Oil sketch modello by Tiepolo, 69 x 55 cm, for this five-metre-high (16 ft) altarpiece

A modello [moˈdɛllo] (plural modelli), from Italian,[1] is a preparatory study or model, usually at a smaller scale, for a work of art or architecture, especially one produced for the approval of the commissioning patron.[2] The term gained currency in art circles in Tuscany in the fourteenth century.[3] Modern definitions in reference works vary somewhat. Alternative and overlapping terms are "oil sketch" (schizzo) and "cartoon" for paintings, tapestry, or stained glass; maquette, plastico or bozzetto[4] for sculpture or architecture; and architectural model.[5]


Though in Gothic figural arts bishops and abbots are often represented carrying small simulacra[6] of buildings they had constructed – "models" in the familiar modern sense – modello is only used of pieces which pre-date the finished work, and were at least in part produced by the main artist involved.[7] The less frequently found term ricordo (Italian for "record" or "memory") means a similar piece produced as a small copy after completion of the work as a record for the workshop.[8] Naturally it is not always easy for art historians to decide whether a particular piece is one or the other, and, especially in the Late Renaissance and Baroque periods, when several versions of a painting were made, the ricordo for the prime version might serve in the atelier as the modello for the subsequent ones.[9] No doubt a modello was often modified after the main work was completed to reflect any changes in the composition during painting, thus making it a ricordo also; this would normally be impossible for art historians to distinguish from a modello altered during its original production.

Sacrifice of Isaac; Lorenzo Ghiberti's successful competition modello for the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistry, Bargello.[10]

The Tiepolo above right was catalogued as a modello by Michael Levey,[11] but recent x-ray investigation of the huge finished work in Munich has revealed that in its underpainting it was closer to another, very different and less finished modello, now in the Courtauld Institute,[12] and it has been asserted that the National Gallery picture illustrated is a ricordo.[13] The National Gallery still describe it as "probably a modello", presumably produced after work had already begun.[14]

"Cartoon", named for the sturdy cartone paper on which they were generally executed, is usually used of working drawings, often at full scale,[15] but the distinction is not a firm one, and the terms cartoon and working drawing are often used interchangeably. Often, for example in tapestries, the modello is a design at a considerably reduced scale by the main artist, which is then (after approval by the patron) worked up into a full scale cartoon by the artist or others – probably his assistants; the Raphael Cartoons are much the most famous of the few surviving examples. The weavers then worked from this. Modello is especially used of older Italian art and architecture from the late Middle Ages onwards; initially these were mostly drawings, perhaps with some colour from chalk or watercolour, or with colours indicated in writing. The diminutive term modeletto will always be used of small-scale versions. As an Italian word, modello may be printed in italics, or not.[16] The French version of the word, modèle, may be used of French works, and is normally italicised.

Especially in the case of oil sketches, many modelli are greatly valued in their own right, as they may show a freedom in execution and freshness of inspiration missing in the final work, and also may show changes in composition from the finished work, throwing light on the process of artistic creation. Earlier stages of the creative process may be recorded in "preparatory drawings" or "studies", either for the whole composition, or a part of it, such as a single figure.

Michelangelo shows Pope Julius II his modellino of St Peter's in this 19th-century artist's impression


An example of a modello of a fresco cycle, which was rescued for its intrinsic value is in Giorgio Vasari's vita of Rosso Fiorentino: Vasari reports that a modello for Rosso's frescoes in Santa Maria delle Lagrime, Arezzo, was carried out by Rosso for Giovanni Pollastra, the inventor of the complex program there, "un bellisimo modello di tutto l'opera, che è oggi nelle nostre case di Arezzo."[17] A preliminary modello colorito in the form of a painted three-dimensional model was especially important to prejudge the finished effect of illusionistic sotto-in-su perspectives on the curved surfaces of vaulted ceilings, as Andrea Pozzo, the perfector of the illusionistic ceiling, noted in his Perspectiva pictorum et architectorum (1700–17)[18]

Many modelli show versions of works which were never actually realised, or have been lost. Famous examples are the alternative designs produced for the competition in 1401 to design the North doors of the Florence Baptistry. Lorenzo Ghiberti won, beating six other artists, including Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia; the modelli survive, for a single panel, of the first two named (Bargello – picture above).

There are alternative, unrealised, modelli for many famous buildings, including St Peter's, Rome and the "Great Model" of St Paul's Cathedral, London, showing a different design by Sir Christopher Wren from that actually built.[19] When accepted, such models were retained during the work, as concrete expressions of what was expected under the terms of the contract, and afterwards were preserved in storage through salutary neglect.

See also


  1. ^ The term modello avoids the ambiguity in English of model, which may equally refer to the finished work of art that provided detailed inspiration for a variant or later copy.
  2. ^ Glossary, National Gallery, London; Irene Earls; Renaissance Art: A Topical Dictionary, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1987, ISBN 0-313-24658-0.
  3. ^ The texts from five contracts and other documents 1376–1508 published by Michael Hirst (Hirst and Carmen Bambach Cappel, "A Note on the Word Modello', The Art Bulletin 74.1 (March 1992:172–173) are all Tuscan, as Hirst remarks, though the contemporaneous term extended as far as the Marche.
  4. ^ A bozzetto is a roughly-modelled preliminary sketch in clay for a sculpture; those that survive have mostly been kiln-fired to preserve them.
  5. ^ Fourteenth century uses of modello in connection with Santa Reparata, Florence, are noted in A. Grote, Studien zur Geschichte der Opera Santa Reparata zu Florenz in Vierzehnten Jahrhundert (Munich 1960:113ff).
  6. ^ The Latin term modulus, a synonym of typus, "archetype" is given as source for the usage in the Tusacan Accademia della Crusca's early dictionaries; other early dictionary definitions in Italian are noted by Carmen Bambach Cappel 1992:173. See also Donor portrait
  7. ^ Michelangelo was in the habit of assigning to members of his studio modelli done to his specifications: "in Michelagelo studies the presentation drawings are understood to be the group of finished drawings that Michelangelo gave to his friends such as Tommaso de' Cavallieri", remarked Bernadine Barnes (Barnes "A Lost Modello for Michelangelo's 'Last Judgment'" Master Drawings 26.3 (Autumn 1988:239–248) p. 247 note 4) in justifying her use of modello for the lost original of two copies in public collections. In the case of architectural modelli, the actual construction could be by craftsmen from drawings by the architect. A discussion about a Hieronymous Bosch drawing that illustrates when the term is appropriate to use is in note 23 on page 21 of: J.O. Hand & M. Wolff, Early Netherlandish Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington catalogue (Cambridge UP), 1986, ISBN 0-521-34016-0; the correspondence concerning the appropriateness or not of modello applied by Michael Hirst to presentation drawings by Michelangelo that were "done expressly for patronal approval, criticism or rejection" (Hirst, Michelangelo and His Drawings, 1988:79) is noted above.
  8. ^ A small finished bronze representing a completed sculpture on a reduced scale, made for a connoisseur or the art market, is a reduction.
  9. ^ See: Jonathan Brown, Richard G. Mann; Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth Through Nineteenth Centuries: The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue, National Gallery of Art, Oxford University Press US, 1990, ISBN 0-521-40107-0. In the last paragraph of p.73, the view is advanced that an El Greco was produced as a ricordo for the first version of a work, and then used as the modello for a second version.
  10. ^ Compare with Brunelleschi's unsuccessful version. Both are in the Bargello
  11. ^ Levey, Michael, The 17th and 18th century Italian Schools; National Gallery Catalogues, p.223, 1971, National Gallery, London, ISBN 0-901791-09-1
  12. ^ Braham Helen, The Princes Gate Collection, p. 74, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London 1981, ISBN 0-904563-04-9 Courtauld Institute image – note this is reversed compared to the final painting.
  13. ^ Francisco Bayeu. Saragossa; Review of Exhibition by Xavier Bray, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 138, No. 1120 (Jul., 1996), p. 479, note 3. JSTOR – on free page
  14. ^ National Gallery, London
  15. ^ Cartoons for tapestry were always at full scale; often cut into loom-width strips, they were set behind the warps of the loom as a direct guide for the weavers. The most famous tapestry cartoons are the "Raphael Cartoons" conserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, for the Sistine Chapel tapestries; they were re-used in the 17th century in England to produce sets of Mortlake tapestries.
  16. ^ Surprisingly, the word does not appear in the original OED or the First Supplement of 1933
  17. ^ "A most beautiful modello of all the works, which is today in our houses in Arezzo."
  18. ^ In vol. II, section "Breve instruttione per dipingere a fresco", noted by Carmen Bambach Cappel, loc. cit..
  19. ^ Explore St Paul's – Wren's Great Model