A Game of Two Halves

If you haven’t seen the terrific little show at the Courtauld called “Design Drawings from Renaissance Italy,” you’re too late: it closed on May 17. I caught the exhibition just before that, and it inspired me to write a quick post on very early design drawings. Many people think that professional design didn’t begin until the nineteenth century; England’s own Christopher Dresser is often called the first industrial designer. But eminent artists like Michelangelo, Hans Holbein, and Albrecht Durer created designs for decorative objects. (Holbein’s drawings for metalwork and jewelry were a highlight of the recent exhibition on his work at Tate Britain.) 

A look at some of the Renaissance-era drawings in the V&A’s own collection shows that some things about design sketching haven’t changed over the past half-millenium. Here are two drawings, the first by Giovanni Battista Franco (ca. 1510 – died 1561) for a majolica dish:

and a second, by Hans Baldung (ca. 1484/5 – 1545) for a stained glass window.

Both drawings show a trick that designers have always used. Asymmetrical elements are drawn in their entirety, while anything symmetrical is drawn only once. This saves time, obviously, and the craftsperson who will realize the design doesn’t need to be told twice which ornament to put in the plate rim or the tracery atop the window. You can see the same approach taken to this day – though computer-aided design (CAD) is changing this, because it makes it easy to create a mirrored double of an image.

Though it might not initially occur to you, the drawing below by the great Mannerist architect and painter Giulio Romano (best known for the Palazzo Te in Mantua) uses the same principle. It shows only the left side of a ewer, probably to be made in silver or some other metal; presumably the right hand side will be the same.

Notice this image was carefully cut out from a sheet and mounted – a good example of a design drawing being valued in its own right. The drawing is also interesting in that it’s shaded to show the volume of the object. This is not something the artisan would have needed, but this artist was trained to render things a certain way. In fact it’s less a technical drawing than a still life; certain details, like the gadrooning (the band of little lobes) around the pouring lip and footring, or the shells that will be fashioned (probably by casting) and then applied to the body, are sketched in pretty loosely. Then as now, the designer could count on the craftsman to do the predictable parts of the job, like making two halves of an object that exactly match, or executing a standard ornamental technique. One thing a drawing helps you to understand, then, is what needed to be specified and what could be left unsaid in the relationship between artist and artisan.

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