Paragone: painting or sculpture?

Which of the arts is best equipped to rival nature - painting or sculpture? Such a debate would probably be of little interest to a modern audience. While some of us might prefer one more than the other, most would accept that each has its inherent individual qualities. But during the Renaissance the debate regarding the merits of painting versus those of sculpture as to which could emulate the forms of nature most successfully, became a hotly contentious issue for many artists and early theorists.

Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani (The Lady with the Ermine) © Czartoryski Museum

A heated debate

For Leonardo, demonstrating the supremacy of painting over sculpture was of the greatest urgency. After all, painting was a universal truth capable of recreating the forms of nature perfectly.

In a series of eloquent arguments, he extended the comparison between painting and sculpture into the realms of poetry and music to argue that painting was the most noble and superior of all the arts, in what was an unprecedented, all-encompassing approach to the subject.

Leonardo’s defence of painting comprises the opening section of the Trattato della pittura, or “Treatise on painting”, which was compiled from his notes after his death. At times Leonardo’s arguments are subtle, witty and incisive, and at others rambling, naive, exaggerated and clichéd. Nonetheless, they do provide a fascinating insight of his views on the different spatial, plastic and temporal qualities of each of the arts.

The supremacy of sight over all the other senses provided the intellectual basis for all Leonardo’s arguments for the supremacy of the visual arts. The eye was “the window to the soul” and the “primary way in which the sensory receptacle of the brain may more fully and magnificently contemplate the infinite works of nature”. The ear came second, “gaining nobility through the recounting of things which the eye had seen”. Arts dependent on hearing such as poetry and music were therefore inferior to painting.


Portrait of Dante, Sandro Botticelli, c 1495
  • Portrait of Dante, Sandro Botticelli, c 1495

Painting and poetry

During the Renaissance, poetry was perceived in quite a different way to the way in which it is perceived today. It dealt not only with imaginative and emotional expression, but expounded great philosophical ideals. In the mode of Virgil, Ovid and Homer, the poet was a narrator of great moral truths. The Florentine Chancellor Leonardo Bruni praised Dante’s poetry as the product of universal knowledge and evidence of his bookish learning in the realms of philosophy, theology, astrology, arithmetic and history.

To formulate his argument for the supremacy of painting over poetry, Leonardo cleverly invokes the special relationship between time and visual harmony. Poetry is transmitted to the brain more slowly than “the eye transmits with the highest fidelity the true surfaces and shapes of whatever is presented outside”. From these is born “proportionality called harmony”. Proportionality in painting was of course born from linear perspective, which provided the scientific basis of painting.

Leonardo also saw perspective as an embellishment of painting – an artifice that “ornaments painting with copious variety that delights all viewers”. Just as the poet could embellish his art with endless details and verbal ornament, so too could the painter through his powers of ingenio (creative talent) represent all things truthfully. “What long and tedious work”, Leonardo asks, “it would be for the poet to describe all the movements of the fighters in a battle and the actions of their limbs and their ornaments”.

The final blow for poetry was the fact that it depended on language and on words, which were “the work of man”. Language could never be truly universal. Painting on the other hand represents the work of nature, which can be understood by all of mankind.

Intarsia wood panel showing a Lira da Braccio, Giuliano da Majano, c 1479-82
  • Intarsia wood panel showing a Lira da Braccio, Giuliano da Majano, c 1479-82

Painting and music

The paragone seems to have been particularly popular in the intellectual circles of the north Italian courts. Music was the courtliest of all artistic accomplishments. At Ludovico Sforza’s court in Milan, musicians enjoyed high status, and no occasion, no matter how small, passed without musical accompaniment. Leonardo himself was a talented musician, famous for his ability to improvise on the lira da braccio (a type of early violin). It seems only natural that he thought about music in relation to painting, and compared their various qualities.

According to Leonardo, music and painting both deal with the “proportions of continuous quantities”. Just as the musician measures the intervals of the voices heard by the ear, the painter measures the distance of things as they recede from the eye. The harmonic proportions of music were thus equated with the proportions of diminution in painting established by means of perspective. The “harmony”, which “delights the senses with sweet pleasure” in painting is no different from the proportionality made by diverse voices”.

Leonardo also claims that in paintings, “Armonico concetto” or “chords” are created simultaneously by proportions. Echoing Leonardo’s sentiments, Luca Pacioli, in his treatise on proportions, argued for the superiority of perspective over music. “If you say that music satisfies hearing…perspective will do so for sight, which is so much more worthy in that it is the first door of the intellect”.

Ultimately, music, like poetry is a temporal art. Hearing is “less noble than sight, in that as it is born it dies and its death is as swift as its birth”. Music also suffers from the defect of repetitiousness and needs to be performed over and over again, while a painting need only be encountered once prior to being committed memory forever.

Sculpture at work, Springburn Museum
  • Sculpture at work, Springburn Museum

Painting and sculpture

Of all the arts, sculpture, with its three-dimensional power, presented the greatest challenge to the supremacy of painting. Leonardo claims that he has the right to argue for painting because he is “equally well-versed in both arts”.

Firstly, the demands placed on the painter were infinitely greater than those required of the sculptor. While the painter had no less than 10 considerations in the creation of his works, namely “light, shade, colour, body, shape, position, distance, nearness, motion and rest”, the sculptor had only to consider “body, shape, position motion, and rest.” Sculpture demands less talent or ingegno than painting.

Secondly, painting involved less physical effort than sculpture. Sculpture “causes much perspiration which mingles with the grit and turns to mud”. The sculptor’s face is “pasted and smeared all over with marble powder…his dwelling is dirty and filled with dust and chips of stone.” The painter on the other hand “sits before his work at the greatest of ease, well dressed and applying delicate colours with his light brush”. His home is “clean and adorned with delightful pictures” and he enjoys “the accompaniment of music or the company of the authors of various fine works”.

And finally, although sculpture’s greatest asset is undoubtedly its three-dimensional quality, the painter can equally achieve the effect of relievo in his paintings through modelling in light and shade.

The seven Liberal Arts and astrology
  • The seven Liberal Arts and astrology

The daughter of nature

Leonardo’s notes regarding the comparative merits of painting versus those of poetry, music and sculpture are the most sustained argument on the topic advanced by any artist. By claiming a place for painting among the liberal arts, Leonardo’s paragone can be seen as part of the struggle on the part of some artists to achieve intellectual status during the Renaissance.

Since ancient times, creative pursuits were divided into two categories known as the “Liberal” and “Mechanical” arts. The Liberal arts were those considered to be fitting pursuits for free and noble citizens, being above the labour of handicrafts. Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy and Music represented the scientific Liberal arts because they were based on mathematics. Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric represented the rational side because they dealt with language. Both painting and sculpture on the other hand were classed among the mechanical arts because they required manual labour.

According to Leonardo, “With justifiable complaints painting laments that it has been dismissed from the number of the liberal arts, since she is the legitimate daughter of nature and acts through the noblest sense. Thus it is wrong, O writers, to have omitted her from the number of the liberal arts, since she embraces not only the works of nature but also infinite things which nature never created”.

Only in painting could science and fantasia find their perfect and eternal union. Painting was not only the most supreme and noble art, it also was the fullest expression of visual knowledge and could even use the components of nature to invent new compounds (such as monsters!).