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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

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The Making of an Artist

Painting versus sculpture

Painting versus sculpture

The passage from The Courtier continues with a discussion about the relative merits of painting and sculpture. Giovan Cristoforo Romano, one of the participants, was himself a sculptor.

“Therefore in the ancient world both painting and painters were held in the greatest respect, and the art itself was brought to the highest pitch of excellence. Of this a sure proof is to be found in the ancient works of marble and bronze statues that still survive; for although painting differs from sculpture, both the one and the other derive from the same source, namely from good design. So if the statues that have come down to us are inspired works of art, we may reliably believe that so, too, were the paintings of the ancient world; indeed they must have been still more so, because they required greater artistry.”

Then signora Emilia, turning to Giovan Cristoforo Romano, who was seated with the other, asked him:

“What do you think of this opinion? Would you agree that painting allows for greater artistry than sculpture?”

“Madam,” replied Giovan Cristoforo, “I maintain that sculpture requires more effort and more skill than paintings, and possesses greater dignity.”

The Count then remarked:

“Certainly statues are more durable, so perhaps they may be said to be more dignified, for since they are intended for monuments they may serve the purpose for which they are made better than paintings. But, leaving aside the question of commemoration, both painting and sculpture also serve a decorative purpose, and in this regard painting is far superior. And if it is not, so to say, as enduring as sculpture, all the same it survives a long time, and for as long as it does it is far more beautiful.”

Then Giovan Cristoforo replied:

“I truly believe that you are not saying what you truly think, and this solely for the sake of your Raphael; and perhaps, as well, you feel that the excellence you perceive in his work as a painter is so supreme that it cannot be rivaled by any sculpture in marble. But remember that this is praise for the artist and not for the art.”

Then he continued:

“Indeed, I willingly accept that both painting and sculpture are skilled imitations of Nature; yet I still do not understand how you can maintain that what is real and is Nature’s own creation cannot be more faithfully copied in a bronze or a marble figure, in which all the members are rounded, fashioned and proportioned just as Nature made them, than in a picture, consisting of a flat surface and colors that deceive the eye. And don’t tell me that being is not nearer the truth than merely seeming to be. Moreover, I maintain that working in stone is far more difficult, seeing that repairs are impossible with marble, and the figure must be started again, whereas this is not the case with painting, which can be gone over a thousand times, being improved as parts of the picture are added to or removed.”

Then, with a smile, the Count replied:

“I am not arguing for the sake of Raphael, nor should you think me ignorant as to not recognize the excellence shown by Michelangelo and yourself and other sculptors. But I am speaking of the art not the artists. You say, truly enough, that both painting and sculpture are imitations of Nature; but it is not the case that the one seems to be what it portrays and the other really is so. For although statues are modeled in the round, like objects in real life, and painting is seen only on the surface, sculpture lacks many of the things to be found in painting, and especially light and shade: for example, the natural coloring of the flesh, which appears altogether changed in marble, the painter copies faithfully, using more or less light and shadow according to need, which the sculptor cannot do. And even though the painter does not fashion his figures in the round, he does depict the muscles and members of the body rounded and merging into the unseen parts of his figures. In such a way as to demonstrate his knowledge and understanding of these as well. The painter requires still greater skill in depicting members that are foreshortened and taper gradually away from the point of vision, on the principle of perspective. This, by means of portioned lines, colors, light and shade, simulates foreground and distance on an upright surface, to the degree that the painter wishes. Does it, then, seem of little importance to you that Nature’s colors can be reproduced in flesh-tints, in clothing and in all the other objects that are colored in life? This is something the sculptor cannot do. Still less can he depict the love-light in a person’s eyes, with their black or blue coloring, the color of blond hair, the gleam of weapons, the darkness of night, a tempest at sea, thunder and lightning, a city in conflagration, or the break of rosy dawn with its rays of gold and red. In short, it is beyond his powers to depict sky, sea, land, mountains, woods, meadows, gardens, rivers, cities or houses; but not beyond the powers of the painter.

So, it seems to me that painting is nobler and allows greater artistry than sculpture….”


Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, trans. and with an introduction by George Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967; revised 1976), pp. 98–9. Copyright © George Bull, 1967.