Rebirth: Manuals and learning

François Flameng (1856–1923), Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius (1894), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

One of the most important contributors to the Renaissance and its art was a German inventor who started transforming the distribution of knowledge throughout Europe: Johannes Gutenberg (c 1400-1468), whose movable-type printing presses brought instructional manuals, prints, and much more to benefit painters. In this article I’m going to look briefly at some of the key publications which ensured that the changes the Renaissance brought in art were widely and quickly disseminated.

Before printing and the open learning which flourished in the Renaissance, changes in painting practice spread slowly. A good example of this is the introduction of oil painting to Italy, which lagged practice in northern Europe by more than half a century. Contrast that with the adoption of perspective projection, which was developed in Florence by Brunelleschi in the 1420s and swept across Europe during the following decade or two. Although both are practical skills, successful oil painting required learning the craft of making oil paint, as well as technique on the part of the painter. Perspective was almost as easy to learn from a book as with a teacher and, in the first instance at least, that book was written by another Florentine architect, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472).

Masaccio (1401–1428), The Holy Trinity (1426-8), fresco, 640 x 317 cm, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Wikimedia Commons. Lines of projection marked in light green.

Masaccio’s spectacular demonstration of Brunelleschi’s perspective projection, The Holy Trinity (1426-8), quickly became a must-see for other artists. Thankfully its one-point projection is obvious to the viewer, as shown by the green lines in this image. What’s less clear is how you might project to an off-centre vanishing point, and how non-rectilinear objects should be treated.

Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), Death of Brunelleschi (1852), oil on canvas, 256.5 x 188 cm, Leighton House Museum, London. WikiArt.

Alberti was born into a Florentine family who had been exiled in Genoa. His family was allowed to return to the city in 1428, when he was twenty-four. At some time after the completion of Masaccio’s stunning fresco in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (and the artist’s untimely death), Alberti and Brunelleschi met and talked perspective. In 1431, Alberti travelled to Rome where he studied and presumably drew the ruins of the classical city, developing his own skills of perspective drawing. He then started work on his book Della pittura (On Painting), which he completed in 1435.

Alberti’s book is dedicated to Brunelleschi, and structured into three parts:

  • the rudiments of painting, aimed at the novice;
  • different types of painting, aimed at the apprentice;
  • improving the skills of the painter, aimed at those already painting.

He distinguishes three components in painted images, those of form, composition and colour. His account of these includes a simplified description of perspective projection which enabled many artists to use it in practice.

In this respect, Alberti fell short of providing a thorough account, which had to wait for Piero della Francesca (c 1415-1492), another Florentine, who was not only one of the great masters of the Renaissance, but was also a renowned mathematician and geometer. From about 1500, while Alberti’s more extensive book on painting remained in wide use, it was Piero’s De Prospectiva Pingendi (On Perspective for Painting) and its successors which defined the science and art of perspective.

Another book which could have been of great influence at the time wasn’t published until 1632. This is the collation of Leonardo da Vinci’s writings on painting known as Trattato della pittura (A Treatise on Painting). These were gathered together from his notebooks after his death, a task which proved too much for the artist’s heir Francesco Melzi, whose collation wasn’t rediscovered until 1817.

The Renaissance saw the birth of art history, too, in Giorgio Vasari’s collected biographies known in short as Lives of the Artists, which was first published in 1550. Vasari (1511-74) was an accomplished Florentine master who took on the task of recording accounts of most of the great painters, sculptors and architects of Italy, particularly those from Tuscany. Like many of the most worthwhile projects, this arose from conversation at a party, in which a writer told of his wish to compile a book on contemporary painting, and their host, Cardinal Farnese, invited Vasari to provide him with information. Soon afterwards, the writer handed the whole task over to Vasari.

Vasari’s Lives of the Artists opens with his own account of various techniques used in a range of arts, then provides largely anecdotal accounts of the lives and some of the major works of dozens of artists. It’s now most familiar in its second, expanded edition which was published in 1568. It’s far from reliable in some respects, including its account of the introduction of oil painting to Italy, but remains an invaluable reference today.

Many prominent humanists became involved in the propagation of knowledge and ideas in printed books, and Renaissance painters became intimately involved with this new publishing industry.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Ginevra de’ Benci (c 1478-80), oil and tempera on poplar, 38.8 x 36.7 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Soon after Leonardo da Vinci left Verocchio’s studio, he painted this magnificant portrait of the legendarily beautiful Florentine Ginevra de’ Benci. She was apparently greatly admired in a courtly manner by the Venetian diplomat and humanist Bernardo Bembo, who is thought to have commissioned this portrait, most probably when he lived in Florence between 1478-80, perhaps as a gift to Ginevra. Bembo’s personal device is painted on the back of the panel; he was father to the scholar and poet Pietro Bembo, best known today for the typeface named in his honour.

Other artists involved themselves in producing illustrations for major literary works of the Renaissance.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Map of Hell (1480-90), silverpoint, ink and distemper, 33 x 47.5 cm, Biblioteca Apostólica Vaticana, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

Botticelli’s Map of Hell from 1480-90 is a detailed depiction of each of the circles described in Dante’s Inferno, intended for one of its early illustrated editions.

The increasing role of books is also celebrated in masterworks, such as Raphael’s fresco The School of Athens (c 1509-11), which he painted in the Palazzo Apostolico of the Vatican.

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (c 1509-11), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Several of its figures are shown consulting books, particularly those in its lower left, near Pythagoras. The detail below shows Pythagoras writing in a large book, with a chalk drawing on a small blackboard in front of his left foot. Others are looking over his shoulder and studying or copying what he is doing.

Raphael (1483–1520), The School of Athens (detail) (c 1509-11), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Apostolico, Rome, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

As with Frederic, Lord Leighton’s nineteenth century painting of the Death of Brunelleschi shown above, later artists have drawn attention to the importance of printing and publishing.

François Flameng (1856–1923), Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius (1894), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

François Flameng’s Jean Grolier in the House of Aldus Manutius from 1894 shows Jean Grolier de Servières, Treasurer-General of France and one of the most famous bibliophiles in history, with Aldus Manutius the Venetian printer and publisher, in about 1511. In reality, although these two men did meet, it’s now thought that took place in Milan, where Manutius didn’t have his press, nor was there such a picturesque background. Nevertheless it makes a fine painting, and a reminder of how enabling Gutenberg’s invention has become.


Andersen K (2007) The Geometry of an Art. The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge, Springer. ISBN 978 0 387 25961 1.
Bondanella JC and P (trans) Vasari G (1991), The Lives of the Artists, Oxford. ISBN 978 0 19 953719 8.
Sinisgalli R (2011) Leon Battista Alberti On Painting, A New Translation and Critical Edition, Cambridge UP. ISBN 978 1 107 00062 9.
Vasari G (1960) Vasari on Technique, Dover. ISBN 978 0 486 20717 9.