A few weeks ago, I finally took the plunge and started taking a wax carving class. I’ve wanted to learn how to work in wax for a long time, partly because wax casting has been a cornerstone of metalworking and design for almost 6,000 years, and partly because casting has become the foundation of contemporary jewelry production.
I wish I’d started studying metalsmithing in graduate school. Years ago, When I first began studying Old Master drawings, I wrote a paper on the relationship between drawings (works on paper, or works in two dimensions) and sketch models (bozzetti, or three-dimensional models in clay/terracotta or wax) in Giambologna’s studio. Sometimes, when I’m sitting at my makeshift jewelry bench and working on my homework, a thought floats into my head: “If only I’d known some of the things that I know now, from taking basic fabrication and wax carving classes…”
During one of our first class sessions, Michele, my teacher, patiently explained how to prick my drawing for transfer onto my prepared wax block. Every student of medieval and Renaissance European art has a basic grasp of the concept of pricking a drawing for transfer. We all know that artists often used a pin, needle, or other sharp implement to prick holes into drawings, in order to transfer that drawing onto another substrate. This was the basis of many fresco paintings — the artist transferred the pricked drawing onto the prepared wall using a “pounce,” a fabric pouch filled with charcoal dust. We call this technique “pouncing.” The dust would seep through the fabric and pass through the holes pricked into the drawing, leaving dotted lines behind on the wall (or other substrate, this technique was also used to transfer designs to panels, canvases, and other media).
In wax, however, the pouncing step is extraneous. After fixing the drawing to the surface fo the wax block, you prick the design directly into the surface of the wax.
After our pricking lesson, I spent some time exploring the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection, looking for drawings that had once been pricked, or pricked and pounced. I knew I would find interesting things in the Met’s collection, because Carmen Bambach, the Met’s Curator of Italian and Spanish Drawings, has a longstanding interest in the role of drawings in Renaissance workshop practice (just about everyone who studies the history of Italian Renaissance art has read Bambach’s book, Drawing and Painting in the Italian Renaissance Workshop).
Painters were not the only artists who pricked drawings for transfer. My search turned up designs pricked for transfer to fabric, for embroideries and lacework. Some drawings were pricked so they could be transferred onto other sheets of drawings, in order to re-use an existing design or motif. There was one drawing that was possibly pricked for transfer onto a piece of wood (or maybe plaster?), in preparation for a carved frame. Not all of the pricked drawings were European — my search turned up at least two drawings from India.
Raffaellino del Garbo’s drawing of the Angel of the Annunciation has clearly been pricked and pounced for transfer. The drawing is quite small — less than four inches in diameter — but beautifully finished, with delicate hatchwork. A piece of embroidery similar to this drawing survives on a chasuble at the San Martino at Pietrasanta (1).
These two drawings have been been pricked for transfer, possibly as designs for embroideries.
In the absence of surviving embroideries, how do we know that a drawing was pricked as part of the preparation for an embroidered piece? In the case of the “Seated Saint,” attributed to the fifteenth-century Florentine artist Francesco Botticini, the Met’s curators believe that the drawing was used as an embroidery design partly because of “[t]he meticulous and closely spaced holes” pricked into the outlines of the drawing, and partly because “[t]he scale, pose, and figural type recall the series of seated saints found in the embroidered bands of fifteenth-century altar coverings.”
Both drawings display a high degree of finish. To serve as cartoons, or designs, for embroideries, only the outlines were necessary, but in both cases, the artists created fully worked-up drawings, rendering light and volume through ink wash and white gouache. Perhaps the drawings also served as presentation drawings for patrons? They could also have doubled as references for the embroiderers, although the embroiderers would have been on their own, in terms of choosing colors, unless the embroideries were executed in grisaille. One wonders how embroiderers translated these designs into fully worked-out embroideries, and if the contract for the embroidery work specified the colors of the embroidery threads. If the patron wished to see the embroidery shimmer with the luster of gold or silver threads, he (or she) would certainly have negotiated with the workshop over their inclusion (over such terms as the quantity and quality of these threads, and whether the patron or the workshop was responsible for sourcing and purchasing them). The exact terms for expensive materials — gold leaf, lapis lazuli, gold thread–were usually written into the contract with the workshop.
This drawing, by an unknown artist from India (Himachal Pradesh, Guler, according to the Met’s records), was pricked for transfer to another sheet of drawings.
This drawing, by the artist known as Lo Spagna (Giovanni di Pietro), is a cartoon for a fresco in the Basilica of S. Maria degli Angeli in Assisi. When we think of pricking and pouncing as a technique for transferring designs from paper–or sometimes parchment–to another substrate, we usually think of cartoons like these. Of this drawing of St. Egidius, Carmen Bambach writes, “This carefully rendered working drawing of about 1514-16 was produced as a cartoon, or full-scale design, for the figure of the Blessed Egidius frescoed on the right entrance wall of the small polygonal chapel (the “Cappella del Transito”) by the south transept of the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi, marking the location where Saint Francis died on October 3, 1226. […] In Lo Spagna’s simple frescoed composition, the figure of Egidius is accompanied by a group of Franciscan friars each conceived of in a standing, three-quarter length pose, facing toward a glazed terracotta statue of Saint Francis at the apse of the small chapel; each of the frescoed figures is inscribed with its name. As comparisons to the fresco make clear, the Museum’s cartoon appears to be in nearly intact original size.”
We know very little about why the following two drawings were pricked for transfer. The first drawing, by Antonio Pollaiuolo, was a proposal for an equestrian monument to Ludovico Sforza. (Leonardo won that commission, but the monument was never completed.) Sometimes artists made copies of drawings by pricking the outlines of the original drawing, and then transferring the outlines, via pouncing, to a new sheet. Pollaiuolo’s drawing was admired for its quality–it was once in Giorgio Vasari’s celebrated collection of drawings–so it is entirely likely that someone, either during Pollaiuolo’s lifetime, or after, wished to copy the drawing. Or perhaps Pollaiuolo himself pricked the drawing for transfer onto another sheet, for whatever reason.
The second drawing, by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop, depicts Saint Catherine, and was possibly produced as a design for a painting, but no painting corresponding to the drawing survives, as far as we know. It is worth noting that the drawing, by Cranach and workshop, was done using silverpoint on vellum, a technique seldom used south of the Alps in this time period, and the silverpoint outlines were subsequently reinforced with brown ink, perhaps to make the lines more visible, though the brush and ink lines do not necessarily correspond, one-to-one, to the silverpoint underdrawing.
My wax class also left me wondering whether medieval and Renaissance goldsmiths pricked drawings for transfer onto wax — or metal. And if they did, where might I find examples of these drawings?
(1) For more, see the Met Museum’s object notes. See also: Annarosa Garzelli Il ricamo nella attività artistica di Pollaiolo, Botticelli, Bartolomeo di Giovanni. 1973, fig. no. 31, pp. 23-24, ill.