Italian Renaissance Drawing, from ‘Primi Pensieri’ to Finished Piece
We marvel at Renaissance paintings, but equally—if not more enticing—is to examine the process of a work’s creation through its preparatory drawings. Surviving drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries offer the chance to see the evolution of a pictorial idea from infancy to final state. They can also showcase how artists often collaborated with other artists in the creation of the finished product, revealing valuable visual evidence as to how artistic ingenuity was at times the result not of one set of hands, but of many.
Why Draw? ‘Invenzione’, ‘Disegno’, and Drawing as Practice
Today, the drawings of sixteenth-century figures are coveted by museums, but in their day such works on paper served a more utilitarian purpose—as a space to work out artistic ideas. This tradition of preparatory drawing had taken root in the previous century when paper—specifically laid paper (made from cotton or linen fibers that are beaten into a paste or pulp)—became more widely available. From that point, independent drawing rapidly became a key means for artists across the European continent to prepare for a commission or to work out specific elements of a forthcoming composition.
As drawing became more prevalent, it became a means for the artists of the Italian peninsula to explore two key threads of Renaissance artistic process: invenzione (invention), and disegno (draftsmanship/design). The element of invenzione could be tied generally to the subject of a work of art but can also be interpreted as the element of pure innovation in an image’s presentation. Such practice was exemplified in the prolific sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, which teemed with images ranging from anatomical studies to engineering wonders.
Invenzione, though, was not restricted to conjuring only the imagined or unknown; it was also present in drawings like Titian’s studies for Saint Sebastian wherein he challenged conventional iconography of the saint’s martyrdom by experimenting with new perspectives.
Paired with this spirit of invention was disegno, a term that literally translates to “drawing” but rather emphasized highly the esteemed skill of crafting harmonious and proportional compositions and figures. Artists like Michelangelo were renowned for their draftsmanship as a vehicle to showcase brilliantly drawn bodies and spaces within their work. Examples like his preparatory studies for the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling showcase this well, as even the seemingly minute detail of the sibyl’s toe is lavished with attention.
This emphasis on disegno increased during the fifteenth century—emerging, for instance, in the writings of Antonio di Pietro Averlino (better known as Filarete)—but arguably grew to new prominence in the sixteenth century. For example, following in the mode of Giorgio Vasari, who declared disegno the father of the three arts (painting, sculpture, and architecture), Vincenzo Danti published in 1567 his Trattato delle perfetti proporzioni (Treatise on Ideal Proportions), in which he declared the beauty of art as stemming from the artist’s capabilities in disegno to capture these ratios; Federico Zuccaro echoed a similar sentiment in L’Idea di pittori, scultori ed architetti (1607), in which he proclaimed “painting is . . . the daughter of Nature and Disegno.” Disegno was particularly celebrated in cities like Rome, where the study of antique artifacts prompted artists to excel in conjuring the details of the body.
Methods of Drawing
Renaissance drawings can be broken into several general categories that relate to the state of the drawing in the larger compositional process. These include:
When working out a new concept, Renaissance artists would typically sketch (in graphite or pen and ink on paper) in loose strokes to define fragments of figures or architecture. A prime example is Paolo Veronese’s sheet featuring Studies for the Allegories of Love, where the artist envisioned a series of figures with gestural efficiency. One can surmise that Veronese here aimed not to capture each figure’s meticulous muscular contours or precise proportions but rather the core expressiveness and contours of each form as he considered their relationships within the composition. These relatively simplified silhouettes could reflect the infancy of an artistic idea or experimentation with variations borrowed from earlier works. Sometimes an early drawing is referred to as a primo pensiero, or “first thought” or as a schizzo, or (quick) sketch.
More formal than preliminary drawings, life drawings, like a study of nude men by Raphael, were a means for artists to study from specific poses taken by living figures in the studio.
These more carefully conjured drawings could range from incomplete assemblies (like the drawing by Raphael noted above) or could provide more complete compositional groupings—as seen in a drawing for Raphael’s Massacre of the Innocents.
These were often done in pen and ink or metalpoint (a type of drawing made by guiding a stylus across a prepared sheet) because both offered a balance of precise line and tonal effects (through hatching) that could conjure the intricacies of the body’s mass and proportion. Black, red, and white chalk also served well to capture the subtleties of highlight and shadow.
Modelli (Models) and Cartone (Cartoons)
Formal, finished drawings could serve as the final pitch for artists to share their plans for a commission with their patron. Modelli (singular: modello), or model drawings, were a crucial tool for artists to relay their vision, and at times they were also included in commission contracts as a prelude to a finished work. Similarly, cartoons, such as of a Bishop in Bust-Length rendered by Parmigianino, were fully rendered illustrations that offered a preview of future paintings or frescoes (or at least portions of them) rendered at full scale. This way, patrons could see exactly what the artist planned to produce and how it might appear in a given space.
Many finished cartoons of the 15th and 16th centuries were used to transfer the drawing to the surface that would contain the finished work. One way to accomplish this was through charcoal transfer. In this method, the reverse of a drawing (or separate paper sheet) would be darkened with charcoal and placed between the drawing and the final compositional surface (panel, canvas, etc). Then, the artist would follow the central contours of the drawing using a stylus, resulting in the impression of charcoal outlines across the surface underneath to guide the painting’s creation.
Another common method was that of spolveri (singular: spolvero), a type of cartoon destined for transfer by pouncing. In this process, the spolvero would be suspended upon a future composition’s canvas or fresco’s intonaco and then would be pricked along its main contours. The intonaco is the finely-ground surface layer of plaster used in the final phase of buon fresco creation. Applied thinly atop the lower, rougher arriccio layer, the smooth intonaco layer, while wet, would be come the surface upon which pigments would be applied. Pounce, a fine charcoal dust, would then be powdered on and gently pressed onto the surface of the spolvero, allowing those pricked holes to become darkened with the dust. The result was that, when the spolvero was taken down, the pricked contours remained—similar to the outlines of the stylus in the charcoal transfer method—thanks to the charcoal dust that was transferred through the pricked holes.
While not all of these transfer drawings survive, those that do reveal evidence of their transfer to another surface. Evidence of such use still survives today: Vittore Carpaccio’s Standing Female Figure, for instance, still bears the prick marks from this transfer process. This is valuable because it offers both a window into the technical process of transfer and an opportunity to assess how artists often made final adjustments to compositions.
Materials of Drawing
Variety among renaissance drawings was made possible in part because of the media available. Generally speaking, these drawings incorporated several main materials:
Key to renaissance drawing was access to laid paper, which had grown in popularity in earlier centuries as a more cost-effective alternative to other substrates like saturated/simple_tooltip]vellum. Laid paper was made from cotton or linen fibers that were and then beaten into a paste or pulp. This pulp would be gathered in a vat, into which a metal screen or sieve would be dipped. The pulp would stick to the screen and then be spread thin between a mesh of wires that would apply adequate pressure to flatten the pulp and drain the excess liquid. Once dry, a sheet of paper would be formed, with the characteristic grid pattern of that metal mesh often still visible on the sheet.
A type of drawing made by guiding a stylus across a prepared sheet, metalpoint was also a preferred media among renaissance artists because of the subtlety and fluidity of line and detail that could be achieved. The stylus was most often made from silver (but could also be made from other metals such as gold or copper), and the paper would be prepared by the application of a priming substance (for example, bone ash or calcium carbonate plus a binding agent). When dry, this treatment allowed adequate resistance to pull particles from the metal stylus and thus leave a mark on the sheet.
Though various types of inks were used, one of the more popular types among 15th- and 16th-century artists was iron-gall ink, which paired the acids of oak galls (or oak apples) with iron salts to create a rich, dark brown or sepia tone. A recipe for iron-gall ink is outlined in printmaker Ugo da Carpi’s Thesauro de Scrittori (1535). Inks like this could be applied via a precise reed pen point or could be painted as washes using a brush.
Although they did not provide the neatly precise lines of other materials, red and black chalk were useful for conveying effective shading and contours. While both feature clay, red chalk gets its color from iron oxide while black chalk incorporates carbon.
Revisiting the Renaissance Drawing
Exploring Italian drawing from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can yield marvelous insights into artistic innovations of the era. In some instances, these works on paper serve as the only remaining evidence of a work now lost to history. Such is the case, for example, with Leonardo’s designs for the famed fresco of The Battle at Anghiari once planned to adorn Florence’s Sala dei Cinquecento but that has been handed down only in the form of preparatory drawings.
At the same time, Renaissance drawings show the artist at work. Each stroke relays a bit of the creative process, so a closer look at the incredible variety of surviving drawings from this period presents a space for scholars and students alike to think more carefully about working processes of past artists and the modes of artistic exchange.
Whether it is an artist’s workshop building upon the plans of a capomaestro, such as is seen on the recto and verso studies of God the Father rendered by Raphael and one of his workshop members, or one artist studying from another, as seen in Jacopo Tintoretto’s Study after Michlelangelo’s Giorno, these drawings can point us to the visual collaborations and conversations these artists enjoyed as they contributed to the richness of their artistic era.
- “Almost Invisible: The Cartoon Transfer Process,” Getty Museum video
- Ames-Lewis, Francis. Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy. 2d ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Baldasso, Renzo. “Filarete’s “Disegno”.” Arte Lombarda, Nuova Serie, no. 155 (1) (2009): pp. 39–46.
- Bambach, Carmen C. Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300–1600. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
- Bambach, Carmen. “Renaissance Drawings: Material and Function.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
- “Chalk,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art
- “Metalpoint,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Originally published by Smarthistory, 06.15.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.