At the 15th century courts of Mantua, Cesena, Ferrara, Rimini, and Naples, Antonio di Puccio Pisano, better known as il Pisanello, was primarily known for his cast-bronze portrait medals, a Roman genre he revived to make honorific images for his patrons. As an artist in the employ of the courts, he was also expected to fresco the walls of palazzi, paint portraits and design costumes and festivals, and make religious images, which also augmented his artistic reputation. Pisanello’s official duties did not include the meticulous drawing of carefully-observed natural subjects, the part of the artist’s œuvre most admired today, nor did drawings enhance his stature.
Most of Pisanello’s peers and patrons would have not have had the opportunity to see, let alone revere, his drawings, because they constituted the bulk of his studio’s model book, which only circulated within his workshop, providing models, guides, and templates for his assistants. Model books were jealously-guarded secrets in medieval and Renaissance workshops, and they were heavily used; as a result, very few survive. In the case of Pisanello, however, his extensive, nearly-complete model book, the so-called Codex Vallardi, miraculously survives, largely due to an error.
In 1856, the Louvre purchased an album of 317 drawings, from the Milanese antiquarian Giuseppe Vallardi for the hefty sum of 35,000 francs. At the time, the drawings were thought to be by Leonardo da Vinci, which explains both the high price and why they were carefully preserved over the centuries. It was later determined that several of the drawings were from Leonardo’s workshop, one was by Hans Holbein the Younger, while the majority were attributed to Pisanello.
Pisanello is an artist with a very slim corpus of surviving works—under 30 panel paintings, frescoes and medals, compared with the wealth of drawings contained in the Codex Vallardi. This tends to overstate the importance of drawings in his practice and to distort one’s sense of his overall output. Exquisite as they may be, Pisanello would have found it perverse to value in-house preparatory materials over finished products. Furthermore, the disassociated drawings may give a false sense that in the case of Pisanello, disegno often meant drawing more often than it did design, but the lack of pictorial context is expected of a model book, and does not reflect on the artist’s abilities of invention or design.
That said, the drawings are masterpieces of technique and observation. This selection focuses on his studies of domesticated and wild animals. They all appear to be drawn from actual specimens, including the species not indigenous to northern Italy, which could be seen in the menageries owned by Pisanello’s patrons. The drawings may be based on first-hand observation, but they cannot all have been drawn from the life, strictly speaking: the awkward positioning of the more dangerous animals like the wolf and the cheetah of them suggests they were actually dead when drawn, the remains being placed on the ground and seen from above. The detailed equine anatomy vividly shows the high degree of visual familiarity with horses possessed by nearly everyone in Renaissance Italy.
As accurate as Pisanello’s drawings may be, it would be anachronistic to think of them as “scientific” in any way. The closest antecedent to the drawings are the finely-painted fauna inhabiting the margins of the late 14th-century Visconti Hours. Here, in the context of a personal prayerbook, deer, hounds, birds and hares carry heraldic, emblematic, and religious
meanings. The same can be said of Pisanello’s use of the Codex Vallardi models in his panel painting, The Vision of St Eustace (1438/42), where the various animals based on the drawings are used to indicate the saint’s social rank and to liken the site of his conversion to the wasteland or desert of patristic conversion narratives.