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Italian Renaissance Learning Resources

In collaboration with the National Gallery of Art

Time and Narrative

Variety in an istoria

Variety in an istoria

An ambitious new mode of narrative painting known as istoria emerged in fifteenth-century Italy. Dignified in subject matter and complex in design, an istoria was understood to have an elevating effect on the mind. The most extensive contemporary discussion appears in Leon Battista Alberti’s treatise On Painting (1435), in which he calls attention to the visual richness by which an istoria engaged and held the viewer’s notice:

The istoria which merits both praise and admiration will be so agreeably and pleasantly attractive that it will capture the eye of whatever learned or unlearned person is looking at it and will move his soul. That which first gives pleasure in the istoria comes from copiousness and variety of things…. Frequently the copiousness of the painter begets much pleasure when the beholder stands staring at all the things there.*

Specifying the kinds of skillfully modulated details he had in mind, Alberti cited a mixture of “old, young, maidens, women, youths, young boys, fowls, small dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, landscapes and all similar things.”* He continued:

A painting in which there are bodies in many dissimilar poses is always especially pleasing. There some stand erect, planted on one foot, and show all the face with the hand high and the fingers joyous. In others the face is turned, the arms folded and the feet joined. And thus to each one is given his own action and flection of members…*

In Alberti’s view an istoria not only pleased the eye and stimulated the mind through its rich variety of detail, but it also piqued the emotions through naturalistic observations with which the viewer could immediately sympathize.


* Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting, trans. with introduction and notes by John R. Spencer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), p. 75–6.