A Dialogue on Style

Sara Shah

Sara Shah is from Fort Worth, Texas. She is an undeclared Political Science major. Sara spent this past summer studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. At Davidson, Sara is a Spanish and Arabic tutor, a member of Connor Eating House, the Treasurer of the Middle East and North African Students Association, and a Regional Editor for The Davidson International, an International Relations magazine on campus. She hopes to study abroad in Morocco and France her junior year. My essay was produced in Professor Nina Serebrennikov’s Renaissance in Italy course.

July 1570

Dearest Brother,

As mother may have told you, I have been appointed to serve two brothers of the Medici family. The position is profitable, but the twin brothers banter with the maturity of schoolboys and with a violence reminiscent of Cain and Abel, making the position difficult.

I fear that a misstep would lead to a murder of one brother by the other. I would appreciate your help with the decision I am to make. The problem arose when Guilio began to read my copy of Giorgio Vasari’s three volumes of The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects and Paolo did the same. Guilio has chosen two Annunciation pieces, one from the Quattrocento and one from our own century. Paolo dismisses both choices and claims that the third part of Lives means even more than I have found it to mean. He truly wants a piece by Michelangelo, but since the Medici bank cannot fund such a piece, he will not settle for anything but a maniera.

I have kept notes from their most recent argument over the decision, which I include here:

Guilio: Paolo, please just sit and listen to my two choices. I know you fancy the modern, but a Quattrocento piece would be a classic, among the works of the great Donatello and Masaccio. I have chosen a work by not only a man of faith, but also a favorite of our own family, Fra Fillipo Lippi. He was a master of Annunciation scenes, one of which sits over the doors of the Medici Palace.

Paolo: He was hardly a man of faith. He abducted and impregnated a nun. Correct me if I am mistaken, but that is not acceptable behavior for a Catholic priest. Furthermore, he retained his priesthood as a result of our family’s protection. I am more than sure that Annunciation scene you speak of in the palace was a way for him to say “Thank you” for the safety the Medici name provided him.

Guilio: Forget his character then, though you are hardly one to judge, and look at his art. It is a scene in which the angel Gabriel has just landed in the presence of The Virgin. The Virgin to the right of the piece counteracts Gabriel’s movements, while he kneels before her with his right hand on his chest; she stands before him with her right hand on hers. The piece was completed circa 1450. The painting is clean. In the words of Cristoforo Landino, Lippi was a master of grazia, leading to him being a master of compositione.1 Landino describes Lippi’s work as ornato in a positive way.2 Lippi illustrated Gabriel’s wings with an intricate pattern, reminiscent of ostrich feathers. The Virgin is in her symbolic blue cloak. The pattern of her dress beneath her robe as well as the shawl covering her hair is more tasteful, also attributing to the ornato effect. The piece, furthermore, has the quintessential quality of devoto: the Virgin looks down at her prayer book on the stand, and Gabriel’s eyes are downcast, revealing the same quality of the istoria.  Furthermore, God, The Father, is above in the top left corner of the canvas, surrounded by angels, and a heavenly beam is sent down from His right hand towards the Virgin, directly to her heart. In the middle of the beam is a white dove, flying towards the Virgin. Below, God, also on the left, is an angel, quietly  but interestedly looking on the scene, anticipating how the Virgin will respond. Admittedly, Lippi’s piece lacks rilievo, but has strong lines. The use of light and shade on her cloak allows for her body and the folds of the drapery to be outlined. The divine angel Gabriel, in his perfectly draped robe and curled hair, created by disengo, holds a branch of lilies, a symbol of the Virgin. The disengo of the work is further highlighted with Albertian perspective, revealing careful planning of every line, and the presence of a vanishing point. Lippi’s piece has strong perspective. The Virgin’s and Gabriel’s pinkish cheeks also feature a certain charm, vezzoso, as Landino says.3

annunciation2 A Dialogue on StylePaolo: The piece makes little sense to me. The figures are hardly organic; they look too elongated to be real, but not in the way of maniera painting, which is sophisticated and refined. The Virgin is almost as large as the column behind her. Speaking of columns, I understand that the piece is to look as if the figures are outside in a courtyard, but architecturally speaking, the first row of the three arches looks too close to the larger arch behind it.  And, why so many columns? The architecture is hardly as clean as Alberti’s actual designs.4 Lippi may not have poor perspective, but his figures seem disproportional. Is it not strange to you that God is smaller than the Virgin or Gabriel, or that He is surrounded by angels whose faces one can barely make out? And there is much too much going on in the work; it is too ornato.

Guilio: First, Brother, I will give you Leonardo’s words on grazia, to reveal to you why the limbs are elongated and seem too large for the architecture: “if you want it to display elegant charm, make delicate and elongated without too much exhibition of muscles, and the few muscles you do show, make them soft with little distinctness and their shadows not much tinted and the limbs, specifically the arms relaxed with no part of the body in a straight line with the part next to it.”5 As for your comment about God, The Father, being smaller in scale, we may consult Vasari’s first part. Although Giotto may have used hieratic scale, this no longer needs to be case in depicting the importance of certain figures. On the columns and the architecture, perspective was born in Lippi’s age; the columns are clean and reveal careful disegno and planning.6 Thankfully, Alberti does not have to execute them in reality, so do not fret so much that the rows and arches are too close. On ornato, I will give you Quintilian’s words in his Education of an Orator: “the ornate is whatever is more than just correct and clear; it is piquancy, liveliness, polish, richness, charm, and finish.”7 I believe that it is these qualities that Lippi creates in the touches he adds to his work, for they do not lessen the beauty of the piece, but rather magnify it. The piece can hold my eye for a long period of time.

Paolo: Alberti did say that a painting with a powerful istoria has plentiful variety, which “holds the eye of the learned and unlearned spectator for a long while.”8 Since you are unlearned, I understand that you cannot see the lack of skill in any piece before Michelangelo.

Guilio: Brother, do you not understand that the skill you are so fond of exists only because of the skill of those before the maniera painters? Since I cannot convince your stubborn eyes of the beauty of a piece by an “Old Master” from the Quattrocento, the second piece I chose is from the modern early Cinquecento, the period of both your and Vasari’s favorite, Michelangelo. The next annunciation scene is The Annunciation by Andrea del Sarto, completed circa 1528, almost eighty years after Fra Fillipo Lippi’s work. Vasari called del Sarto one “who may be called a rare painter, for his works are free from error.9

Paolo: del Sarto may have been mentioned in the introduction to Vasari’s Part III of the Lives, but I still prefer the more modern pieces if I cannot afford a work by Michelangelo himself.

Guilio: Brother, del Sarto completed the piece years after the Sistine ceiling was completed.

Paolo: Yes, but it was before Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment, completed almost thirty years after the Sistine ceiling, which revealed changes in his skill.

Guilio: Brother, let us look at the piece. The Virgin sits surprised, as if she has just been awakened as Gabriel kneels before her; she has dropped the prayer book and her hands are raised in surprise and fright, revealing the movement of her soul. The prayer book is opened in a way that suggests it has slipped from her hands. Gabriel tries to calm her with a careful gesture of his right hand, revealing a powerful istoria through a devote quality. The small branch of lilies leans slightly towards The Virgin, highlighting her purity. The painting lacks the ornato you found so unpleasant in Lippi’s work, but does not lack the quality of grazia: the elongated and delicate reaction of The Virgin’s fingers creates this effect. The painting is clear and correct (or puro), not having more than what is necessary. The background has no columns, as you were so concerned about architectural perfection in Lippi’s piece. The background features Michelangelo’s love for changeant colors, as does the shawl, which covers The Virgin’s shoulders. The Virgin’s and Gabriel’s clothing shows mastery of colorire. Gabriel’s wings are two-toned, and the use of orange and green on the wings is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling. The new use of light effects developed in the Cinquecento is evident in the light from above and the light from Gabriel reflecting off The Virgin’s dress, highlighting the contours of the robes, creating rilievo. The Virgin is in a slightly twisted posture, although not a full figura serpentinata, which gained popularity in the Cinquecento. The drapery at the top two corners creates the effect of the two figures on a stage, and of a pyramidal structure around them. The drapery above The Virgin seems to be even more brightly lit, as if the light is shining on her or perhaps from her.  The piece is divinely beautiful, so how can you dislike it?annunciation2 A Dialogue on StylePaolo: I must admit the piece is beautiful, but it is still not modern enough. The work is too puro and lacks the variation in color of which Michelangelo was a master. Furthermore, I cannot see the perfection of the human body, for which Cinquecento pieces are so famous. The maniera has an emphasis on grace and finish, which I do not believe the Sarto piece has. Vasari favored pieces of the early Cinquecento, but he himself is a maniera painter. I think in his introduction to Part III he is telling us that artistic skill just improves with age. So it would be best to have a piece from the last ten years if we cannot afford a Michelangelo.

Guilio: Brother, Vasari wrote of Andrea del Sarto that he was “sweeter in coloring and not so bold.”10

Paolo: Yes, but del Sarto has but a sentence in the introduction, while Michelangelo has a paragraph. Vasari calls Michelangelo a master “who holds sovereignty not merely of one of these arts, but of all three together. . .[and] surpasses and excels not only all those moderns who vanquished nature, but even those most famous ancients who without a doubt so gloriously surpass her.”11

Guilio: You can quote Vasari all you like, but we still cannot afford a Michelangelo. Let our art adviser arbitrate and choose. If neither of my choices is satisfactory, then he can choose a maniera piece of which we both approve.

As you can see Brother, I have been placed in a difficult position of making a decision for the Medici household. Guilio appreciates the early works and has read both Landino’s and Alberti’s critiques and discussions of earlier works of art. Paolo is well versed in Vasari’s Part III, and he hardly appreciates anything that lacks perfect human figures, which only Michelangelo can execute with perfection. I would appreciate any advice on the decision.

Yours truly,

Antonioannunciation2 A Dialogue on Style


August 1570

Dearest Antonio,

I have read your letter and see the difficulty you are facing. First you must remember that Landino created terms to describe work by various artists, deeming certain artists masters of certain skills. Alberti wrote of the qualities needed to create a beautiful istoria. Both authors focused more on the paintings rather than the lives of the authors. In contrast, Vasari tells animated stories of the lives of the artists and allows qualities from their lives to transfer into his descriptions of their work, and vice versa. For Vasari despised the scorci of Andrea del Castagno and depicted him as a murderer, even though del Castagno died before the year of the murder. Vasari greatly favored Michelangelo above all, but Paolo has read further in Vasari’s work than the eye sees. He has learned that Vasari favors the maniera pieces because he himself was such a painter.

The maniera style reveals sophistication and departs from naturalism and is highly stylized. It too features the elongated graceful proportions, which are present in Lippi’s Quattrocento piece, however the maniera varies greatly from is predecessors. Maniera works are dramatic, not steeped in realism. Paolo desires a style with more energy among its figures, which evokes more emotion. The works are dramatically elegant and exquisite.

Paolo must prefer the sophisticated and emotional aspects of the works, whereas Guilio seems to prefer the clarity, lines, and devote inspiring emotion of earlier works. The first work he chose by Fra Fillipo Lippi is a tempera piece on panel, while the second was done in oil, which gained popularity in the Cinquecento and revealed changes in light and hues more than tempera allowed.

I believe that the best way to settle the issue between the two brothers is for you to choose a new piece, perhaps a work form the maniera that incorporates elements of both the Quattrocento and Cinquecento. Show the brothers a new maniera painting and perhaps they will find it easier to agree because there will not be so much for Paolo to find appealing. He seems to be a bit like you were as a child, finding something wrong with everything.

Your Brother,




Alberti, Leon Battista. On Painting. Translated by Cecil Grayson. Edited by Martin Kemp. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.

Baxandall, Michael. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. 2nd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Vasari,Giorgio. Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Translated by Gaston Du C. De Vere. London: Philip Lee Warner, 1912.


  1. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988): 128. []
  2. Ibid., 131. []
  3. Ibid., 150. []
  4. Leon Battista Alberti, On Painting. trans. Cecil Grayson, ed. Martin Kemp (New York: Penguin Books, 1991): 66. []
  5. Baxandall, 130. []
  6. Giorgio Vassari, The Lives of Painters, Sculptors, and Architects in Four Volumes, trans. A. B. Hinds, ed. William Gaunt (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1963): 207. []
  7. quoted in Baxdall, 131. []
  8. Alberti, 75. []
  9. Vasari, 83. []
  10. Vasari, 83. []
  11. Vasari, 84. []