leonardo, michelangelo, and paper -- 7/30/20

Today's encore selection -- from Paper by Mark Kurlansky. Paper made its first appearance in Europe in the 11th century, but was expensive and suffered from poor quality. By the 15th century, it was inexpensive and of good quality, and that dramatically changed the level of Renaissance art:

"Paper created a monumental shift in European art. ... Drawing is a primal urge, ... but drawing only became a standard art form when paper became available. In the case of Europe, this occurred dur­ing the Renaissance, when paper was still a new idea on the Continent. Previously, there had been very little informal use of parchment for art because it was too expensive and too difficult to erase. At first, European paper was also too expensive to be used to dash off a quick sketch and had too low a standing to be used for serious art. But by the late fifteenth century, this had all changed. Paper opened up the possibility of the sketch. Renaissance artists sketched out their work before they drew, painted, or sculpted it -- or, in the case of Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts, carved it. This new ability to not only plan but toy with ideas raised their art to a level not known in the Middle Ages.

Albrecht Dürer, Self-Portrait at Thirteen, 1484

"Artists drew and sketched with varying degrees of skill. Leonardo da Vinci was legendary for his skills as a draftsman. Michelangelo, known for his frescoes and sculptures, was equally brilliant as a draftsman­ -- many art historians consider him to have been the greatest draftsman who ever lived -- though most of his drawing was scribbled chaotically on sheets of paper not intended for public view. Both artists used Fab­riano paper at least some of the time.

"Sixteenth-century artist and historian Giorgio Vasari, whose Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects is the leading source of biographical information on the Italian Renaissance artists, tells the story of a sketch by Michelangelo that was displayed in the Palazzo Medici for art students to copy. Since the sheet, like most of Michelan­gelo's sheets, had a variety of sketches on it, students started tearing off pieces of it, and they became 'scattered over many places.' According to Vasari, those fortunate students who ended up with a remnant treasured it and regarded it as something 'more divine than human.'

Head of a Young Woman -- Da Vinci

"Michelangelo used a great deal of paper, [and] ... almost any piece of paper he used contained a few sketches. A few are finished drawings. A stunning drawing of the resurrection of Christ is also marked with a shopping list. Masterful drawings were folded up, with notes about the banal ephemera of everyday life jotted on the reverse side. ...

"Michelangelo may have been among the first to jot down quick ideas for himself. Some 2,000 letters from and to Michelangelo have also been collected. Letter writing is another practice that blossomed with the widespread use of paper.

The Nuremberg paper mill, the building complex at the lower right corner, in 1493.

"Leonardo da Vinci was notorious in his lifetime for his inability to complete projects. ... Fortunately, there was paper, on which Leonardo could capture his genius. Though he is usually thought of as a painter, only fifteen paintings, some unfinished, have been found, along with two damaged murals. He also attempted some sculpture, though he never finished one piece. But he left behind thirty bound notebooks. Unlike Michel­angelo, he did want people to see this work on paper, including the notes he made in his mirror-image script -- a curious response to being left-handed. He left drawings depicting all kind of inventions, and notes on literature, arts, mythology, anatomy, engineering, and, most of all nature....

"Leonardo also left behind four thousand sheets of drawings of stag­gering beauty. He was the first artist to be recognized for his drawings on paper. Leonardo's work became the standard for art in Renaissance Florence. Studying art now meant working on paper, learning to draw. Leonardo had learned art that way himself, in the workshop taught by Andrea del Verrocchio. Artists have been trained on paper ever since."

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Mark Kurlansky


Paper: Paging Through History


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 by Mark Kurlansky


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