Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2001
Carmen Bambach Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300-1600 Cambridge University Press, 1999. 548 pp.; 14 color ills.; 209 b/w ills. Cloth $125.00 (0521402182)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that in order to get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions. Similarly, in order to write a good doctoral thesis, you have to choose a good subject. This book, like many another first book in the history of art, is the author’s doctoral thesis (Yale, 1988) writ large, and she certainly picked a fantastic topic. The result is one of the most useful books ever written on Italian Renaissance drawings, albeit—it has to be admitted—scarcely one of the most approachable.

In saying this, I do not intend to suggest that Carmen Bambach’s lucidity of exposition in Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop: Theory and Practice, 1300-1600 is anything other than exemplary. The large structure of the book is extremely clear, and the individual sections are models of their kind. The problem lies with the subject matter of the book, which is at times robustly technical, and therefore considerably more demanding than most conventional, evaluative art history texts. For in spite of its somewhat grandiloquent title, this is a book that revels in the nitty-gritty. The author begins by writing that “This book is in great part about the perspiration behind artistic genius” (xi), and leaves the sometimes exhausted, if admiring, reader, in no doubt that she has used her own fair share of intellectual elbow grease too. Presumably the Cambridge University Press (which has done her proud by the illustrations) would have drawn the line at calling the author’s magnum opus “All you ever wanted to know about cartoons but were afraid to ask,” but that might have been a more accurate summing-up of its theme.

The book consists of eleven chapters, by no means all of identical length (some extend to over sixty pages, others to less than ten). Chapter 1 (“From Workshop Practice to Design Theory”) is devoted to introducing the subject, initially by means of a case study of the large fragment, now in Capodimonte, of the cartoon for Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter in the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican. The author explains that there is a patch with unrelated pricked outlines on the upper right of the fragment, and identifies it as a “substitute cartoon” (see below) for Saint Peter’s “nude pelvic area” (in her rather coy formulation). The forensic accuracy of this analysis sets the tone for the rest of the book. Bambach is a Sherlock Holmes who is bound to make some of the rest of us feel like Inspector Lestrade: she may not be able to identify numberless different kinds of cigar ash, but she has employed every conceivable scientific and technical means to assist her good, old-fashioned hard looking. She knows from which side sheets of paper were originally pricked. She has superimposed tracings of cartoons on paintings and frescoes to see if they really match. She endeavors to make distinctions between charcoal, black chalk, and leadpoint. In all such respects, she is almost invariably to be trusted.

The self explanatory Chapter 2, entitled “Processes, Materials, Tools, and Labor,” conveys in detail how much painful slog was involved in making cartoons, especially for monumental fresco projects. Pricking and pouncing and related techniques are all explained in a way that is bound to be plundered by anyone trying to understand this material, and the seeming absence of underdrawings—rubbed out by artists, restorers, or time—is clarified.

Chapter 3, “Traditions of Copying,” takes on a very large subject, but as always the discussion is sensibly grounded in concrete examples, and focuses on the activities of Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael. As is indeed more generally the case, it becomes evident here that for all the wide focus implied by the subtitle (“1300-1600”), the heart of this book is concerned with the half-century or so running from about 1480 to about 1530.

The brief Chapter 4, “The Censure of Copying Practices,” is concerned with the theoretical objections to the practice of copying. Bambach’s text is consistently illuminated by a seemingly all-embracing awareness of what treatise writers had to say about cartoons and the like, and it is striking how often bores (like Armenini) prove more enlightening than geniuses (like Vasari).

Chapter 5, “The Splendors of Ornament,” begins by drawing a distinction between patterns and cartoons. It is, of course, from the world of patterns, which needs to be replicated, that artists learned to appreciate the merits of pricking designs, and indeed of transferring them by means of stylus incisions (calco), but Bambach is surely right to seek to distinguish between the two activities. Spolvero—where dust is pounced through pricked holes—always remained the technique of choice for exceptionally complex transfers, as the reconstruction of the pricked architectural pattern used by Paris Bordone for his Annunciation in Caen graphically demonstrates.

In Chapter 6, “Towards a Scientific Design Technology in the Quattrocento,” Bambach explores the birth and evolution of the cartoon in the generally understood sense. The emergence of the spolvero cartoon used to paint the human figure is dated to the 1430s, and it may come as no surprise that Paolo Uccello should be singled out as a key figure within this development. In writing about a pricked drawing of a Running Angel in the Uffizi attributed to him, Bambach remarks that “The criterion of ‘quality’ seems in this case inadequate,” which is more generally an important observation. “Drawings people” tend to exult in the spontaneity of their objects of study, yet all too often choose to forget that they were means to an end (203). Some of the sheets illustrated in this book are not especially visually alluring, but their role within the design process was fundamental. Even dyed-in-the-wool attributionists could learn a lot from the author’s insistence that one always has to ask oneself what stage in the creative process one is looking at before passing judgement on whether a particular drawing is autograph or not.

Because this was the great age of the cartoon,Chapter 7 (“The Ideal of the `Ben Finito Cartone’ in the Cinquecento”) is in some ways the core of the book. It is telling how frequently Vasari documents their preservation and collection as works of art. The chapter begins with Leonardo’s cartoon in the National Gallery, London, and continues by way of a fascinating consideration of his master, Verrocchio, and the origins of sfumato drawing, before ultimately concluding with Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of Haman on the Sistine ceiling. Bambach published her discovery of a shred of the Haman cartoon in Haarlem as long ago as 1983 (Art Bulletin 65: 661-65) but it remains a brilliant observation which marked the debut of a formidable scholar.

Chapter 8, “The Substitute Cartoon,” is another short chapter, a sort of extended postscript or footnote to the previous one. It explains in essence how artists managed to have their cake and eat it by producing tracings from cartoons—by now eminently marketable commodities—onto “substitute cartoons”, that could then suffer the rigors of the transfer process to panel and onto walls in the case of frescoes, while the parent cartoons remained unblemished.

Chapter 9, “The Art of Disegnare,” seeks to distinguish between genuine cartoons—which were used for painting—and other kinds of pricked drawing, that served to move the design process from one drawing to the next. The arguments are entirely convincing. There is an interesting section on Raphael’s so-called “auxiliary cartoons”; this chapter is also remarkable for an unwonted—and hard-hearted—critical observation, with the figures in Genga’s altarpiece in the Brera being described as “tightly, if gracelessly, packed around the Madonna’s stepped throne” (312). Another oddity concerns the discussion of Andrea del Sarto’s Adoration of the Magi, known from drawings in the Louvre and the Uffizi, that ignores the recent re-emergence of the related painted bozzetto at auction at Christie’s, New York, in January 1997.

The books shortest chapter, Chapter 10 (“Techniques of Stylus Incision”), concerns the important distinction between stylus incisions made on the basis of cartoons and those made directly onto plaster by means of stylus ruling and cord snapping. The former tend to be softer, but the two are not always effortlessly easily differentiated.

Chapter 11, “Spolvero, Calco, and the Technical Virtuosity of Fresco Painting,” concludes by examining above all the practice of Michelangelo, and reveals the rather surprising fact that he employed cartoons and especially spolvero much more extensively on the Sistine Last Judgement than on the chapel’s ceiling. This, however, was at least in part a reflection of Michelangelo’s training belonging to the late quattrocento. Cartoons continued to be employed for centuries, and are probably still limping along for stained glass and other oddities, but the golden age of the technique was drawing to a close by the mid-sixteenth century.

It may be churlish to conclude a review of such an outstanding book with a comparatively trivial criticism, but it is a minor regret that the flawless accuracy Bambach brings to almost every aspect of her task is on occasion curiously lacking when it comes to factual details of iconography and the like. Thus, Torbido painted the apse, and not the dome, of Verona Cathedral (36); the female saint in Parmigianino’s altarpiece in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Bologna is Margaret, not Catherine (55); the old woman in Perugino’s Pitti Lamentation is clutching the sindone, not the sudarium (87); and the two apostles in Raphael’s famous study in Oxford for the Transfiguration cannot be John and Peter because they are otherwise engaged in the upper zone of the altarpiece (326).

David Ekserdjian
Editor, Apollo Magazine.