Category Archives: Renaissance


Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, 1467, Monterchi, Cappella delCimitero

Carlo Ginzburg’s biographical “investigation ” into the art of Piero della Francesca, Indagini su Piero, was translated into English as The Enigma of Piero. The translated title strikes a very true chord: there is an opacity or reticence or unknowability to Piero and his artistic style is the formal equivalent of a blank affect. This is registered in both the impassive, expressionless visages he depicts, but also in the broad, simplified, static formal language used to depict them.

The remoteness of Piero’s style is best seen by comparing it to that of his contemporary, Andrea Mantegna. Since the 15th century, Mantegna has been faulted for his cold, lapidary style of painting, his intellectual distance and an excess of gravitas.

Andrea Mantegna, Cristo Scorto, Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera

However, pictures like the Cristo Scorto, the Agony in the Garden and the Man of Sorrows depict a raw emotionality meant to elicit an empathetic response from their viewer. The edges may be exact and hard, but they reveal the contours of the human body.

By contrast, Piero’s work is devoid of such passions and his figures, from the Baptism through the unfinished Nativity, resemble simple volumes hewn from ashy, cold, stone. Earlier, I described Piero’s painting style as laconic, when, in fact, mute might be more accurate. The act of speech is almost never depicted, leaving the figures to communicate with each other through gestures with their lips sealed.

Piero della Francesca, Annunciation, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco.

The avoidance of the representation of speech might have posed problems for the narrative components of the paintings, but Piero compensates for that omission in unexpected ways. As Michael Baxandall has observed, for Piero, feet are social, and if one attends to their representation in his painting, one realizes that a great deal of animated interaction takes place below the knee.

Piero della Francesca, Exaltation of the True Cross, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco

Finally, to complete the Mantegna comparison, Piero’s figures are beyond lapidary–the body is generalized and anecdotal detail kept to a bare minimum. As he demonstrates in De Prospectiva Pigendi, his figures are conceived of as geometric volumes plotted on a spatial continuum.

Piero della Francesca, De Prospectiva Pigendi, 1474.

Piero’s remoteness and imperturbable resistance to expressionism, are not, however, Ginzburg’s topic. His Italian title might have been better translated as Investigating Piero or The Unsolved Case of Piero. The allusion to mystery novels and police forensics is deliberate–the mysteries requiring investigation revolve around lacunae in the historical record about patrons, textual sources, circumstances of production, and chronology, which the historian/detective “solves ” by sifting through the evidence.

The evidence, which is to say, the period documentation of Piero’s art, is relatively scanty. When confronted with this problem while writing his admirable biography of Piero, historian James Banker delved into the archives and with great diligence, discovered over 100 hitherto unknown records concerning Piero. Ginzburg, chooses a different approach: fills in the gaps in the record with lawyerly speculation, “logical” inferences and hunches.


Piero della Francesca, Flagellazione di Cristo, 1455, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.


The validity of this methodology aside, Ginzburg has nothing nothing to say about Piero’s laconic style or any other artistic concern or issue. He apparently finds a picture like the Flagellation of Christ to be fully comprehensible once one knows who is in it, who owned it, who saw it and when. To follow Ginzburg’s argument to its logical conclusion, there is nothing enigmatic about Piero’s art–or old pictures in general.

Carlo Ginzburg, Indagini su Piero (Einaudi, 1985) translated as The Engima of Piero (Routledge, 1988; 2nd revised edition 1994).
James Banker, Piero della Francesca, Artist and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Michael Baxandall, Words for Pictures (Yale, 1997).




I: Filippino Lippi

On the advice of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Cardinal Oliviere Carafa commissioned Filippino Lippi to decorate the chapel he had endowed in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the Dominican convent in Rome. The three walls and vaults were painted in fresco over the years 1489/91.

The altarpiece depicts two separate actions: on the left, following iconographic convention the angel of the annunciation approaches from the left, about to speak, while the dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit descends from above. On the right side of the same chamber, St Thomas Aquinas stands next to Cardinal Carafa, who kneels in prayer. In between the angel and Carafa, the Virgin is shown rising from her chair, her attention divided between not one, but two unexpected visitors. The angelic doctor seems to have chosen an inopportune moment, causing his client, the donor, to interrupt the annunciation.

Being obliged to show the donor present at the Annunciation without appearing to hinder it, turned a standardized image type into a compositional problem. Filippino resolved that problem visually by posing the Virgin in a manner that implies a sequence of events. Her body is oriented towards the donor, whom she was about to receive, when Gabriel arrived. His arrival obliges her to turn her head to the left. Her raised hand reads as an acknowledgement of both visitors. Instead of showing the donor intruding on the mystery of the incarnation, the picture shows the presentation of the Cardinal by St Thomas being interrupted by the arrival of Gabriel, after which the miraculous event will unfold, one imagines, without interruption, while saint and cardinal piously observe from the sidelines.

The solution is a marvel of pictorial tact and effciency and one the painter almost certainly arrived at himself in response to a problem the patron had not foreseen.


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The Italian word villeggiatura translates into English (poorly) as the act or condition of living in a villa. It is more idiomatically rendered by the 18th-century British expression “country life.” In antiquity, the villa suburbana was a self-supporting, compound-like residence in a bucolic setting where a Roman patrician restored himself between periods spent in the civitas conducting his public duties and business. The dialectic of country and city was a celebrated by Horace in his second Ode, where he contrasts the otium of pastoral life to the negotium of the city.

Based in his study of Vitruvius, Andrea Palladio (Venetian, 1508-80) re-invented villeggiatura all’antica for the wealthy merchants and patricians of the Venetian Republic, designing working country estates to which they could retreat from the daily rounds of ruthless politics and cutthroat business. Palladio articulates this theory in I quattro libra dell-architettura, the four-volume edition of his plans and designs published in 1570:

Le Case della Città sono veramente al Gentil’huomo di molto splendore, e commodità, havendo in esse ad habitare tutto quel tempo, che li bisognerà per la amministratione della Repubblica, e governo delle cose proprie. Ma non minore utilità, e consolatione caverà forse dalle case di Villa, dove il resto del tempo si passerà in vedere, e ornare le sue possessioni, e con industria, e arte dell’Agricoltura accrescer le facultà, dove ancho per l’esercitio, che nella Villa si suol fare a piedi, e a cavallo, il corpo più agevolmente conserverà la sua sanità, e robustezza, e dove finalmente l’animo stanco delle agitationi della Città, prenderà molto ristauro, e consolatione, e quietamente potrà attendere à gli studij delle lettere, e alla contemplatione; come per questo gli antichi Savi solevano spesse volte usare di ritirarsi in simili luoghi, ove visitati da’ vertuosi amici, e parenti loro, havendo case, giardini, fontane, e simili luoghi sollazzevoli, e sopra tutto la lor Vertù; potevano facilmente conseguir quella beata vita, che qua giù si può ottenere.

—Andrea Palladio, I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, II:45

At the component level of thermal windows, pedimented porches, door frames and cornices, Palladio scrupulously replicated the the details of ancient architecture. At the level of composition, however, he freely mixed and matched components of temples, basilicas and baths. The resulting villas were classical in detail and wholly modern in their formal conception.

Often hastily-constructed from cheap materials, the eclectic assemblage of the Palladian villa had a theatrical quality to it, which was augmented by dramatic siting, often on hilltops, striking paths of approach, and grand entrances. The villa façade and entrance, in fact, served as a scenic backdrop for the staging of the elaborate arrival ceremonies of the period. Palladio’s last work, fittingly, was the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.


“The divine” Raphael Sanzio of Urbino (1483 – 1520), is the greatest draughtsman of the Western tradition. In his lifetime, his drawings were prized by collectors. The same remains true today: on 6 December 2012, a Raphael black-chalk drawing of a head of an apostle, from the collection of the 6th Duke of Devonshire, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for £ 29.7 million ($ 50.7 million), a record for a work on paper. Before that sale, the record price for a drawing had been set by Raphael’s “Head of a Muse,” which was sold by Christie’s for £ 29.1 million on 8 November 2009. And in July 1984, Christie’s had sold a drawing by Raphael, also from the Chatsworth collection, for £ 3.3 million, a record for a drawing at that time. The British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and the Chatsworth Collection are the repositories of the finest Raphael drawings, attesting to the long-standing taste for the Renaissance master in England.

Over the whole, in truth, there seems to breathe a spirit of divinity, so beautiful are the figures, and such the nobility of the picture, which makes whoever studies it with attention marvel how a human brain, by the imperfect means of mere colors, and by excellence of draughtsmanship, could make painted things appear alive.

This work is in every part so stupendous, that even the cartoons are held in the greatest veneration; wherefore Messer Francesco Masini, a gentleman of Cesena who, without the help of any master, but giving his attention by himself from his earliest childhood, guided by an extraordinary instinct of nature, to drawing and painting, has painted pictures that have been much extolled by good judges of art, possesses, among his many drawings and some ancient reliefs in marble, certain pieces of the cartoon which Raffaello made for this story of Heliodorus, and he holds them in the estimation that they truly deserve.

Albrecht Dürer, a most marvelous German painter, and an engraver of very beautiful copperplates, rendered tribute to Raffaello out of his own works, and sent to him a portrait of himself, a head, executed by him in gouache on a cloth of fine linen, which showed the same on either side, the lights being transparent and obtained without lead white, while the only grounding and coloring was done with watercolors, the white of the cloth serving for the ground of the bright parts. This work seemed to Raffaello to be marvelous, and he sent him, therefore, many drawings executed by his own hand, which were received very gladly by Albrecht.

O happy and blessed spirit, in that every man is glad to speak of thee, to celebrate thy actions, and to admire every drawing that thou didst leave to us! When this noble craftsman died, the art of painting might well have died also, seeing that when he closed his eyes, she was left as it were blind. And now for us who have survived him, it remains to imitate the good, nay, the supremely excellent method bequeathed to us by him as a pattern, and, as is called for by his merit and our obligations, to hold a most grateful remembrance of this in our minds, and to pay the highest honor to his memory with our lips. For in truth we have from him art, coloring, and invention harmonized and brought to such a pitch of perfection as could scarcely be hoped for; nor may any intellect ever think to surpass him.

— Giorgio Vasari, ”The Life of Raphael of Urbino,” Lives of the Artists (1550/1568).

DISEGNO II: Pisanello

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.

Continue reading DISEGNO II: Pisanello

DISEGNO I: Jacopo Pontormo


Disegno means both drawing and design—it signifies the ability to make the drawing and the intellectual capacity to invent its design.

Disegno…having its origin in the intellect, draws out from many single things a general judgment, it is like a form or idea of all the objects in nature.

—Giorgio Vasari, On Technique (1550).

Thus construed, drawing is the essential artistic skill upon which all others depend and, for that reason, it was the foundation of artistic education from the 15th through the early 20th centuries.

This is the first of five posts on disegno, light on commentary, the emphasis being on the images, which speak for themselves.

JACOPO CARUCCI, called PONTORMO (1494 – 1557) was the son of a painter and an apprentice to Leonardo da Vinci. Although he is was a celebrated practitioner of la maniera, or Mannerism, Pontormo’s superb chalk drawings show the profound influence of his friend Michelangelo in their sculptural approach to depicting anatomy.


Hans Holbein Sir Thomas Elyot

Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas Elyot, 1532-33, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle.

Hans Holbein the Younger returned to England in 1532 to work at the court of Henry VIII, where he was appointed painter to the king in 1536. In this capacity, he produced portraits of members of the royal family and eminent courtiers. His preparatory drawings often attain an even higher level of verisimilitude than the finished paintings.

SIR THOMAS ELYOT was a diplomat, clerk to the Privy Council, the sheriff of four counties and MP from the borough of Cambridge. A friend of Sir Thomas More, Elyot was also a humanist scholar, counting among his works the first comprehensive Latin dictionary, The Boke, called the Governour (a 16th-century best-seller), The Castel of Helth and translations of Plutarch and Pico della Mirandola. He sat for Holbein’s portrait around the age of 44.