Studi & Schizzi


It was in Florence, in the fifteenth century, that the earli­est treatises on art came into being. In the following cen­tury, theorists such as Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) were to assert the primacy of drawing, essential to the creative process as well as to the training of artists. In Italian, disegno referred both to the intellectual planning of a work of art (design) and to its execution (drawing). Federico Zuccari (c. 1540-1609) thus made the distinction between disegno interno, mental image, and disegno esterno, materialised image.

The representation of the human form was a major preoccupation during the Renaissance and one of the con­stant themes of Italian art over the centuries. In their search for an ideal narrative through an image which, by its very nature, is immobile, painters were keen to repre­sent their figures in eloquent proportions and poses. As the most immediate, spontaneous transcription of an art­ist’s inspiration, drawing permitted the exploration of a variety of formal solutions.

From the first sketches – schizzi – rapidly set out on pa­per, to the finished studies – studi –, drawings provided valuable evidence of the evolution of the artist’s thought processes. In 1962, Frits Lugt characterised the act of drawing as an “involuntary confession”, through which we catch the painter unaware as they reflect. “We share his thoughts, we face his difficulties with him and we ad­mire the way in which he manages to overcome them”. How should he define the position of the models and ex­press the links that unite them? How should the figures be arranged in a space which corresponds to that of the projected work? How can the effects of light and shade be expressed on the figures? Thanks to the drawings from the collection of the Fondation Custodia, this exhibition invites visitors to examine the works closely and to spot the clues that reveal the experiments and intentions of the Italian masters.

I. Studying the Human Figure

The human figure has always occupied a place of special importance in the mind of artists. During the Renais­sance, when man was placed at the centre of the world by the Humanists, the representation of the human form was a major focus of artistic creation. Artists endeavoured to understand the way the body moved and functioned in order to give the protagonists in their works the most re­alistic and expressive character possible. The artistic treatises and academies which developed in Italy in the sixteenth century promoted the study of the human form from life, in other words, based on the observation of a live model, and this became a central workshop practice. Drawing each figure in isolation was one of the pre­liminary stages in the conception of a painting as much as it was an exercise for training the eye and the hand. Pentimenti, the doubling of lines, reworking and varia­tions to all or part of a body, juxtaposed on the same sup­port or repeated from one sheet to the other, were all signs of the draughtsman’s struggle to perfect the anatomy and to experiment with the expressive qualities of an attitude or a movement.

Schizzo (i): dicono i Pittori quei leggerissimi tocchi di penna o matita, con i quali accennano i lor concetti senza dar perfezzione alle parti; il che dicono schizzare

Sketch (es): the name given by painters to the very light strokes of a pen or pencil by means of which they express their ideas, without perfecting the details; they call this sketching

Studio (i): termine de’ Pittori, e Scultori, col quale denominano tutti i disegni o modelli, cavati dal naturale, co’ quali si preparano a far le loro opere; poichè mediante questi, che essi chiamano studi, vengono a determinare, e perfezionare l’Idea di quella cosa, che vogliono, o con pennello, o con scarpello, rappresentare in pittura o scultura

Study (ies): term used by painters and sculptors to describe the draw­ings or models taken from nature, with which they pre­pare to create their works; by means of what they name studies they are able to define and improve on the Idea of what they wish to represent, with paint brush or chisel, in painting or sculpture

Filippo Baldinucci, Vocabolario Toscano dell’Arte del Disegno, Florence, 1681

II. Assembling the Figures

The interactions between the figures in a work of art is an essential element of the quality of the narrative unfolding within it. Artists would make any number of drawings as they sought to express, in two dimensions, the relation­ship that was developing in real space. Thanks to the spontaneity of the drawings, they could twist and turn the figures, bring them closer together, rearrange or observe them from different angles, in order to evoke the dynamics and diversity of their reactions within a group, or the almost abstract multitude of a crowd.
The iconography of the Virgin and Child, widely illus­trated in Italian art of the period, favoured the examina­tion of the physical or intellectual contact that linked the two figures. In these studies, the expressive gestures and glances were the draughtsman’s means of exploring the intimate or devotional character of the relationship be­tween the Virgin Mary and her child, which would lend the work the appropriate spiritual atmosphere.

E da cio’ nasce l’invenzione, la quale fa mettere insieme in istoria le figure a quattro, a sei, a dieci, a venti, talmente ch’e’ si viene a formare le battagle e l’altre cose grandi dell’arte.

Thence was born invention, which determines that in a history painting (istoria) the figures are put together in four, six, ten, or twenty, to form battles and the other grand things of the art.

Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori, Florence, 1550

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

IV. Studying Light

Capturing light, accurately indicating its play on shapes and forms, catching the way shadows model volumes, using the intensity of chiaroscuro to dramatise the presence of a figure. The study of lumi was an essential element in Italian theoretical treatises, and was echoed by draughtsmen from the fifteenth century on. Light sometimes features in the earliest sketches or, more frequently, was tackled in one of the last phases of preparatory work for a painting. In some cases, the light was studied for its own sake, allowing the artist to practice understanding and rendering the relationship between light and shade.
To represent this relationship, draughtsmen resorted to a variety of graphic solutions: the brightness of light could be represented by white highlights (chalk, bodycolour) on a dark support (prepared or tinted paper) or, using a reverse effect, shade could be indicated with a dark medium (red chalk, black chalk, brown ink) on a light support, left blank.

Seguita sempre la più eccelente luce, e vogli con debito ragionevole intenderla e seguiterla; perchè, di cio’ mancando, non sarebbe tuo lavoro con nessuno rilievo, e verrebbe cosa semplice, e con poco mestiero.

Always follow the brightest light, and make sure to use it and follow it in sensible manner; because, if you do not, your work will have no relief, it will be oversimplified and produced with little skill.

Cennino Cennini, Trattato della pittura, Florence, circa 1400