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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: February 2020

Chapter 2 - The Colors of Monochrome Sculpture

from Part I - Surface Effects: Color, Luster, and Animation


The analogy between color and enlivenment has a long prehistory, and it became a popular motif in creation narratives in the early modern period. In the preface to his Lives, Giorgio Vasari tells us that God shaped the first humans from earth because he wanted to demonstrate his mastery in the most imperfect material; he then imbued his raw creation with “the most lively color of flesh” (“colore vivacissimo di carne”).1 Anton Francesco Doni summarizes the story in a telling sequence: “Adam was created and made flesh with varied colors” (“fu fatto Adamo e incarnato con quei variati colori”).2 Francisco de Holanda calls man God’s “animated painting.”3 Part of this creation is, of course, sculptural in nature, but the “liveliness of the eyes, the tone of the skin, the redness of hair [!], and the animation are effects of the power of colors.”4 Also in the sixteenth century, Paolo Pino based his hierarchical ordering of painting and sculpture on the identification of color with life, which explains the higher rank of painting.5 Enlivenment is the decisive criterion of the boundaries that arose, along lines of color, between early modern sculpture and painting. In the later fourteenth and early fifteenth century, oil techniques, first experimentally developed in the north for polychroming sculptures, especially for flesh tones, were gradually withdrawn from statues and reserved for the production of living bodies in painting. As Ann-Sophie Lehmann puts it, “it was as if oil painting was pried from sculpture, in order to awaken life in panel painting.”6