Notebook, 1993-

Alberti 'On Painting' - Notes 1-25

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 Three

Since there are other useful things which will make a painter such that he can attain to perfect fame, we should not omit them in this commentary. We will treat of them most briefly. I say the function of the painter is this: to describe with lines and to tint with colour on whatever panel or wall is given him similar observed planes of any body so that at a certain distance and in a certain position from the centre they appear in relief, seem to have mass and to be lifelike. The aim of painting: to give pleasure, good will and fame to the painter more than riches. If painters will follow this, their painting will hold the eyes and the soul of the observer. We have stated above how they could do this in the passages on composition and the reception of light. However, I would be delighted if the painter, in order to remember all these things well, should be a good man and learned in liberal arts. Everyone knows how much more the goodness of a man is worth than all his industry or art in acquiring the benevolence of the citizens. No one doubts that the good will of many is a great help to the artist in acquiring both fame and wealth. It often happens that the rich, moved more by amiability than by love of the arts, reward first one who is modest and good, leaving behind another [p. 89] painter perhaps better in art but not so good in his habits. Therefore the painter ought to acquire many good habits--principally humanity and affability. He will thus have a firm aid against poverty in good will, the greatest aid in learning his art well.

It would please me if the painter were as learned as possible in all the liberal arts, but first of all I desire that he know geometry. I am pleased by the maxims of Pamphilos, [1] the ancient and virtuous painter from whom the young nobles began to learn to paint. He thought that no painter could paint well who did not know much geometry. Our instruction in which all the perfect absolute art of painting is explained will be easily understood by a geometrician, but one who is ignorant in geometry will not understand these or any other rules of painting. Therefore, I assert that it is necessary for the painter to learn geometry.

For their own enjoyment artists should associate with poets and orators who have many embellishments in common with painters and who have a broad knowledge of many things whose greatest praise consists in the invention. A beautiful invention has such force, as will be seen, that even without painting it is pleasing in itself alone. Invention is praised when one reads the description of Calumny which Lucian recounts was painted by Apelles. [2] I do not think it alien to our subject. I will narrate it here in order to point out to painters where they ought to be most aware and careful in their inventions. In this painting there was a man with very large ears. Near him, on either side, stood two women, one called Ignorance, the other Suspicion. Farther, on the other side, came Calumny, a woman who appeared most beautiful but seemed too rafty in the face. In her right hand she held a lighted torch, with the other hand she dragged by the hair a young man who held up his arms to heaven. There was also a man, pale, ugly, all filthy and with an iniquitous aspect, who could be compared to one who has [p. 90] become thin and feverish with long fatigues on the fields of battle; he was the guide of Calumny and was called Hatred. And there were two other women, serving women of Calumy who arranged her ornaments and robes. They were called Envy and Fraud. Behind these was Penitence, a woman dressed in funeral robes, who stood as if completely dejected. Behind her followed a young girl, shameful and modest, called Truth. If this story pleased as it was being told, think how much pleasure and delight there must have been in seeing it painted by the hand of Apelles.

I should like to see those three sisters to whom Hesiod gave the names of Alglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia, who were painted laughing and taking each other by the hand, with their clothes girdled and very clean. [3] This symbolizes liberality, since one of these sisters gives, the other receives, the third returns the benefit; these degrees ought to be in all perfect liberality. How much praise similar inventions give to the artist should be clear. Therefore I advise that each painter should make himself familiar with poets, rhetoricians and others equally well learned in letters. They will give new inventions or at least aid in beautifully composing the istoria through which the painter will surely acquire much praise and renown in his painting. Phidias, more famous than other painters, confessed that he had learned from Homer, the poet, how to paint Jove with much divine majesty. [4] Thus we who are more eager to learn than to acquire wealth will learn from our poets more and more things useful to painting.

However, it frequently happens that the studious and desirous of learning become tired where they do not know how to learn. Because of this, fatigue increases. For this reason we will speak of how one becomes learned in this art. Never doubt that the head and principle of this art, and thus every one of its degrees in becoming a master, ought to be taken from nature. Perfection in the art will be found with diligence, application and study. [p. 91]

I should like youths who first come to painting to do as those who are taught to write. We teach the latter by first separating all the forms of the letters which the ancients called elements. Then we teach the syllables, next we teach how to put together all the words. Our pupils ought to follow this rule in painting. First of all they should learn how to draw the outlines of the planes well. Here they would be exercised in the elements of painting. [5] They should learn how to join the planes together. Then they should learn each distinct form of each member and commit to memory whatever differences there may be in each member. The differences of the members are many and unclear. You will see some whose nose projects and is humped, others will have flaring simian nostrils, others pendant lips, still others the adornment of thin little lips. Thus the painter should examine every part of each member, since faces are more or less different. Again he should note that our youthful members, as can be seen, are round and delicate as if turned; in a more tried age they are harsh and angular. All these things the studious painter will know from nature, and he will consider most assiduously how each one appears. He will continually be wide awake with his eyes and mind in this investigation and work. He will remember the lap of a seated person; he will remember how graceful are the hanging legs of him who is seated; he will note in standing persons that there is no part of the body which does not know its function and its measure. It will please him not only to make all the parts true to his model but also to add beauty there; because in painting, loveliness is not less pleasing than richness. Demetrius, an antique painter, failed to obtain the ultimate praise because he was much more careful to make things similar to the natural than to the lovely. [6]

For this reason it is useful to take from every beautiful body each one of the praised parts and always strive by your diligence and study to understand and express much loveliness. This is very difficult, because complete beauties are never found in a [p. 92] single body, but are rare and dispersed in many bodies. Therefore we ought to give our every care to discovering and learning beauty. It is proverbial that he who gives himself up to learning and meditating difficult things will easily apprehend the simpler. [7] Nothing is ever so difficult that study and application cannot conquer it.

In order not to waste his study and care the painter should avoid the custom of some simpletons. Presumptuous of their own intellect and without any example from nature to follow with their eyes or minds, they study by themselves to acquire fame in painting. They do not learn how to paint well, but become accustomed to their own errors. This idea of beauty, [8] which the well trained barely discern, flees from the intellect of the inexpert.

In order to make a painting which the citizens placed in the temple of Lucina near Croton, Zeuxis, the most excellent most skilled painter of all, did not rely rashly on his own skills as every painter does today. He thought that he would not be able to find so much beauty as he was looking for in a single body, since it was not given to a single one by nature. He chose, therefore, the five most beautiful young girls from the youth of that land in order to draw from them whatever beauty is praised in a woman. [9] He was a wise painter. Frequently when there is no example from nature which they can follow, painters attempt to acquire by their own skill a reputation for beauty. Here it easily happens that the beauty which they search is never found even with much work. But they do acquire bad practices which, even when they wish, they will never be able to leave. [10] He who dares take everything he fashions from nature will make his hand so skilled that whatever he does will always appear to be drawn from nature.

The following demonstrates what the painter should seek out in nature. Where the face of some well known and worthy man is put in the istoria --even though there are other figures of a much more perfect art and more pleasing than this one-- [p. 93] that well known face will draw to itself first of all the eyes of one who looks at theistoria . So great is the force of anything drawn from nature. For this reason always take from nature that which you wish to paint, and always choose the most beautiful.

Take care not to do as many who learn to draw on small tablets. I prefer you to practise by drawing things large, as if equal in representation and reality. In small drawings every large weakness is easily hidden; in the large the smallest weakness is easily seen.

Galen, the doctor, writes that in his time he saw carved on a ring Phaethon drawn by four horses whose reins , breasts and feet were distinctly seen. Our painters leave this sort of fame to the sculptors of gems, for they are engaged in greater fields of praise. Anyone who knows how to paint a large figure well can easily form other small things with a single stroke. One who uses his hand and mind on these little coral necklaces and bracelets will easily err in larger things.

Some copy figures of other painters. Here they seek the praise given to Calamis, the sculptor who sculpted two cups, as is recorded, in which he copied things similarly done by Zenodorus so that no difference could be seen between them. [11] Our painters will certainly be in great error if they do not know that anyone painting--if he forces himself to represent things as he sees them in our veil--will paint things taken from nature sweetly and correctly. If perhaps you prefer to copy the works of others, because they have more patience with you than living things, it would please me more to [have you] copy a mediocre sculpture than an excellent painting. Nothing more can be acquired from paintings but the knowledge of how to imitate them; from sculpture you learn to imitate it and how to recognize and draw the lights. [12] It is very useful in evaluating the lights to squint or to close the sight with the eyelashes so that the lights are dimmed and seem painted in intersections. Perhaps it will be more useful to practise relief than drawing. [p. 94] If I am not mistaken, sculpture is more certain than painting. He who does not understand the relief of the thing he paints will rarely paint it well. It is easier to find relief in sculpting than in painting. To prove that this argument is to the point: in almost every age there are some mediocre sculptors, but inept or even ridiculous painters are even more common. [13]

When you practice, always have before you some elegant and singular example, which you imitate and observe. In imitating it I think you will need to have diligence joined with quickness. Never take the pencil or brush in hand if you have not first constituted with your mind all that you have to do and how you have to do it. It will certainly be better to correct the errors with the mind than to remove them from the painting. When you acquire the habit of doing nothing without first having ordered it, you will become a much faster painter than Aesclepiodoros, who, they say, was the most rapid of all ancient painters. [14] Your mind moved and warmed by exercise gives itself with greater promptness and dispatch to the work; and that hand will proceed most rapidly which is well guided by a certain rule of the mind. If anyone should find himself a lazy artist, he will be indolent for this reason: he will try slowly and fearfully those things which he has not first made well known and clear in his mind. While he turns around among these shadows of errors like a blind man with his stick, he will probe with his brush this way and that. Therefore, never--if not with a well learned, discerning mind--never will he put hand to work.

However, since the istoria is the greatest work of the painter, in which there ought to be copiousness and elegance in all things, we should take care to know how to paint not only a man but also horses, dogs and all other animals and things worthy of being seen. This is necessary for making our istoria very copious, a thing which I have confessed to you is most important. None of the ancients agrees with my belief that one cannot be excellent in all things but only mediocre. I say, [p. 95] better, I affirm, that we ought to make every effort that those things which when acquired give praise and when neglected allow censure shall not be lacking because of our negligence. Nicias, the Athenian painter, carefully painted women; [15] Heraclides was praised for painting ships; Serapion was not able to paint men, everything else he painted well; Dionysios was unable to paint anything but men; Alexander, who painted the portico of Pompeius, above all painted animals well, dogs the best; Aurelius, who was always in love, only painted goddesses, drawing in their faces the faces of those he loved; Phidias in showing the majesty of the gods gave more care to following the beauty of men; Euphranor delighted in expressing the dignity of nobles and in this he surpassed all the others. [16] ^Thus there were unequal faculties in each, for nature gives to each intellect its own gifts. We ought, therefore, not to be so content with them that through negligence we tire of trying to advance with our study as far as we can. The gifts of nature should be cultivated with study and exercise and thus from day to day made greater. We should pass over nothing in our negligence which can bring us praise.

When we have an istoria to paint, we will first think out the method and the order to make it most beautiful; we will make our drawings and models of all the istoria and every one of its parts first of all; [17] we will call our friends to give advice about it. We will force ourselves to have every part well thought out in our mind from the beginning, so that in the work we will know how each thing ought to be done and where located. In order to have the greatest certainty we will divide our models with parallels. In the public work we will take from our drawings just as we draw maxims and citations from our private commentaries. [18]

In making the istoria we should have speed of execution joined with diligence; this ought to obviate fastidiousness or tediousness of execution in us. We will avoid the urge to finish things which makes us bungle the work. Sometimes it is well [p. 96] to leave the fatigue of working [to seek] recreation for the soul. It is not useful to do as some who undertake several works, beginning this one today and that one tomorrow and thus leaving them not perfected. When you begin a work make it complete in every part. There was one who showed Apelles a painting, saying, 'Today I did this.' Appeles replied to him, 'It would not surprise me if you have many others similarly done.' [19] I have seen some painters and sculptors, and even rhetoricians and poets--if there are rhetoricians and poets in this age--devote themselves to a work with a zealous eagerness. Then their intellectual ardour cools off and they leave the rough and scarcely begun work to take up new things with renewed eagerness. I certainly censure such men. Anyone who wishes his things to be acceptable and pleasing to posterity should first think out thoroughly what he has to do and then with diligence perfect it. In few things is diligence prized more than intellect. But it is best to avoid the vitiating effect [20] of those who wish to eliminate every weakness and make everything too polished. In their hands the work becomes old and squeezed dry before it is finished. The ancient painter Protogenes was criticized because he did not know how to raise his hand from his panel. [21] He deserves this, because it seems to me a bizarre act of stubbornness, not one of an intelligent man. It is well to exert ourselves as much as our intellect is capable to see that by our diligence things are done well. To wish that they be more than appropriate in every respect is not possible.

Therefore, give to things a moderated diligence and take the advice of friends. In painting open yourself to whoever comes and hear everyone. The work of the painter attempts to be pleasing to the multitude; therefore do not disdain the judgment and views of the multitude when it is possible to satisfy their opinions. They say that Apelles hid behind a painting so that each one could more freely criticize it and so that he could hear their honest opinions: Thus he heard how each one blamed or praised. [22] Hence I wish our painter openly to demand [p. 97] and to hear each one who judges him. This will be most useful to him in acquiring pleasantness. There is no one who does not think it an honour to pass judgment on the labours of others. It scarcely seems doubtful to me that the envious and detractors prejudice the fame of the painter. To the painter all his merits were always known, and the things which he has painted well are testimonies to his fame. Therefore, hear each one, but first of all have everything well thought out and well thrashed out with yourself. When you have heard each one, believe that most expert.

I have had these things to say of painting. If they are useful and helpful to painters, I ask only that as a reward for my pains they paint my face in their istoria in such a way that it seems pleasant and I may be seen a student of the art. [23] If this work is less satisfactory than your expectations, do not censure me because I had the courage to undertake such great matters. If my intellect has not been able to finish what it was praiseworthy to try, perhaps only my will ought to be praised in these great and difficult things. Perhaps someone will come after me who will correct my written errors. In this most worthy and most excellent art he may be more helpful and useful to the painters than I [have been]. If such a one does come, I beg and urge that he take up this task with a free and ready spirit, and exercise his intellect to make this noble art well governed.

However, I was pleased to seize the glory of being the first to write of this most subtle art. [24] If I have little been able to satisfy the reader, blame nature no less than me, for it imposes this law on things, that there is no art which has not had its beginnings in things full of errors. Nothing is at the same time both new born and perfect. [25]

I believe that if my successor is more studious and more capable than I he will [be able to] make painting absolute and perfect.

Finished, praise be to God, the 17th day of the month of July, 1436.



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