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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

The Making of an Artist

Leonardo on painting versus poetry

Leonardo on painting versus poetry

Leonardo’s writings about the superiority of painting over poetry and music (and sculpture) are the first important Renaissance contribution to the debate. The texts known as the Paragone today formed the opening part of the Codex vaticanus urbinas latinus 1270, which was compiled from Leonardo’s notebooks in the mid-sixteenth century.

19. How Painting Surpasses All the Works of Man on Account of the Subtle Speculations With Which It is Concerned

The eye which is said to be the window of the soul, is the principal means by which senso comune [a term adopted from medieval scholars, meaning an interior sense or psychology] may so copiously and magnificently confer  the infinite works of nature, and the second way is the ear, made noble by being told about things that the eye has seen. If you historiographers or poets or mathematicians, had not seen things with your eyes, badly would you be able to refer to them through your writings. Poet, if you were to figure a narrative as if painting with your pen, the painter with his brush would more easily make it satisfying and less tedious to comprehend. If you claim that painting [is] mute poetry, the painter could say that poetry [is] blind painting. Now consider which is the more damaging monstrosity, to be blind or to be mute. If the poet, like the painter, is free in his inventions, [the poet’s] fictions are not as satisfying to men as paintings [are]. For, while poetry extends to the figuration of forms, actions, and place in words, the painter is moved by the real similitudes of forms to counterfeit these forms. Now consider which is a closer examination of man, his name or his similitude? The name for man varies in different lands, and the form is mutated only by death. And if the poet acts through the senses by way of the ear, the painter [does so] by way of the more worthy sense of the eye. By these [comparisons] I only wish for a good painter to figure the fury of a battle, and for the poet to write something about it, and for both [of these battles] to be put before the public. You will see which will stop more viewers, which they will consider longer, which will be give more praise, and will satisfy more. Certainly the painting, a great deal more useful and beautiful, will please more.


Translation in Claire J. Farago, Leonardo da Vinci’s Paragone: A Critical Interpretation with a New Edition of the Text in Codex Urbinas, Brill Studies in Intellectual History (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992),  pp. 209–11.