor.
Friendships in these letters often resolved in the request for a portrait – be it a medal, engraving or panel portrait. They are ubiquitous in European collections, but we have often lost a sense of the exact story they tell – when they were made, and what emotions they wanted to share.
Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who famously discovered that planets move in ellipses, presents an exceptional case we can reconstruct. Kepler got his assistant to paint an image of himself for a friend. This was just before Kepler stored up all his belongings to move his family back from Austria to Germany. His aged mother had been accused of witchcraft. Now Kepler took over her defence. Kepler had no idea how long the trial would take or what its outcome might be. But he wanted to share his likeness – the portrait, Kepler explained in a hastily written note to his friend, was to stand in for an autobiography until he found time to write it. Today, it presents us with our only clue as to what Kepler looked like as he entered his fifties, lived through the final phase of his mother´s exceptional trial and travelled across lands ridden by war, disease and destitution. It is the only representation of a mature Kepler he was ever involved in making, apart from a small, crude engraving on the frontispiece of the 1627 Rudolphine Tables. The latter hints at a worn out, badly paid astronomer working long hours in candle-light wearing his sloppy night-gown and cap.
The Linz painting, by contrast, displayed Kepler as black-haired and elegantly bearded, dark-eyed man with a youthful air of cheerful confidence. He was carefully dressed, as if ready to receive high-ranking men. Indeed, the English poet and chaplain John Donne had passed by in 1619 to meet him. Sir Henry Wotton, who served king James I as diplomat, had met Kepler even more recently in Linz. Wotton enthusiastically wrote to the aged Francis Bacon about Kepler’s ingenious perspective machine, a ‘curiosity’ designed to survey the land more precisely. Kepler had related ‘with a smile’ that he invented it and explained every detail of how it would enable rulers to better measure and tax their land.
The Linz portrait depicted him exactly as this kind of man, at ease to converse about his latest experiments designed to benefit civil concerns. A tightly cut black velvet gown and breeches perfectly set off a plain white ruff and cuffs with intricately laced ends. His belt displayed a precious ruby set in the middle of golden wings. With his right elbow assertively placed on one hip, the Imperial Mathematician in midlife exuded distinction, intellectual alertness and an engaging personality. Kepler in fact somewhat obsessively thought of his mother as defaced by age. This painting showed Kepler as impressive man at the height of his powers. Posing for a relative amateur, Kepler would have had to stand still for hours.
It was worth the effort. For this was a time in which every detail of appearances – physiognomy, youthfulness or age, gestures, postures, dress, hair, accessories – was carefully observed and related to others. As in geometry, proportions meant attractiveness. High-ranking men endlessly judged appearances to gage who was angling for better positions and whether they were driven by rivalry or self-interest or by piety and commitment to further the common good.
Given such scrutiny, Kepler was annoyed to learn that his friend next commissioned an inferior engraving after the Linz portrait, which his friends ridiculed. It made Kepler look vacant, sad, even unworldly, and possibly preoccupied with obscure thoughts. His former professor of theology had reprimanded Kepler in 1619 that he suffered from a ‘confused spirit’. Could the devil attack him?
Kepler’s seemingly relaxed portrait for a friend thus was carefully considered as his mother stood accused and the scientist’s unorthodox religious views under attack. Kepler also wanted to create a different image for himself – not as anxious, angry man, but as positive and composed. Portraits in this way create self-images if we trust in them. Ever since the Renaissance’s rise of this genre they have suggested powerful stories about how we would like to be.
These stories have often broken down or, as in Kepler’s case, been difficult to control when an image has subsequently been used in a different way. What perhaps is most striking historically about the selfie culture then is our unbroken enthusiasm for portrayals, as if they could never trap us, and even if we know better.
I better get used to selfie sticks in the sea then. This summer, one family was caught in a riptide off the Massachusetts coast. The father used a selfie stick to haul the daughter to the beach. Maybe they are a good thing.
Featured image credit: Photo frame, by DiegoRodriguesdeCastro. Public domain via Pixabay.