From Pattern to Nature in Italian Renaissance Drawing

drawing UffiziHow often does the average art student or interested outsider get the opportunity to find him or herself in the very middle of the creation of art history? This chance, not merely to read about important discoveries, but to learn about them firsthand from the renowned art historians whose books you must have come across if you are indeed the least bit interested in art, does in fact not frequently occur. The Dutch University Institute for Art History in Florence is one of few places worldwide where opportunities such as the one mentioned above do still occur. On May 6th and 7th 2011, the Institute was host to a most extraordinary international conference on early renaissance drawings from central Italy. Since this period, Florence has always proven to be the hub for the learning of draughtsmanship. Nowhere else in the world did people value the skill of drawing as highly as they did in Florence. Even today the largest and most important drawing collection in the world is situated in this Tuscan city: the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi.  It is indeed the perfect place for a gathering of ten of the world’s most celebrated experts on draughtsmanship, as organized by Michael Kwakkelstein (director of the Istituto Universitario Olandese di Storia dell’Arte) and Lorenza Melli (Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz). The lectures given were, however, not just of great value to the student or outsider, or even to the specialist. Also for the speakers themselves, days like these are of the utmost importance. Very seldom does an opportunity like this present itself: a gathering of this many experts, creating the possibility to exchange thoughts and ideas. Such events are breeding grounds for new insights, projects and collaborations, emerging out of art historical debate. The speakers concentrated on the transition from pattern book drawings to life drawings; a development which has drastically changed draughtsmanship and is always thought to have occurred  rather sudden at the cradle of the renaissance. Newly developed rhetorical and humanist theories in the early fifteenth century are believed to have changed the aim and purpose of art, turning the gaze of the painter from his masters examples to nature itself. Revealing their own findings, the speakers outlined recent developments which have unveiled numerous peculiarities concerning this transition. As it seems, the moment at which renaissance artists stopped working from the examples set by their predecessors, and started drawing from nature –and, in this case, life models– did manifest itself as a gradual development, rather than as an abrupt revolution; preserving the model book tradition much longer than formerly thought. Artists continued to work with stock models, facial expressions and figure poses even after many humanist theorists had declared this practice dead. Even up until the great masters such as Leonardo da Vinci, one of the least likely to work from set patterns and motifs, this tradition remained in use. In the case of Leonardo it is even more peculiar that he would use repetitive motifs, given the fact that wrote in his treatises on painting –published posthumously as Il Libro della Pittura– how no painter should ever draw the same figure or face more than once. The, relatively limited, repertory of patterns appears to have been subsequently copied generation after generation. In fact it seems that patterns have always been used in the history of art. Beginning in ancient Egypt, where Achnaton’s sculptors were trained by reproducing the same hand poses over and over again, up until perhaps the 1960’s, when the virtue of originality overtook the traditional value of practicing by repeating, the use of stock models was very much accepted. All speakers at the conference concentrated on individual aspects of this newfound field of research. Some presented a case study in which they focused on one sole model book such as the Budapest Animal Model Book. Others applied a more wide ranged approach. For instance, how did the Florentine stock models come about? Was it really a matter of direct copying or did the artist have a repertory of fixed patterns in his mind, unconsciously imprinted in his memory on the numerous times he observed the artworks publically exhibited in the city, only to come flowing out of his pen at the moment he sat down to sketch a figure? And can one differentiate between techniques used for drawings after live models and others used for working from preset models? The example provided by the speaker to  clarify this hypothesis was the sketching technique which combines multiple oval forms to a figure. This widespread method has the practical advantage that once one has created a pattern, it can be transformed into any other imaginable pose or figure by simply rearranging the separate particles that form the first figure. When taking this into account, does the use of this technique not indicate a drawing method after a preset oval-form-sketch, rather than after life, as is always thought? One of the major reasons for many to visit conferences such as this one, is that you leave gifted with a new mindset as to the approach of art history. Instead of accepting, without further thought, what is written by art historians of former times, one learns to reexamine the extant original, primary sources; unprejudiced and willing to see what is really there, not just what you expect there to be. Besides that, the recently renovated Dutch Institute with its magnificent olive garden creates the perfect backdrop for both the intellectual as well as the culinary nurturing that is provided for conference guests. Would you like to experience a special event such as this one, check for upcoming conferences, lectures or courses at the Dutch Institute for Art History in Florence.
Many thanks to Professor Michael Kwakkelstein and his student Surya Stemerding for this amazing review of the conference "The transition from pattern book drawings to life drawing (from Pisanello to Leonardo)" :)