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Disegno and Pentimenti

Updated: Jan 6

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

Paul Anka, My Way

Renaissance drawing
Jacopo Pontormo, Figure Study

There is something fundamentally different about how drawing was practiced in the Renaissance and how it is taught in most realist academic art programs today. Drawing was recognized as an intellectual activity, and as such it was intimately bound up with design; thus, the one word in Italian—disegno—that means both drawing and design. While disegno implied skill in accurate documentation of the world, it was meant to form both the artist’s memory and ability to invent, or to imagine. To draw from the model was not primarily meant to result in a meticulous documentation of the subject, but to train the hand—muscle memory—and mind—analytical memory—to be able to invent the figure without the model.

Many historians project back onto Renaissance and Baroque artists the predilections of nineteenth-century academic formation. But the rivalry with the black and white photographic image that underpins the (notorious) Bargue drawings was simply not what motivated Baroque draftsman. They, instead, reveled in the mark, the evidence of the hand, the characteristics that made drawing an act. Vasari celebrates drawing’s ability to reveal the mind of the artist, precisely because of its immediacy and its gesture. It’s common to assume that all figure drawings before the nineteenth century were done from the model, but close examination reveals a searching for the form that often indicates an imaginary image. Perhaps the artist’s exploration of contour and form was corrected by reference to the model, but there are aspects of Pontormo’s remarkable figure studies that involve caricature or exaggeration that suggest at least a projection of a sensibility onto the model if not imagining the model outright.

Renaissance drawing
Jacopo Pontormo, Figure Study for Poggio a Caiano

Thus, one of the qualities that make Old Master drawings both beautiful and interesting is their pentimenti—literally repentances—that are corrections, moments of rethinking that are left evident in the image. The beauty of pentimenti lies not in their revealing the artist’s imperfection, but rather their searching for perfection. Pentimenti prove that drawing is a conscious, thoughtful act, not a mechanical sight-sized transcription of a subject. Pentimenti make the drawing active, layered, evolving toward something. It is drawing as a search.

It also shows drawing as the quintessential form of design, or invention. Invention, at least historically, meant discovery, finding, even unearthing. Drawings with pentimenti are discoveries of form, not documentation. And the facility, but also the openness to imperfection in the drawing qua drawing, that pentimenti reveal are what made disegno what it was.

Cartoon for an Allegory of Disegno

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