Paragone in Practice

I’ve always found the whole “paragone” thing so interesting. Paragone is the Italian Renaissance word for the competition between different media, often referred to as the competition between the arts. In the contemporary art world the idea doesn’t really translate since media are often crossed over and blended, either in one image on a computer or physically in one place. Most artists today refuse to classify as themselves as a “painter” or a “sculptor,” but I really feel like the limitations of traditional media force artists to push themselves and their craft in a way that doesn’t happen often anymore.

When artists broaden their scope to include anything and everything – concepts from every range of the human experience along with every kind of media available – there isn’t the obsessive, hyper-attuned focus that’s needed to create something powerful. All good works have to have something obsessive about them, whether it’s one idea or one media. Before photography that obsessive bit usually involved an incredible faithfulness to reality.

Triple Portrait of Cardinal de Richelieu by Philippe de Champaigne and studio, c. 1642
During the Italian Renaissance when this word was floated across the lofty circles of artists and patrons, that competition of the paragone was completely focused on the work’s faithfulness to reality. These patrons were paying scudi by the thousand so that us, the people who live thousands of years later, could still remember what they looked like. 
The portrait bust below was completed after Bernini’s model of Cardinal Richelieu, a portrait the Cardinal didn’t sit for. Bernini created the sculpture solely from examining the painting of the Cardinal above, sent to him and completed by Philippe de Champaigne. Bernini was known to be actively involved in the paragone discussion, and this opportunity to create a portrait sculpture purely from a painting is often seen as one of the best examples of Bernini proving sculptures place among the arts. 

White Marble Bust of Cardinal Richelieu, after the model by Gianlorenzo Bernini
French, mid 19th century, from Christies

Although the painting of Cardinal Richelieu lights up the screen with all its color, at a time when works couldn’t just be reproduced a million times over, I imagine sculpture would have been the more impressive medium. It know it’s a lot easier for me to connect with an object that exists in my space rather than in a set scene somewhere far away. But painting also allows for more possibility – it can take you out of your space to an impossible one, while sculpture is limited physically, in the same ways we are.

             What do you think: painting or sculpture? 

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