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
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.
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
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 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!).