III. Composing

Until the nineteenth century, most Italian works were created in response to commissions – mainly from the Church, institutions, royalty or the aristocracy. The contract binding the artist to the client specified certain requirements such as the iconography, the number of figures, the materials to be employed, the price and also the intended location of the work of art.
When he began making preparatory drawings, the artist would bear in mind these parameters, and also the setting for which the painting was destined. Compositional studies were in fact devoted to laying out the arrangement of the figures and the relationship between them, according to the format and the future location of the work. On these sheets, clues such as the shape of the framing line, the architectural elements, the choice of a certain viewpoint, allow us to work out whether we are looking at a preparatory drawing for a statue or a painting, a fresco for the lunette of a cloister, an altarpiece or a monumental decorative scheme for a palazzo.


 [L’artista] habbisi risguardo bene al luogo dove và collocata, o’ dipinta [...], percioche le più volte il lume non buono, la molta altezza, & la lontananza di quelle, fa rimanere ingannati etiandio gli espertissimi [...], & percio si vada più, & più volte a quel luogo, & quivi se l’imagini veder come dipinta, & la misuri col discorso, & come le figure principali debbano esser a voler che si mostrino a par del vivo, ...

[The artist] must look carefully at the place where [the work of art] is to be placed, or painted [...], more often than not bad light, great height and distance mislead even the greatest experts [...]; for that reason you should go again and again to that place, and you should imagine seeing the painting already there, compare it with the brief and check how the principal figures should be placed in order to appear as living beings.

Giovanni Battista Armenini, De veri precetti della pittura, Ravenna, 1587