Skip to Content

Members' Research Report Archive

The "Episteme of Lines": Printed Drawing Books in Europe, c. 1525 ‒ 1625

Ulrich Pfisterer, Institut für Kunstgeschichte, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, September 1 – October 31, 2013

In the course of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, drawing became a vital category of art, thought, and social competence throughout Western Europe. In Italy, for example, disegno was established not only as the “father” of three “daughters” — painting, sculpture, and architecture — but also as the principle on which all artistic-aesthetic assessment was based. “Drawing” as an intellectual concept was henceforth postulated as the foundation of all human cognition and activity: of art, science, and virtuous deeds. Around 1600, accordingly, the theory and practice of drawing could be understood as a metadiscourse on the nature of human thinking. This holds (at least partially) true also outside Italy, especially in the German-, French-, and English-speaking countries. Even in the Netherlands, Karel van Mander, whose Schilder-Boek (1604) seemed to be intended as an alternative to Vasari’s model, laments, in his opening poem on the basic principles of the art of painting (“Den Grondt der Edel vry Schilder-const”), the lack of a Netherlandish instructional “ABC” of drawing (teykenconst, literally, the art of inscribing).


Odoardo Fialetti, illustration for “Del naso, bocca, et barbuccio,” chapter 2 of Della regola, misura, o simmetria delle teste de gli huomini, donne, e fanciulli (Venice, 1609). Private collection

It is thus all the more remarkable that the most important and widely distributed medium that conveyed the principles of drawing to artistic dilettanti or the “uneducated” public — the printed drawing books that became increasingly popular after 1600, with rapidly rising numbers of publications — have remained understudied compared to other genres of art literature. These manuals, some with, others without explanatory text, present what might be called printed pedagogies in an encompassing sense. Their aim was not merely to demonstrate that even a dilettante could acquire the skill of drawing the human figure in complex movement and perspective space by starting to practice from the first line. The manuals — and this is the first of my principal hypotheses — fundamentally conveyed and standardized the perception and criteria for the evaluation of art by a greater public and to a much greater extent than the comprehensive and complex art treatises compiled by Leon Battista Alberti, Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo, Federico Zuccaro, van Mander, and others. They explored the way in which the lines, markings, and references deduced from visual observation recorded a knowledge and an expertise that were implemented and passed on in the form of practical instruction. The genre of drawing manuals and the methods they conveyed by and large standardized and shaped social and scientific practices of thought and conception — or, to put it another way, the epistemes themselves — in early modern Europe, during which period some of the books were reprinted, over two and a half centuries, in ever larger editions.

Within this context, crucial questions remain unresolved, and not only for the early drawing books published in Italy. The earliest-dated drawing book printed in Italy, Il vero modo et ordine per dissegnar tutte le parti et membra del corpo humano by Odoardo Fialetti, was published in Venice in 1608. It was followed around the same time by the so-called Scuola perfetta per imparar a disegnar, supposedly compiled by the Carracci (Annibale, Agostino, and Ludovico) and engraved by Luca Ciamberlano, and then by the manuals of Giovanni Luigi Valesio, Giacomo Franco, and Giacomo Palma il Giovane; the illustrated manuscript by Francesco Cavazzini, which was prepared for printing but never actually printed; and the works of Guercino / Oliviero Gatti, Gasparo Colombina, Giuseppe Caletti, and Guido Reni — all appearing up to about 1625. The difficulties in scholarly assessment begin in some of these cases with the most basic questions, such as the dates of first printing and subsequent editions — which, at this point in my research, I can identify for three hitherto unknown manuals, thereby presenting a very early addition to the known corpus of texts and images. Also to be reconsidered is the question of which kinds of published books, collections of prints, and single sheets could serve, and should also be understood, as drawing manuals (prints of antique statues and publications on geometry and perspective, military architecture, anatomy and physiognomy, and other subjects).

The second of my main working hypotheses is that the history of the early drawing book must be understood to arise from a situation of double competition. With regard to Italy, we can reconstruct rather precisely how rival artists and publishers in Venice and Rome competed over the best didactic concepts, which is to say the right mode of cognition and the interpretive priority for art. More important, however, is an aspect that so far remains undiscussed: this rivalry has to be assessed as a phenomenon affecting all of Europe at the time. Thus, in the German-speaking regions there existed an important tradition following the publications of Albrecht Dürer and the model books of Heinrich Vogtherr, Sebald Beham, Jost Amman, and others. Dutch engravings on the drawing of the human figure came into print around 1575; in France, Jean Cousin’s La vraye science de la pourtraicture was first published in 1595 and became probably the most popular manual on drawing of all (with twenty-four known editions up to the mid-nineteenth century); and in England Henry Peacham published his Art of Drawing in 1606. Even some of the Italian manuals prove to be responses to examples previously compiled north of the Alps. As evidence of autonomous traditions of the depiction, perception, and definition of “lines,” the various publications deserve consideration in the context of the formation of “national” schools of art, and possibly also of differing epistemes of cognition and thought.