On the ornament of painting – The liberty of the istoria
Year mention: 1564
Crucifixion ; decorum ; historic painting ; ornament of painting
Untruthfulness/Not probable/Not corresponding to history

Addition of historically incorrect details

Gilio, Giovanni Andrea
REFERENCE IMAGE: Anonymous German artist, Christ on a Goldsmith's Cross,15th century
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, www.metmuseum.org

In contrast to poetic painting, in historical painting, there is almost no freedom. Even background design details, which the poetic license permits in poetic painting, are forbidden, as they can lead to errors. Only the “ornamentation of painting” is allowed, which includes accompanying elements such as the number of torches in the hands of the figures or other insignificant details. It would be the responsibility of the performing artist to recognise these and adapt the rest of the composition to the subject of the painting.

“M. Troilo said: ‘You should not judge a history to be untruthful if variations are introduced in the nonessential things [accidenti] that are apt to occur’.  ‘That is true’ replied M. Silvio, ‘but at the same time there are some nonessential things that are so closely connected with the substance [sostanza] of the history [istoria] that if they were altered, either by more emphasize than they ought to be, or more concealed, the subject matter would be distorted. As would be the case for example if, wishing to show the defeat at Cannes, it were shown in a ship, in a city, or on top of a mountain: who would be able to resist laughing at such a ridiculous artist? How would anyone who read such a history, written by someone in that way said in those places, judge the writer or, indeed, how would he judge a painter who represented our Lord crucified on a cross of gold or silver, or on a cross so small or slight that it would not support a young child, let alone a man, or so long and large that it looked out of proportion, or if he made the shaft of roses, lilies, and violets, or if our Lord were dressed in royal garments embellished with gemstones and gold?’ ‘They would be judged the worst’, said M. Pulidoro ‘Nothing good could be said. But there are nonessential things that do not alter the sense of a history, As for example if one made the number of Pharisees who seized Christ greater or smaller than there actually were; the lights that they carried, the kinds of arms, the house of Pilate, of Caiaphas, of Anna, of Herod More beautiful and more ornate than they actually were; the hill of Calvary higher or lower, Jerusalem bigger or smaller, and other such things’. Speaking again, M. Silvio said: ‘Rather, these additions will it be an ornament to the painting. It will be the task of the good painter to know how to distinguish between the nonessential things that need to be avoided and those that should be used, those that may dishonor the subject and those that may enhance it. But before everything else he must find out about the subject of the history that he intends to paint; and then about the time, the place, do persons; and he must not mix things up in an ignorant manner, but give to each what is proper to it in an ordered way, so that decorum is observed in everything’.” 

“Disse M. Troilo: ‘Non fa reputare per questo l‘istoria bugiarda il variare di molti accidenti che sono atti a intervenirvi’. ‚È vero’, rispose M. Silvio, ‘ma sono a le volte alcuni accidenti tanto proprii et attaccati a la sostanza de l‘istoria, che, variandosi quelli, o più del dovere isprimendosi, o vero ccultandosi, rendono il soggetto viziato. Come sarebbe, per cagione di esempio, se uno volesse dimostrare la rotta di Canne essersi fatta in una nave, in una città, in cima d‘un monte: chi si terrebbe di non ridere di quel salato artefice? O vero chi leggesse l‘istessa istoria d‘uno che in quel modo et in quei luoghi la scrivesse, o vero se uno dipingesse il nostro Signore crocifisso in una croce d‘oro o d‘argento, o tanto piccola e sottile che non fusse atta a sostenere un fanciulletto, non che un uomo, o tanto lunga e grossa che fusse sproporzionata, o vi fesse per il tronco rose, gigli, viole, o ‘l nostro Signore vestito di veste reale ornata di gemme e d‘oro: che giudizio si farebbe di quel pittore, o di quello scrittore che così la scrivesse?.’ ‚Pessimo, disse M. Pulidoro, né si potrebbe dire se non male. Ma sono alcuni accidenti, che non mutano il senso de l’istoria; come sarebbe il fare il numero de’Farisei maggiore o minore di quello che lo presero; i lumi che portavano, le sorti de l‘arme, le case de Pilato, di Caifa, d‘Anna, d‘Erode più bell‘e più ornate che per aventura non erano, il monte Calvario più alto o più basso, Gierusalemme maggiore o minore, e simili.’Ripigliando il parlare, M. Silvio disse: ‘Anzi, questi aggiunti fanno ornamento a la pittura. E questo sarà l‘uffizio del buono artefice, di saper discernere gli accidenti che si deono fuggire da quelli che si deono usare; quali vituperino il soggetto e quali l‘adornino’.”

Quoted Authorities

Horace, Ars Poetica

Cross, Crucifixion, deocrum, historic painting, ornament of painting, pittore istorico, sostanza

accidenti, decorum, istoria, sostanza
Date mention

Historical Location

Iconclass Number
73D5; 73D6;

Gilio, Dialogue on the errors and abuses of painters (2018), 116-117; Gilio, Dialogo. Nel quale si ragiona degli errori e degli abusi de’pittori circa l’istorie. In: Due dialogi di M. Giouanni Andrea Gilio da Fabriano (1564), 25-26

Gilio 2018, 116-117, n.90-92

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