Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Notes 1-60 - Notes 61-84

Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. [First appeared 1435-36] Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956].

Book Two

Because this [process of] learning may perhaps appear a fatiguing thing to young people, I ought to prove here that painting is not unworthy of consuming all our time and study.

Painting contains a divine force which not only makes absent men present, as friendship is said to do, [1] but moreover makes the dead seem almost alive. Even after many centuries they are recognized with great pleasure and with great admiration for the painter. Plutarch says that Cassander, one of the captains of Alexander, trembled through all his body because he saw a portrait of his King. [2] Agesilaos, the Lacedaemonian, never permitted anyone to paint him or to represent him in sculpture; his own form so displeased him that he avoided being known by those who would come after him. [3] Thus the face of a man who is already dead certainly lives a long life through painting. Some think that painting shaped the gods who were adored by the nations. It certainly was their greatest gift to mortals, for painting is most useful to that piety [4] which joins us to the gods and keeps our souls full of religion. They say that Phidias made in Aulis a god Jove so beautiful that it considerably strengthened the religion then current. [5]

The extent to which painting contributes to the most honorable delights of the soul and to the dignified beauty of things can be clearly seen not only from other things but [p. 63] especially from this: you can conceive of almost nothing so precious which is not made far richer and much more beautiful by association with painting. Ivory, gems and similar expensive things become more precious when worked by the hand of the painter. Gold worked by the art of painting outweighs an equal amount of unworked gold. If figures were made by the hand of Phidias or Praxiteles from lead itself--the lowest of metals--they would be valued more highly than silver. The painter, Zeuxis, began to give away his things because, as he said, they could not be bought. [6] He did not think it possible to come to a just price which would be satisfactory to the painter, for in painting animals he set himself up almost as a god.

Therefore, painting contains within itself this virtue that any master painter who sees his works adored will feel himself considered another god. Who can doubt that painting is the master art or at least not a small ornament of things? The architect, if I am not mistaken, takes from the painter architraves, bases, capitals, columns, façades and other similar things. All the smiths, sculptors, shops and guilds are governed by the rules and art of the painter. It is scarcely possible to find any superior art which is not concerned with painting. [7] so that whatever beauty is found can be said to be born of painting . [8] Moreover, painting was given the highest honour by our ancestors. For, although almost all other artists were called craftsmen, the painter alone was not considered in that category. For this reason, I say among my friends that Narcissus who was changed into a flower, according to the poets, was the inventor of panting. Since painting is already the flower of every art, the story of Narcissus is most to the point. What else can you call painting but a similar embracing with art of what is presented on the surface of the water in the fountain?

Quintilian said that the ancient painters used to circumscribe shadows cast by the sun, and from this our art has grown. [9] There are those who say that a certain Philocles, an Egyptian, and a Cleantes were among the first inventors of this art. The Egyptians affirm that painting was in use among them a good [p. 64] 6000 years before it was carried into Greece. [10] They say that painting was brought to us from Greece after the victory of Marcellus over Sicily. [11] But we are not interested in knowing who was the inventor of the art or the first painter, since we are not telling stories like Pliny. We are, however, building anew an art of painting about which nothing, as I see it, has been written in this age. They say the Euphranor of Isthmus wrote something about measure and about colours, that Antigonos and Xenocrates exchanged [12] something in their letters about painting, and that Apelles wrote to Pelleus about painting. Diogenes Laertius recounts that Demetrius made commentaries on painting. [13] Since all the other arts were recommended in letters by our great men, and since painting was not neglected by our Latin writers, I believe that our ancient Tuscan [ancestors] were already most expert masters in painting.

Trismegistus, an ancient writer, judged that painting and sculpture were born at the same time as religion, [14] for thus he answered Aesclepius: mankind portrays the gods in his own image from his memories of nature and his own origins. Who can here deny that in all things public and private, profane and religious, painting has taken all the most honourable parts to itself so that nothing has ever been so esteemed by mortals?

The incredible esteem in which painted panels have been held has been recorded. Aristides the Theban sold a single picture for one hundred talents. They say that Rhodes was not burned by King Demetrius for fear that a painting of Protogenes' should perish. [15] It could be said that the city of Rhodes was ransomed from the enemy by a single painting. Pliny [16] collected many other such things in which you can see that good painters have always been greatly honoured by all. The most noble citizens, philosophers and quite a few kings not only enjoyed painted things but also painted with their own hands. Lucius Manilius, Roman citizen, and Fabius, a most noble man, were painters. Turpilius, a Roman Knight, painted at Verona. Sitedius, praetor and proconsul, acquired renown as a [p. 65] painter. Pacuvius, tragic poet and nephew of the poet Ennius, painted Hercules in the Roman forum. Socrates, Plato, Metrodorus, Pyrrho were connoisseurs of painting. The emperors Nero, Valentinian, and Alexander Severus were most devoted to painting. It would be too long, however, to recount here how many princes and kings were pleased by painting. Nor does it seem necessary to me to recount all the throng of ancient painters. Their number is seen in the fact that 360 statues, part on horseback and part in chariots, were completed in four hundred days for Demetrius Phalerius, son of Phanostratus. [17] In a land in which there was such a great number of sculptors, can you believe that painters were lacking? I am certain that both these arts are related and nurtured by the same genius, painting with sculpture. But I always give higher rank to the genius of the painter because he works with more difficult things.

However, let us return to our work. Certainly the number of sculptors and painters was great in those times when princes and plebeians, learned and unlearned enjoyed painting, and when painted panels and portraits, considered the choicest booty from the provinces, were set up in the theatre. Finally L. Paulus Aemilius [18] and not a few other Roman citizens taught their sons painting along with the fine arts and the art of living piously and well. This excellent custom was frequently observed among the Greeks who, because they wished their sons to be well educated, taught them painting along with geometry and music. It was also an honour among women to know how to paint. Martia, daughter of Varro, is praised by the writers because she knew how to paint. Painting had such reputation and honour among the Greeks that laws and edicts were passed forbidding slaves to learn painting. It was certainly well that they did this, for the art of painting has always been most worthy of liberal minds and noble souls. [19]

As for me, I certainly consider a great appreciation of painting to be the best indication of a most perfect mind, even though it happens that this art is pleasing to the uneducated as [p. 66] well as to the educated. It occurs rarely in any other art that what delights the experienced also moves the inexperienced. In the same way you will find that many greatly desire to be well versed in painting. Nature herself seems to delight in painting, for in the cut faces of marble she often paints centaurs and faces of bearded and curly headed kings. It is said, moreover, that in a gem from Pyrrhus all nine Muses, each with her symbol, are be found clearly painted by nature. [20] Add to this that in no other art does it happen that both the experienced and the inexperienced of every age apply themselves so voluntarily to the learning and exercising of it. Allow me to speak of myself here. Whenever I turn to painting for my recreation, which I frequently do when I am tired of more pressing affairs, I apply myself to it with so much pleasure that I am surprised that three or four hours have passed. [21] Thus this art gives pleasure and praise to whoever is skilled in it; riches and perpetual fame to one who is master of it. Since these things are so, since painting is the best and most ancient ornament of things, worthy of free men, pleasing to learned and unlearned, I greatly encourage our studious youth to exert themselves as much as possible in painting.

Therefore, I recommend that he who is devoted to painting should learn this art. The first great care of one who seeks to obtain eminence in painting is to acquire the fame and renown of the ancients. It is useful to remember that avarice is always the enemy of virtue. Rarely can anyone given to acquisition of wealth acquire renown. I have seen many in the first flower of learning suddenly sink to money-making. As a result they acquire neither riches nor praise. However, if they had increased their talent with study, they would have easily soared into great renown. Then they would have acquired much riches and pleasure.

Enough has been said of this up to here. Let us return to our subject. Painting is divided into three parts; these divisions we have taken from nature. [p. 67]

Since painting strives to represent things seen, let us note in what way things are seen. First, in seeing a thing, we say it occupies a place. Here the painter, in describing this space, will say this, his guiding an outline with a line, is circumscription.

Then, looking at it again, we understand that several planes of the observed body belong together, and here the painter drawing them in their places will say that he is making a composition.

Finally, we determine more clearly the colours and qualities of the planes. Since every difference in them is born from light, we can properly call their representation the reception of light. [22]

Therefore, painting is composed of circumscription, composition and reception of light. In the following we shall treat of them most briefly.

First we will treat of circumscription. Circumscription describes the turning of the outline [23] in the painting. It is said that Parrhasius, the painter who talked with Socrates in Xenophon, was most expert in this and had examined these lines carefully. I say that in this circumscription one ought to take great pains to make these lines so fine that they can scarcely be seen. The painter Apelles used to practice this and to compete with Protogenes. [24] Because circumscription is nothing but the drawing of the outline, which when done with too apparent a line does not indicate a margin of the plane but a neat cleavage, [25] I should desire that only the movement of the outline be inscribed. To this, I insist, one must devote a great amount of practice. No composition and no reception of light can be praised where there is not also a good circumscription--that is, a good drawing--which is most pleasant in itself. Here is a good aid for whoever wishes to make use of it. Nothing can be found, so I think, which is more useful than that veil which among my friends I call an intersection. [26] It is a thin veil, finely woven, dyed whatever colour pleases you and with larger threads [marking out] as many parallels as you prefer. This veil I place between the eye and the thing seen, so the visual pyramid [p. 68] penetrates through the thinness of the veil. This veil can be of great use to you. Firstly, it always presents to you the same unchanged plane. Where you have placed certain limits, you quickly find the true cuspid of the pyramid. This would certainly be difficult without the intersection. You know how impossible it is to imitate a thing which does not continue to present the same appearance, for it is easier to copy painting than sculpture. You know that as the distance and the position of the centre are changed, the thing you see seems greatly altered. Therefore the veil will be, as I said, very useful to you, since it is always the same thing in the process of seeing. Secondly, you will easily be able to constitute the limits of the outline and of the planes. [27] Here in this parallel you will see the forehead, in that the nose, in another the cheeks, in this lower one the chin and all outstanding features in their place. On panels or on walls, divided into similar parallels, you will be able to put everything in its place. Finally, the veil will greatly aid you in learning how to paint when you see in it round objects and objects in relief. By these things you will be able to test with experience and judgment how very useful our veil can be to you.

Nor will I hear what some may say, that the painter should not use these things, because even though they are great aids in painting well, [they] may perhaps be so made that he will soon be able to do nothing without them. [28] I do not believe that infinite pains should be demanded of the painter, but paintings which appear in good relief and a good likeness of the subject should be expected. This I do not believe can ever be done without the use of the veil. Therefore, let us use this intersection, that is the veil, as we have said. Then, when a painter wishes to try his skill without the veil, he should note first the limits of objects within the parallels of the veil. Or he may study them in another manner by imagining a line intersected by its perpendicular wherever these limits are located. But since the outlines of the planes are frequently unknown to the inexpert [p. 69] painter--doubtful and uncertain as in the faces of man where he does not discern the distance between the forehead and the temples--it would be well to teach him how he can come to understand them.

This is clearly demonstrated by nature. We see in flat planes that each one reveals itself by its lines, lights and shades. Again spherical concave planes are divided into many planes as if chequered with spots of light and shade. Therefore each part with its highlights, divided by those which are dark, would thus appear as many planes. However, if one continuous plane, beginning shadowy, becomes little by little lighter, then note the middle of it with a very fine line so that the method of colouring it will be less in doubt.

Circumscription, [29] which pertains not a little to composition, remains to be treated. For this it is well to know what composition is in painting. I say composition is that rule in painting by which the parts fit together [30] in the painted work. The greatest work of the painter is the istoria. Bodies are part of the istoria, members are parts of the bodies, planes are parts of the members. Circumscription is nothing more than a certain rule for designing [31] the outline of the planes, since some planes are small as in animals, others are large as those of buildings and colossi.

Concerning the small planes the precepts given up to here will be enough--precepts which we demonstrated when we learned how to use the veil. Perhaps we should find new rules for the larger planes. We must remember what has been said above in the instruction on planes, rays, the pyramid, the intersection, and on the parallels of the pavement, the centric point and line. On the pavement, drawn with its lines and parallels, walls and similar planes which we have called jacent are to be built. Here I will describe just briefly what I do. First I begin with the foundation. I place the width and the length of the wall in its parallels. In this laying out [32] I follow nature. I note that, in any squared body which has right angles, only two on joined sides can be seen at one time. I observe this in [p. 70] describing the foundations of the walls. I always commence first of all with the nearest plane, the greatest of those which are equidistant from the cross-section. These I put before the others, describing their width and height in those parallels of the pavement in such a way that for as many braccia as I choose they occupy as many parallels. To find the middle of each parallel, I find where the diameters mutually intersect. And thus, as I wish, I draw the foundations. Then the height follows by not at all difficult rules. I know the height of the wall contains in itself this proportion, that as much as it is from the place where it starts on the pavement to the centric line, so much it rises upwards. When you wish this quantity of the pavement up to the centric line to be the height of a man, there will, therefore, be these three braccia. Since you wish your wall to be twelve braccia, you go up three times the distance from the centric line to that place on the pavement. [33] With these rules we shall be able to draw all planes which have angles.

The way in which circles are drawn remains to be treated. Circles are drawn from angles. I do it in this manner. In a space I make a quadrangle with right angles, and I divide the sides of this quadrangle in the painting. From each point to its opposite point I draw lines and thus the space is divided into many small quadrangles. Here I draw a circle as large as I want it so the lines of the small quadrangles and the lines of the circle cut each other mutually. I note all the points of this cutting; these places I mark on the parallels of the pavement in my painting. It would be an extreme and almost never-ending labour to divide the circle in many places with new minor parallels and with a great number of points to complete the circle. For this reason, when I have noted eight or more intersections, I continue the circle in the painting with my mind, guiding the lines from point to point. [34] Would it perhaps be briefer to derive it from a shadow? Certainly, if the body which made the shadow were in the middle, located by rule in its place. [p. 71]

We have considered in what way with the aid of the parallels the large angular and round planes are drawn. Since we have finished the circumscription, that is the way of drawing. [35] composition remains to be treated.

It would be well to repeat what composition is. Composition is that rule of painting by which the parts of the things seen fit together in the painting. The greatest work of the painter is not a colossus, but an istoria. Istoria gives greater renown to the intellect than any colossus. [36] Bodies are part of the istoria, members are parts of the bodies, planes part of the members. The primary parts of painting, therefore, are the planes. That grace in bodies which we call beauty is born from the composition of the planes. A face which has its planes here large and there small, here raised and there depressed--similar to the faces of old women--would be most ugly in appearance. Those faces which have the planes joined in such a way that they take shades and lights agreeable and pleasantly, and have no harshness of the relief angles, these we should certainly say are beautiful and delicate faces.

Therefore, in this composition of planes grace and beauty of things should be intensely sought for. It seems to me that there is no more certain and fitting way for one who wishes to pursue this than to take them from nature, keeping in mind in what way nature, marvellous artificer of things, has composed the planes in beautiful bodies. In imitating these it is well both to take great care and to think deeply about them and to make great use of our above-mentioned veil. When we wish to put into practice what we have learned from nature, we will always first note the limits to which we shall draw our lines.

Up to here we have talked of the composition of planes; members follow. First of all, take care that all the members are suitable. [37] They are suitable when size, function, [38] kind, [39] colour and other similar things correspond to a single beauty. If in a painting the head should be very large and the breasts small, the hand ample and the foot swollen, and the body puffed up, this composition would certainly be ugly to see. Therefore, we ought to have a certain rule for the size of the members. In this measuring it would be useful to isolate [40] each bone of the animal, on this add its muscles, then clothe all of it with its flesh. [41] Here someone will object that I have said above that the painter has only to do with things which are visible. He has a good memory. Before dressing a man we first draw him nude, then we enfold him in draperies. So in painting the nude we place first his bones and muscles which we then cover with flesh so that it is not difficult to understand where each muscle is beneath. Since nature has here carried the measurements to a mean, [42] there is not a little utility in recognizing them. Serious painters will take this task on themselves from nature. They will put as much study and work into remembering what they take from nature as they do in discovering it. A thing to remember: to measure an animate body take one of its members by which the others can be measured. Vitruvius, the architect, measured the height of man by the feet. It seems a more worthy thing to me for the other members to have reference to the head, because I have noticed as common in all men that the foot is as long as from the chin to the crown of the head. Thus one member is taken which corresponds to all the other members in such a way that none of them is non-proportional [43] to the others in length and width.

Then provide that every member can fulfil its function in what it is doing. A runner is expected to throw his hands and feet, but I prefer a philosopher while he is talking to show much more modesty than skill in fencing. [44] The painter Demon represented hoplites in a contest so that you would say one was sweating while another, putting down his weapons, clearly seemed to be out of breath. Ulysses has been painted so that you could recognize his insanity was only feigned and not real. An istoria is praised in Rome in which Meleager, a dead man, weighs down those who carry him. In every one of his members he appears completely dead--everything hangs, hands, fingers and head; everything falls heavily. [45] [p. 73] Anyone who tries to express a dead body--which is certainly most difficult--will be a good painter, if he knows how to make each member of a body flaccid. [46] Thus, in every painting take care that each member performs its function so that none by the slightest articulation remains flaccid. The members of the dead should be dead to the very nails; of live persons every member should be alive in the smallest part. The body is said to live when it has certain voluntary movements. It is said to be dead when the members no longer are able to carry on the functions of life, that is, movement and feeling. Therefore the painter, wishing to express life in things, will make every part in motion--but in motion he will keep loveliness and grace. The most graceful movements and the most lively are those which move upwards into the air.

Again we say that in composition the members ought to have certain things in common. It would be absurd if the hands of Helen or of Ophigenia were old and gnarled, [47] or if Nestor's breast were youthful and his neck smooth; or Ganymede's forehead were wrinkled and his thighs those of a labourer; if Milo, a very strong man, were to have short and slender flanks; if a figure whose face is fresh and full should have muscular arms and fleshless hands. Anyone painting Achemenides, found by Aeneas on the island, with the face which Virgil describes [48] and the other members not following such consumptiveness, would be a painter to laugh at. For this reason, all the members ought to conform to a certain appropriateness. I should also like the members to correspond to one colour, because it would be little becoming for one who has a rosy, white and pleasant face to have the breast and the other members ugly and dirty. Therefore, in the composition of members we ought to follow what I have said about size, function, kind and colour. Then everything has its dignity. It would not be suitable to dress Venus or Minerva in the rough wool cloak of a soldier; [49] it would be the same to dress Mars or Jove in the clothes of a woman. The antique painters took care in painting Castor [p. 74] and Pollux to make them appear brothers, but in the one a pugnacious nature appeared and in the other agility. They also took pains to show under the robe of Vulcan his handicap of hobbling [50] --so great was their diligence in expressing the function, kind and dignity of whatever they painted.

The fame of the painter and of his art is found in the following--the composition of bodies. Certain things said in the composition of members also apply here. Bodies ought to harmonize together in the istoria in both size and function. [51] It would be absurd for one who paints the Centaurs fighting after the banquet to leave a vase of wine still standing in such tumult. [We would call] it a weakness if in the same distance one person should appear larger than another, or if dogs should be equal to horses, or better, as I frequently see, if a man is placed in a building as in a closed casket where there is scarcely room to sit down. For these reasons, all bodies should harmonize in size and in function to what is happening in the istoria. [52]

The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasantly attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul. That which first gives pleasure in the istoria comes from copiousness and variety of things. In food and in music novelty and abundance please, as they are different from the old and usual. So the soul is delighted by all copiousness and variety. For this reason copiousness and variety please in painting. [53] I say that istoria is most copious in which in their places are mixed old, young, maidens, women, youths, young boys, fowls, small dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, landscapes and all similar things. I will praise any copiousness which belongs in that iistoria. Frequently the copiousness of the painter begets much pleasure when the beholder stands staring at all the things there. However, I prefer this copiousness to be embellished with a certain variety, yet moderate and grave with dignity and truth. I blame those painters who, where they wish [p. 75] to appear copious, leave nothing vacant. It is not composition but dissolute confusion which they disseminate. There the istoria does not appear to aim to do something worthy but rather to be in tumult.

Perhaps solitude will be pleasing for one who greatly desires dignity in his iistoria . The majesty of princes is said to be contained in the paucity of words with which they make their wishes known. Thus in the istoria a certain suitable number of bodies gives not a little dignity. Solitude displeases me in istorie; nor can I praise any copiousness which is without dignity. [54] I dislike solitude in istorie, nevertheless I do not at all praise that copiousness which shrinks from dignity. I strongly approve in all istoria that which I see observed by tragic and comic poets. They tell a story with as few characters as possible. In my judgment no picture will be filled with so great a variety of things that nine or ten men are not able to act with dignity. I think pertinent to this the statement of Varro who admitted no more than nine guests to a banquet in order to avoid confusion.




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