The Italian Renaissance proclaimed drawing the foundation of art. Since the early sixteenth century, in the studios of masters and, later, in the classrooms of the European academies, poor young people who’ve resolved to become artists have been hunkering down around something or other—a parallelepiped, two bottles on a rumpled tablecloth, a plaster-cast head, a naked guy or even two naked guys—and scratching paper with pencils. They scratch and scribble, scribble and scratch. Then they erase what they’ve drawn and began scribbling and scratching all over again. Like a band of Sisyphuses or the miserable Danaids, endlessly pouring water into a bottomless barrel from leaky jugs. Modernism and any number of other –isms honor Van Gogh as the father of free artistic expression, but his first drawings, studies of ancient sculpture copies, make a stunning impression. Worried to shreds by the Van Gogh’s eraser, they clearly testify to the insane labor of drawing, to its excruciating necessity.
“[D]rawing, which is otherwise known as the art of the sketch, is the high point of painting and sculpture and architecture. Drawing is the source and soul of all species of painting and the root of any science. To the man who has achieved much by mastering drawing I will say that he possesses a valuable treasure for he is able to fashion images taller than any tower with the brush as well as with the mind, and he will never encounter a wall too narrow or too small for his boundless imaginings.” These words were uttered by Michelangelo during one of the high-flying intellectual discussions that took place in the late 1530s, in the cloister of the church of San Silvestro al Quirinale, on Monte Cavallo in Rome. The aristocratic poetess Vittoria Colonna maintained a kind of salon there. Amid the graceful marble columns of the church’s arcades, the deepening Roman twilight, and the fragrance of lemon and orange trees, the divine Michelangelo conversed with an audience of Roman noblemen, artists, and young foreigners. To his everlasting fame, the Dutchman Francisco de Holanda, a miniaturist and friend of the Portuguese king, recorded the dialogues for posterity.
What kind of drawing was Michelangelo talking about? Could he have meant the kind we all associate with grammar school—the drawing lessons taught for the most part by middle-aged losers who are utterly incapable of keeping their unruly pupils in line because none of them takes seriously the idea of sketching apples or parallelepipeds? With the most despised notebook in any schoolkid’s bookbag, bearing a legend that right away indicates its second-rate status in the academic hierarchy—drawing tablet? It isn’t grammar or math or even literature that is made to happen in such notebooks, but drawing. After we’ve been forced by the teacher to copy several tiresome geometrical figures and a basket of apples and pears, we can always finish off the last pages of our drawing tablets with various squiggles and doodles and thus signal our protest against the boredom of elementary school education. Could this be the kind of drawing that Michelangelo preached as he held forth at Vittoria Colonna’s soirees?
Yes and no. The notion that Michelangelo voiced then had long been in the air in Florence and Rome. Later, in the middle decades of that same sixteenth century, it was developed, summarized, and generalized into the wildly esoteric theory of external drawing and internal drawing—disegno externo and disegno interno. This theory was elaborated by the highbrow Mannerists, whose tastes were as recherché as their lifestyles. External drawing, disegno externo, is drawing per se: the hand using pen or pencil to make marks on paper. It means drawing lessons and drawing tablets and pupils gathered round a model and the squeaking of slate pencils. It means the habit of drawing constantly. The habit of drawing always and everywhere and everything whatsoever. Drawing like breathing, drawing everything you see: a jug, your apprentice, the dog, the servant girl, the curtains, the hand, the leg, any pose and any position. Hundreds and thousands of drawings have come down to us from the Renaissance and Baroque masters, and this despite the fact that they themselves attached no significance to these works. We know, for example, that Annibale Carracci, whose least penstroke is now worth a tidy sum on the antiquaries market, handed over his drawings to the local shopkeeper, who wrapped fish and sausage in them. Annibale was quite famous, moreover, and the other artists of his time valued their own drawings even less. After all, external drawing, disegno externo, is a mere tool, the hand in pure form.
Internal drawing, disegno interno, is, on the contrary, the idea conceived in the artist’s brain, the idea that is the prelude to any creative act. In his rather complex and beautiful book L’Idea de scultori, pittori e architetti, the Florentine Federico Zuccari, an accomplished painter and draftsman and connoisseur of elegant writing, explains to “the simple folk” (as he puts it) that by “internal drawing” he means the concept (in Italian, concetto) our mind forms of any object in order to be able, first, to know this object and, second, to act in accordance with this knowledge. Without the concept generated by the mind, creation (rather than mechanical recording) is impossible. The internal drawing is pure idea, distilled intellect. It is not a form that encapsulates some material substance, but is rather something as transparent and disembodied as the divine knowledge of things that precedes and creates them in all their infinite variety, whether stars or grains of sand. Artists had a different relation to the drawings which expressed this inner idea. It suffices to recall Michelangelo’s sketch The Battle of Cascina and Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari, which were essentially massive black-and-white graphics. This type of drawing—disegno—is no more and no less than a sign of God, segno di Dio. This is how Zuccari deciphers the meaning of internal drawing.
Doesn’t this sound like conceptualism? Like Joseph Kosuth and Vito Acconci and, for that matter, Ilya Kabakov? In the end there’s not such an great difference between an illustration of heavenly bliss and an illustration of a Soviet communal apartment. In any case, what difference there is, it doesn’t change anything. For, in essence, when they are preparing to body forth a worthy tale (whether the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, when the heavenly herald informed her she would be the Mother of God; or the ascension of the Soviet man who escaped from the misery of his socialist existence by rocketing through the ceiling and flying into outer space), all artists first form in their minds a concept of how this story could be imagined on heaven as on earth, from the viewpoint of Gabriel and from the perspective of God, from the standpoint of the Soviet citizen and from the vantage of the Cosmos. This is what Zuccari writes. Or rather, this is how we read him in the twenty-first century.
In his discussion of visual art, another sixteenth-century intellectual, the Milanese Gian Paolo Lomazzo, recounts how the ancient Egyptians and Romans turned the figures of men and beasts into the emblems with which they decorated private dwellings and public buildings. These emblems concealed the most awesome mysteries of nature and morality, and as such they served as powerful stimuli for human thought. Visual art is thus a weapon of the memory, a weapon of the intellect, a weapon of the will. Art is both sign and picture, which men produce to represent objects, events, and phenomena—both divine and mundane. Doesn’t this sound like semiotics, like the modern science of the hidden sign-based codes that shape culture? The difference between Gian Paolo Lomazzo and Roland Barthes is minimal: both men are unanimous on the point that the ancients and the moderns use signs to express themselves. Moreover, it is via the semiotic code that moderns explicate antiquity and antiquity pops up in the midst of modernity.
As the inventors of internal drawing and the science of signs, Italian intellectuals like Zuccari and Lomazzo are our full-fledged contemporaries. There is, however, one slight difference between them and us. However much they extolled disegno interno, concetto and segno di Dio, they never lost sight of external drawing’s importance. I once worked on an exhibition with a very capable contemporary artist. We spent a long time hashing out the details of what to hang where. To make it clear what he wanted, I asked him to make me a drawing. His reply to my request was gorgeous: “Are you out of your goddamn mind?! I’m an artist.” Indeed: does the artist really have to draw?
Maybe he doesn’t. Nevertheless, the Italians of the Renaissance and, with them, the whole of Europe believed that the artist does have to draw, and this belief persists into the present day. The external drawing merely materializes the internal drawing, but there is no art without it. And so for hundreds of years thousands of artists have been hunched over pieces of paper, scribbling on that paper with pens and pencils, and rubbing it with erasers. With savage obstinance, they again and again rescue cubes, pyramids, cylinders, and pieces of plaster ornament from the unbeing of the blank white flat page. The drawing is, of course, a sign of God, but it is also an obsession. Drawing is an enormous strain on the nerves and the body, and an enormous source of happiness. “He was soothed by the thin lines that he drew and redrew a hundred times, achieving a maximum of sharpness, accuracy and purity. And it was remarkably nice to shade, tenderly and evenly, not pressing too hard, in regularly applied strokes.
‘Finished,’ he said, holding the paper away from him and looking at the completed cube through his eyelashes.” This passsage is from Nabokov’s The Luzhin Defense, a novel about a Petersburg-born Berliner, a novel about a genius and the nature of genius. Perhaps Nabokov wasn’t writing here about Luzhin, but about another Petersburg-born Berliner, Danya Akulin? Why not? They are no less congenial a pair than Lomazzo and Barthes, Zuccari and Kosuth, Petersburg and Berlin, chess and drawing. The melodic, mathematical precision of pencil strokes—shaping the space for the things that resound in that space, things whose sense depends on the care with which they’re ordered (what we call the composition)—is the foundation of music and chess and literature and art. Drawing reigns over everything: it is omnipotent and all-embracing. Drawing is the foundation of everything, and it is also the end of everything and its fulfillment.
The faultless compositions of Danya Akulin’s Signs fuse painstaking external drawing with profound internal drawing. The sign—segno di Dio, the heart and sense of drawing—is the hieroglyph that, according to Lomazzo, unlocks all the secrets, sacred and profane. Because Danya Akulin understands precisely the sense of drawing, that same Renaissance disegno which is “the source and soul of all species of painting and the root of any science,” the tokens of the contemporary age are depicted in his works as full of worth and weight as any time-honored symbol.