Portraiture is the art of depicting specific human individuals as themselves. The ability or desire to portray the features of a particular person in a convincing way has not been universal in the arts. It is even more rae to capture the personality of an individual, the goal of the portrait in its truest sense. The degree of resemblance attempted by and expected of the portraitist depends on the broader attitudes of society toward the significance of the individual. Some degree of tension always exist between a need for fidelity to the model and a desire for improvement on nature.
Images that seek to show only the physical form of an individual are termed effigies, for example, the tomb figures of the Egyptian pharaohs. Portraits in the fullest sense were created first by the Greeks in the late classical period (4th century BC).
The first certatin example of true portraiture is a head of Aristotle (c.320 BC; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), which is typical of the finest Greek portraiture, conveying not only a covincing sense of physical reality but a broader feeling of personality as well. The portraits of Alexander the Great by artists such as Lysippus ans Appelles began a tradition of heroic ruler imagery that dominated the official art of the Greeks, Romans, and their medieval followers.
Among the early Romans a tradition of ancestor effigies involving death masks evolved into a highly realistic portraiture by the 1st century BC. At the same time increased contact with Greek art encouraraged a contrasting fashion for more-idealized likenesses, especially of political leaders. Toward the end f the Roman Empire, portraits became less concerned with physical than with spiritual likeness.
Midieval portaits were also more concerned with spiritual likeness but never completely lost their Greco-Roman heritage of accuracy. Individuals tended to be portrayed as standardized, recognizable images. In the late Middle Ages realistic portraits aplpeared in works in which the identity of the subject was particularly important - tomb figures and donor portraits. An example of the latter is Giotto's portait (c.1305) of Enrico degli Scrovegni, donor of the Arena Chapel at Padua.
Donor portraits, incorporated into religious scenes, were cmmon in Italy for another 150 years, a peiod in which portraiture for its own sake developed in the North.