Found in Translation: Poussin, Rusconi

23 Jul 2014

Specialization is one of the things that distinguish our artistic world from the Old Masters. The proverbial "Renaissance man" (there were women, too, like Plautilla Bricci) could do many different things, both artistic and intellectual, and the great facilitator of this seemingly effortless variety of skills was drawing, or disegno. Since the Italian word disegno means both drawing and design, someone who could draw could also design, which meant conceptualize, organize, and synthesize. If you could draw you could design anything--a painting, a sculpture, a building, even city walls. Drawing was also how you learned; as much as artists made copies like for like (a painting of a painting, a sculpture of a sculpture), they mostly learned from other artists by drawing their work. What this meant was that a drawing after a sculpture could just as easily yield an idea for a painting, and vice versa. And their sense of the fluidity between the arts meant that painters got better by emulating sculpture, and sculptors did better if they could do some of the things painters did.

Andrea del Sarto, St. John the Baptist, from the Madonna of the Harpies, Uffizi Camillo Rusconi's St. Matthew, St. John Lateran

Andrea del Sarto, St. John the Baptist,
from the Madonna of the Harpies, Uffizi

Camillo Rusconi's St. Matthew,
St. John Lateran

Two examples can illustrate how this worked. Nicolas Poussin loved antiquity, but as a painter he had precious little to go on to emulate ancient painting-apart from decorative frescoes, almost nothing of ancient painting survived. But at least since Michelangelo, artists thought relief sculpture should be a model for painting, and there were plenty of ancient reliefs around. Poussin developed his painting ideas from his heroes like Raphael and ancient reliefs, then worked the spatial composition up in a push-and-pull between creating painterly depth and overlaying figures in a relief-like way. He wasn't trying to paint reliefs, but he had a lot to learn from them, which also explains the solidity of his figures.

After Poussin's painting of Ordination

After Poussin's painting of Ordination

Copy after Poussin's drawing for his painting of Ordination

Copy after Poussin's drawing for his painting of Ordination

The Lombard Camillo Rusconi worked in Rome and was the preeminent sculptor of his time. He got the lion's share of the commissions for sculptures of the Apostles for the niches lining the nave of St. John Lateran. His St. Matthew, I believe, derived its resolute pose from Andrea del Sarto's St. John painted two hundred years earlier. Del Sarto was a painter's painter, revered more by artists than the public; and his commanding figures seem to have derived their own solidity from looking closely at sculpture, both ancient and modern. So the exchange came full circle with Rusconi. And if we modern painters want to relearn the classical figure, there is no better school than the sculpture of Rusconi's Rome.

--David


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Lil Alyce wrote
on 29 Jul 2014 1:21 AM

I have been into drawing my whole life. It was a surprise to me when at the age of 28 I picked up a lump of clay and could easily sculpt an entire human being. It felt the same as drawing, be it my eyes or my hands creating the dimensional surface..the feel was the same. I think it has to do with creating the shadows and highlights in a drawing, as if the pencil is 'carving' the drawing onto the paper. Just a thought.