Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Pelo Sopra Pelo: Sculpting Hair and Beards as a Reflection of Artistic Excellence during the Renaissance

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Pelo Sopra Pelo: Sculpting Hair and Beards as a Reflection of Artistic Excellence during the Renaissance

Article excerpt

During one of the numerous sittings that Louis XIV granted Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the year 1667, the French king announced that he would be away for three days but invited the sculptor to 'work on the hair of the [portrait] bust' during his absence. Bernini politely accepted but was quick to note 'it was not an easy thing, wanting to give these hairs the featheriness, as if they were real; and in order to do so [he would] have to battle against the marble, which is of the opposite nature'.1

This remark, documented by Chantelou, is far more than just another anecdote indicating Bernini's judgement of the king's limited understanding of artistic practice.2 Bernini's reply echoes what sculptors, painters and writers alike have identified at least since the quattrocento as one of the most difficult tasks facing an artist: depicting human hair in stone or pigment.3 Fulfilling this task became a true touchstone for measuring artistic excellence during the Renaissance, mostly but not exclusively in relation to sculpted works.

Moreover, during the sixteenth century the inevitable tension between the subtle form of hair and the robust materiality of the sculpted object located the question within the paragone debate between painting and sculpture. The aim of this article is to reconsider the importance of the subject in this context, while proposing to regard it as a crucial element of both artistic practice and theory during the cinquecento, the golden age of the debate between the visual arts.

While the term 'paragone' was associated with the debate much later, during the sixteenth century Italian artists and letterati alike conducted a heated discussion about the relative merits of painting and sculpture. Following antique examples, the question was first posed during the transition from the medieval to the early modern period by Petrarch (De Remediis utriusque fortunae, 1354-66) and Alberti (De pictura, 1435).4 At the end of the fifteenth century the question was thoroughly re-examined by Leonardo (Trattato della pittura) and, based upon his writings, was publicized more widely in the third decade of the sixteenth century by Castiglione in several celebrated passages of his Libro del cortegiano.5 Two decades later the debate was amplified and codified by Benedetto Varchi's lectures in Florence (1547) and Giorgio Vasari's introduction to the first edition of the Vite (1550), both proposing disegno as the common source of painting and sculpture.6

Scholars still debate to what extent the theoretical scheme was accompanied by painted and sculpted works of art addressing the paragone in visual terms. I have previously argued that the subject left substantial visual traces in the art of the late quattrocento and first half of the cinquecento in Venice, Florence and Rome, given that there was a parallel process of debating both within workshops and studios and among interested non-practitioners.7 Some scholars have preferred to confine the debate to the theoretical arena before looking for visual indicators of artistic value reflected in works of art, particularly in relation to certain concepts such as disegno, grazia or difficultà, and so see it as less central to artistic practice.8 Yet even these more cautious approaches might acknowledge that the case of hair depiction stands as a touchstone for the demonstration of the artistic skills of painters and sculptors at a relatively early stage of the paragone debate.

The example of Benvenuto Cellini, who wrote extensively about the debate from the middle of the sixteenth century, is revealing. As early as 1535 he seems to have identified the subject of hair depiction as a barometer for both his skills and the capacity of others to recognize the complexities of the artistic process. The earliest example he relates in his autobiography occurs when he was solicited in 1535 by Pietro Bembo to execute a portrait. The story of this commission is a complex one, as identification of the work, most probably lost, has proven difficult. …

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