Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

The Groundwork of Painting: Background, Materiality, and Composition in Italian Renaissance Art

David Young Kim, University of Pennsylvania
Paul Mellon Senior Fellow, 2016–2017

A young woman, holding a baby in her lap, sits on a wide bench draped with a patterned midnight-blue fabric in this vertical panel painting. The panel is rectangular at the bottom and becomes a pointed arch at the top. The woman and baby both have pale skin tinged with peach, and halos inscribed on a gleaming gold background. The woman’s body is angled to our right and she tilts her head in that direction to look down at the child. She has a slender, oval face, with hazel-brown eyes under thin brows, a long nose, and coral-pink lips. A sliver of blond hair peeks out from the honey-gold cowl that covers her head, neck, and shoulders. The cowl is layered over her gold-trimmed, burgundy-red robe, which has an opening through which her right arm, closer to us, reaches to support to the child. That arm is covered by a long, gold sleeve patterned with scalloped brick-red and marine-blue designs and smoke-gray flowers. The word “MATER” is inscribed on her neckline and “AVE MARIA GRATIA PLENA DOM TECV BEN” along the bottom hem. On the woman’s lap, the child is angled to our left with the woman’s slender hands wrapped around his torso. His mouth is slightly open as he tilts his head up to look at her. His right hand, on our left, reaches up to gesture at her neckline. He has wavy, blond hair and hazel eyes under faint brows, a small nose, and peach-colored lips set in a round face. He wears an ankle-length, cobalt-blue tunic trimmed with bright gold. The fabric on the bench is covered with cobalt-blue and crimson-red flowers, and pools around the seat and across the floor.

Gentile da Fabriano, Madonna and Child Enthroned, c. 1420, tempera on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.255

We owe more than the ideal human figure to the Italian Renaissance picture. However much we associate this period with the monumental nudes of Michelangelo (1475 –1564) or the fleshy protagonists that inhabit the canvases of Titian (1490–1576), these figures cannot exist without ground — the visual plane against which bodies appear, and, more fundamentally, the material preparation of the painting support. In the historical sweep of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento, grounds register significant transitions, such as the passage from gold grounds to landscape and architectural views, and, beyond that, to the darkened grounds of baroque tenebrism or to the adoption of novel supports, such as slate and copper. And yet, despite its ubiquity and significance, the ground rarely guides our thinking about painting in this pivotal period in the history of art. This academic year at CASVA provided me with the opportunity to draft two chapters of a book, provisionally entitled “Groundwork,” which aims to offer a model for thinking about the Renaissance picture, not from the usual focal point of the figure but instead from the often overlooked viewpoint of the ground.

Jacob Burckhardt described ground as the birthplace of “true air,”
“true landscape,” and ultimately of naturalism via linear and atmospheric perspective. I concentrate instead on how ground becomes the starting block where painting engaged with its connections with goldwork, stonework, and textile crafts—the so-called minor arts left behind in the march toward illusionism. This approach raises two major issues. I first confront how painters thought about the picture’s affiliation with craft by embracing and exploiting the double sense of ground as both visual plane and the support’s material preparation. Second, this reflection on painting’s ties with craft allowed for a conceptualization of figure-ground relations that exist in tension with perspective, the dominant paradigm unifying the space of the Renaissance picture. Ultimately, ground emerges as the site where painting claimed supremacy over the other arts through its capacity to embrace other media. Consequently, my project conceives of art in this period not exclusively in terms of a specific medium but rather as arte in its original and broader sense, as interconnected social structures and manual practices that intermingled the various craft professions before the rise of the academy and the consolidation of art theory in the mid-sixteenth century.

The first chapter raises the question of how the ground can come into view, especially given that it is covered, to borrow a phrase from Leo Steinberg, in “a cloud of unlooking.” I begin by examining how art history has subsumed the ground within the paradigm of perspective and discuss how writers ranging from the American novelist Edith Wharton to art historians such as Yve-Alain Bois, Matteo Burioni, and Jeroen Stumpel raised the ground as a fundamental issue in painting. I then address how period sources developed a language for speaking about the ground, specifically through the discourse surrounding the term campo, or field. Here I read Giorgio Vasari’s Lives (1550/1568) against Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’arte (c. 1390) and other painting manuals to draw out two competing notions of ground. While the term campo refers to the ground as material preparation of the support and the visual plane, Vasari privileges the latter, exhorting painters to use the ground to depict illusionistic depth. Cennino, on the other hand, has what we might call a conditional or modal understanding of the ground. For him, campo is a site of possibility, a place where the artist can exploit the material substrate of the picture to exercise artistic imagination and achieve representation.

These observations have led me to the second chapter of “Groundwork,” which focuses on gold ground. Here I confront Cennino’s comments on the malleability of gold, its capacity to be hammered and shaped, with the work of Gentile da Fabriano (1370–1427), whom Andrea de’ Marchi has fittingly dubbed a “goldsmith-painter.” A point of focus is Gentile’s Madonna and Child Enthroned (c. 1420), whose gold ground demonstrates granare, the technique of stippling the ground, to render diaphanous angels. Concave depressions catch and scatter light, while the surrounding gold ground, smooth and burnished, paradoxically provides contrasting shading. The gold ground, undulating as it does between radiance and darkness, flatness and diaphanous figuration, injects temporal and spatial action in the panel. Gentile’s points on a field thus allow for the possibility of a world that dynamically comes into view. In this way, he seized on painting’s modal character, what it can be or become, which manifests itself through the ground.

Gentile da Fabriano
Italian, 1370 - 1427
Gentile da Fabriano
Madonna and Child Enthroned
c. 1420