Gallucci's Commentary on Dürer’s 'Four Books on Human Proportion': Renaissance Proportion Theory

Open resources Apr 1, 2020

by James Hutson

Ever since the seminal publication on human proportion by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, the relevance to such studies to other areas was rarely in question. Writers on poetry, natural philosophy, astronomy and astrology, and the visual arts all found a useful interpretative schema readymade in the human form and used it to explain complex ideas to a diverse audience. Yet the 1591 translation and commentary by a Venetian pedagogue, Giovan Paolo Gallucci would prove one of the most lasting for the education of the youth of his republic, artists, collectors, and art theorists for centuries. His his Della simmetria dei corpi humaniwould be published in 1591 and was an Italian translation Dürer’s work. While Dürer’s proportion studies were translated into French (1557) and Latin (1532), the Italian version (reprinted in 1594) greatly expanded the artistic discourse and availability of information on human anatomy in Italy and remained the version most often cited in later baroque treatises.

In order to expand the educational potential of his treatise, Gallucci added his own Preface, Life of Dürer, and Fifth Book, wherein he elaborated on the interdisciplinary knowledge painters must possess in order to effectively produce history paintings that illustrate the “affectations of the soul” (affetti del animo). This required drawing upon the sister art of poetry, as well as physiognomics, the discipline concerned with the judgment of human character from individual features, as well as pathognomics, a theory of how the expressive movements of figures reveal the passions. In his Fifth Book, following over two-hundred sets of proportions recorded by Dürer of various body types, Gallucci elaborates on these various passions in fifty-seven chapters. As a reference guide for painters who wished to show, for instance, an insolent or humble man, he provides not only a description of the desired figure, but bolsters his assertions with appropriate passages from epic poetry, especially Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1532) and Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), and ancient philosophers, above all Aristotle.

This translation and commentary includes an introduction that contextualizes the treatise and sets it within the dialectic of arts education in an era of institutionalization. The volume would complement (and even become more popular than) the encyclopedic Trattato (1584) of Lomazzo and his philosophical apologia the Idea del Tempio (1590). Like Lomazzo, Gallucci knew that the usefulness of the text as a reference guide for artists needed to be supplemented with a broader understanding of the natural sciences. The attempts made to categorize and map the human body were understood by art-theorists, astrologers and cosmologists as an attempt to reveal the macrocosm of the universe, and thus reveal its “divinely” ordered beauty in the microcosm of man. Such information concerning the structure of the universe was seen as necessary for artists to understand in order to reveal the beauty buried in imperfect material existence. In newly formed educational institutions, such as the Accademia del Disegno and Accademia di San Luca, later in the century, treatises such as Gallucci’s were considered necessary for the training of young artists. Moreover, the ideological underpinnings of his argument would be influential for the axioms of Nicholas Poussin, who, in turn, formed the formal and theoretical basis for the French Academy and academic art until the nineteenth century.

It has been my intent with this commentary and translation to make available for the first time in English the complete and original chapter of Gallucci, which seeks to show how Dürer’s proportion studies could and should be used by artists. In describing all manner of men and women, and the various emotional states they may find themselves in, we have not only an easy-to-reference manual for working artists, but an invaluable insight into the intellectual milieu of the day and how they viewed the world. Expectations of different genders, classes, and more are all laid bare for the modern reader. Thus, I believe the work is a valued addition to any undergraduate art history course on early modern art, but also of great interest to those in the history of science, as well as early modern history and literature.

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