Renaissance Views on the Merits of Painting versus Sculpture

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  • 00:00 Italian Artists
  • 00:40 The Merits of Painting
  • 2:10 The Merits of Sculpture
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the major Renaissance debate about the merits of painting versus sculpture, the two most popular forms of art. Then test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Italian Artists

Let's talk competition. You know how it goes: someone picks a team, someone else picks another. It can get pretty heated. Well, if you think we get competitive over sports teams, you should have seen people in the Renaissance. Except they weren't watching athletes, they were watching artists. Sculptors versus painters - match of the century. Centuries, actually. This issue was debated across the entire Renaissance, which lasted almost 300 years. The debate about the merits of painting versus sculpture is called the paragone and it was one of the most heated intellectual competitions of the era.

The Merits of Painting

Painting was one of the most respected forms of art in the Renaissance and was noted for its ability to capture a realistic sense of depth, geometrically-perfect compositions, and a deep level of symbolism. The merits of painting were formally written first by Leon Battista Alberti in 1435, who compared painting to looking out a window. You can see the entire scene and depict whole narratives in paintings. Alberti and later painters argued that this was a greater intellectual exercise than sculpture, with the painter being forced to consider the perspective, depth, space, color, and proportions of the entire composition. Painters also argued that this medium was a more accurate representation of nature since they could control the colors and setting of their subjects.

Painters were very vocal about the merits of painting, but it was often in a directly competitive sense. Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that the painter could create mists, rain, dusts, clouds, pebbles on the sand at the bottom of a stream, and other things that sculpture cannot attain. The Renaissance diplomat Baldassare Castiglione recorded a conversation on this topic in 1508. As one of the figures says about the sculptor, ''…it is beyond his powers to depict, but not beyond the powers of the painter. So, it seems to me that painting is nobler and allows greater artistry than sculpture.'' Oh, burn.

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