From the modelbook to the sketchbook

1. Modelbooks 2. Function of the modelbooks
3. Giovannino de'Grassi 4. Pisanello

1. Modelbooks

In the Middle Ages artists did not paint directly from nature, but generally drew their inspiration from established formulae, or from the works of others. modelbooks were indispensable tools in painters' workshops. These books contained figures, motifs seen somewhere and noted to be used later, and outlines of pictorial solutions of various themes. Being in common use they became important repositories of artistic traditions, and as they were moved from one workshop to another and were inherited by pupils from their masters, artistic forms and ideas were transmitted.

2. Function of the modelbooks

Up to the end of the fourteenth century only a very few modelbooks survived. This is so because time does not select only by means of wars, vandalism, of cold and heat - but also according to what it considers valuable. In the Middle Ages worn-out modelbooks were discarded together with old brushes and palettes. On the other hand, a significant number of model collections have come down to us from the period of the International Gothic style. Why? It seems to be paradoxical, but it was at that very age, the time when an artistic idiom was taking shape and became universal, that the function of modelbooks underwent a change. Gradually they dropped out of international circulation; workshops, even individual artists, began to preserve them, considering them to be their own intellectual possessions. While social and ecclesiastic constraints on works of art were loosening, painters endeavoured to get rid of the old schematic formulae and set out on the path leading to a freer artistic practice, which gave ever-increasing scope to personal creativity. (What happened in 1398 in Poitiers would have been unthinkable previously: the painter Jacquemart de Hesdin and two companions forced open the box of the painter Jan of Holland and stole drawings of models. The consequence was a long-drawn-out law-suit, and a fatal stabbing with a knife.)

However, the survival of the modelbooks was not the only change that occurred: their character changed too. From preservers of artistic traditions they gradually turned into a proving ground for pictorial experiments of great importance. It was in these books that studies made direct from nature first appeared, and that drawing as an independent branch of art emerged. The most important requirement of previous modelbooks was an exact reproduction of the model, and therefore above all else the greatest attention had to be paid to clear outlines. Due to the frequent handling of the modelbooks the outlines soon became blurred and were renewed from time to time. To make the models suitable for insertion into any composition, all references to surroundings and time in the representations were avoided as far as possible. All this, of course, led to a certain rigidity in the patterns. In "Jacques Daliwe"'s small album the forms are somewhat more individual, and there are also compositions which contain several figures, that is to say, models not particularly suitable for use in workshops where several artists were active. The album contains not only copies of works already seen, but, as we can see in the representation of the Vir Dolorum, studies for independent pictorial ideas as well.

3. Giovannino de' Grassi

The sketchbook of Giovannino de' Grassi has moved even farther from the traditions of medieval modelbooks. The forms are no longer set regularly in pairs, as they are, for example, in the Vienna album, where, with a view to the joint use of the models, they had to be placed in a way which was easy to survey. In Grassi's book they are apparently placed at random, since it was enough if the community of a small workshop could understand them. However, the unsystematic arrangement had another reason too: Grassi did not copy his figures of animals from existing works of art but from direct observation of nature. His sketchbook, preserved in Bergamo, is one of the first picture books of zoology in modern times, a book in which the animal figures - apart from a few exceptions - have no mythological connections; it is a work in which, for the first time since antiquity, genuine studies of nature can be seen. In view of the fact that his animals were delineated "from stealthy observation", they are rather rigid and always in a posture of rest. All the same, the lack of spontaneity has nothing to do with the petrified, schematic rigidity of the old modelbooks. It was the striving for exactitude in the smallest details and a careful, patient study that demanded the animals' immobility. "Nature study in art did not start with making snapshots. In its initial stage it sought to approach the zoological specimens in much the same way in which a portrait painter tackles his human model which in the first place is expected to sit still. In this initial stage the birds and other animals all become 'sitters'." (Pacht). The earliest independent portraits usually represented the sitters in profile, which was the aspect illuminating the most characteristic features. Similarly, these early likenesses of animals usually delineated the animal as seen from the side, an angle from which practically all the characteristic parts of its body could be recorded, as in an inventory.

In Grassi's immediate circle his sketchbook was soon used as a modelbook. His lifelike representations of animals became conventional sets of pictures, to be used as a substitute for direct personal experience. Suddenly the representation of animals became so frequent in Lombardy that it was assumed that their delineation was an integral part of artistic training there. But as animal figures regressed to the level of modelbooks, they were soon found in works from Bohemian, French and English workshops as well.

4. Pisanello

The next and final step away from the traditions of medieval modelbooks was taken by Pisanello, one of the last and greatest masters of the International Gothic style. His studies of animals, in which the direct experience is freshly presented, seem to be spontaneous and lifelike. Rather than showing the animal at rest, as if in a still life, the artist's eye captures it in a single moment of some characteristic motion. Pisanello's observation penetrated deeply under the surface of the animal's skin and he can make us see the bones, muscles and pulsing veins of the living creatures. He no longer needs to use the profile to convey the salient characteristic features of the animal. In the same way, he was perhaps the first artist in Italy who, concurrently with portraits in profile, painted full-face likenesses. True, Pisanello's animal figures are descendants of medieval patterns, but they have progressed far beyond their ancestors, both in their function and in their appearance. However important an element drawing had been in a work of art, it was only at this time that it began to be a direct and personal expression of the artist's creative imagination, and the modelbook was gradually replaced by a sketchbook.

In the Vallardi Codex, the major collection from the Pisanello workshop, we can find, on the one hand, one of the first surviving sketches for a composition (the fresco of the Ducal Palace of Venice), and, on the other, numerous other studies, for which no parallel has been found among his completed paintings. The artist himself regarded these studies as valuable independent works of art, which is how posterity regards them; furthermore, a Pisanello drawing was the first work which can be authentically proved to have occupied an esteemed place in a private collection. (Incidentally, the oldest marks of ownership of a collector can be found on the sheets of his master, Stefano da Verona.) "There are but few masters - pre-eminently Dürer and Leonardo - with whom drawing appeared with such intensity in artistic expression as in Pisanello's work. But in his works the individual gift of draughtsmanship meets the demands of a style definitely demanding linearity - as it does in the work of no other artist. The uniqueness of his drawings is due to the fact that there was no other stylistic period in which he could have expressed himself so perfectly and in such a natural manner by means of drawings as at this time." (Degenhart)

Continue the tour with The characteristics of the style and its emergence