Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Before the Paragone: Visual Intelligence and the Critical Misfortune of Sculptors in the Trecento

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Before the Paragone: Visual Intelligence and the Critical Misfortune of Sculptors in the Trecento

Article excerpt

Novi et sculptores aliquot, sed minoris fame.

Petrarch, Fam. V, 17 (1342-43)

Ex sculptoribus paucos in tanta multitudine claros habemus.

Bartolomeo Facio, De viris illustribus Uber (1456)

Petrarch is perfectly right in regarding Trecento sculpture as inferior to Trecento painting.

Ernest Hatch Wilkins, 'On Petrarch's Appreciation of Art' (1961)

To my father Mauro.

He too ¡ikes paintings best

It has long been commonplace for art historians to consider sculpture more difficult than painting and to study it less.1 Sculpture is considered 'hard to make, and difficult to talk about',2 almost as if its presence and the strenuous physicality it implies leave one dumbstruck. In this article I contend that early discourses on the arts in Italy anticipated and helped shape later comparisons between painting and sculpture, hence causing the mistreatment - or what I call the 'critical misfortune' - of sculptors in art historical writing. One could argue that fourteenth-century Italian writers and intellectuals such as Dante, Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio revived the practice of art criticism for the first time since antiquity.3 However, while they lavished praise upon modern painters, especially Giotto, they neglected, with very few exceptions, to refer to modern sculptors in their published texts. In fact, neither Boccaccio's passing reference to Giovanni Pisano in one of his notebooks ('the eminent sculptor Giovanni Pisano')4 nor a similar epideictic note about Giovanni's father Nicola ('Nicola of Pisa, whose hand is more skilled than that of Polykleitos') and collaborator Guglielmo ('friar Guilielmus, a lay brother and a master of sculpture'), made in a chronicle about the Dominican friary of St Catherine in Pisa in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, were intended for publication.5 And aside from these instances and sporadic remarks on sculptors found in coeval documents, we know very little about what was being said of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian sculptors on the streets of what were then flourishing medieval cities.6 The oral tradition related to early Italian sculptors and sculpture never crystallized in writing and was inevitably lost. While some scholars have noted this idiosyncrasy sporadically and in passing, the reasons behind this striking disparity in how painters and sculptors - painting and sculpture - are treated in Trecento writings on the arts remain in the shadows.7 I aim to address this oversight.

This article is divided into three parts. In the first section, I trace the emergence in Trecento Italy of a debate regarding the relative merits of painting and sculpture within the broader context of increasingly widespread discourses on the liberal nature of artistic practice. In doing so, I also hope to highlight the need to fully reconsider Trecento influences on Renaissance art theory, especially the paragone debate, with a fresh eye. Though slight, the evidence provided by fourteenth-century art commentaries and artworks implies that learned Trecento onlookers and artists alike would have been well aware of the terms and main arguments of this debate (into which they both fed) and would have grappled with it both in theory and, in the case of artists, in practice. My conclusions are therefore meant to spark a reassessment of traditional assumptions whereby fourteenth-century Italian humanists were purblind to art, since they indirectly suggest that meaningful exchanges of ideas between these writers and contemporary artists were not only possible but, indeed, must have taken place.

The need to hypothesize a terrain - both theoretical and practical - where Trecento intellectuals and artists could meet to discuss and polemicize about art has led me to explore coeval aesthetics, with a focus on descriptions of sensory encounters with artworks as objects crafted by humans (i.e., quite apart from their religious or political content and meaning). …

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