Art and Humanism in Early Renaissance Padua: Cennini, Vergerio and Petrarch on Imitation

By Bolland, Andrea | Renaissance Quarterly, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Art and Humanism in Early Renaissance Padua: Cennini, Vergerio and Petrarch on Imitation


Bolland, Andrea, Renaissance Quarterly


A number of passages in Cennino Cennini's early fifteenth-century craft handbook, the Libro dell'Arte, have captured the attention of art historians -- most particularly its spectacular first chapter, which defines painting in terms indebted to late medieval poetics and which praises artistic imagination in terms ultimately derived (though significantly transformed) from Horace's Ars poetica.(1) I would like to focus critical attention on another section of the Libro that is equally rich and complex in both its sources and its transformations -- Cennini's treatment of imitation and style, articulated most pointedly in chapter 27, "How to Strive to Copy and Draw from as Few Masters as Possible."(2) Cennini's discussion of copying masters will be examined in relation to humanist ideas on literary imitation, and this particular aspect of the relation between painting and poetry in the Libro will be explored in light of the author's residency in Padua during the last years of the Trecento.

Cennini's advice on copying models is found in the important and extensive discussion of disegno that occupies chapters 5-34 of the Libro. These chapters form the hinge between Cennini's claims for painting's kinship to poetry as an art requiring fantasy and science (chapters 1-4) and the more technical instructions on painting, gilding, casting, etc. that occupy the book's remaining 155 chapters. Cennini makes disegno a bridge between mind and hand by stating in chapter two that drawing by itself delights the intelletto of those who are drawn to the art of painting by an animo gentile.(3) The chapters on drawing outline a program whereby the apprentice learns to create three-dimensional illusion through modeling in chiaro and scuro. The student progresses from drawing on a small wooden panel with silverpoint (chapters 5-9) to drawing on parchment and paper using ink wash, leadpoint, and pen, the last of which renders him capable of disegno inside his head (chapters 10-14) and then progresses to working on tinted paper (chapters 15-22). Having mastered these techniques, the apprentice is then instructed in the manufacture and use of carta lucida to trace drawings and paintings (chapters 23-26), given the rationale behind copying from masters and from nature (chapters 2728), and finally -- after an exordium in which he is told to regulate his life like one who studies philosophy or theology -- provided with instructions on the technique of copying frescoes in chapels (chapters 29-30). The section closes with added instructions for using charcoal and ink wash (chapters 31-34).

In chapter 27, the section with which we are chiefly concerned, Cennini begins by reviewing the skills the apprentice has thus far learned, and then goes on to write:

Having first accustomed yourself to drawing, as I told you above (that is, on a small panel), you should labor and take delight in always copying the best things that you can find by the hand of the great masters. And if you are in a place where there have been many great masters, so much the better for you. But I counsel you: guard that you always choose the best and the one who has the greatest fame, and proceeding thus day in and day out, it would be unnatural for you not to come close to his manner and to his aria; because if you endeavor to copy one artist today and another tomorrow, you will not acquire the manner of either of them, and you will necessarily become fantastichetto, by the love that each manner will excite in you. Now you will proceed in the manner of this one, tomorrow of some other, and thus nothing will be perfect. But if you follow the method of one master, practicing continually, coarse indeed will be the intellect that does not derive some benefit. Then it will happen that, if nature has given you any fantasia, you will acquire a manner proper to you, and it cannot be other than good, because when your intellea is accustomed to picking flowers, your hand will not know how to gather thorns. …

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