Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Renaissance Cartoon

In Italian the word for paper is carta and the suffix "–one" means large, the “cartone” was a very large sheet of paper.  These cartone or cartoons as we have come to call them were specifically: large and very detailed drawings used to create paintings and frescoes.  These differed from sketches or studies in that they were the same size as the intended painting and were created to transfer the image.

The drawings were made to transfer the images to the painting surface in one of two ways.  In the first the cartoon acted as a type of stencil, thousands of small holes pricked the edges of each line and a bag of charcoal dust was “pounced” upon the cartoon.  In the second the cartoon acted as carbon paper, the back of the image was coated with charcoal dust and the image was carefully traced.  Since either process was messy and damaged the original paper, very few of these survive.  Those that remain were typically created for paintings that weren’t executed.


charcoal and white chalk on paper, perhaps with a brown wash, 4’6” x 3’4” (141.5 x 104.6 cm)


Leonardo did paint a version of his Virgin and Child with St Anne and John the Baptist, which today is in the Louvre, but it does differ from this drawing.  This particular cartoon has survived remarkably intact and is an astonishingly beautiful work of art.  Today this is at The National Gallery in London and it may be one of the most incredible works of art I have seen in person.  I have always felt that the few paintings that Leonardo made simply glow and outshine every other work which is in their presence in a museum setting, even if those works are masterpieces as well.  His cartoon may even outshine his paintings, using only charcoal and white chalk on paper (perhaps with a brown ink wash) he manages to create an illusion of depth and convey emotion.  Look at the image closely and you can see that he used very few lines and used the combination of charcoal and chalk to bring his method of chiaroscuro (modeling form with lights and darks) to the drawing.  When it was seen by other artists, they were amazed that he was able to fit several life-size figures in a cartoon which was only 4'5" x 3'4'.  This was due to the fact that the figures were all sitting, it provided inspiration for generations of artists.

The 16th century artist and writer, Giorgio Vasari wrote a book, The Lives of the Artists (called originally The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects) which was published in 1550 and updated several years later.  This book included a biography and historical account for dozens of Renaissance artists.  His book is still used as an important source for art historical research today and in his chapter on Leonardo he writes of this cartoon when it was on public display in Florence in 1501:

“Once completed and set up in a room, brought men, women, young and old to see it for two days as if they were going to a solemn festival in order to gaze upon the marvels of Leonardo which stupefied the entire populace.”*

The British Museum, black chalk on twenty-six sheets of paper, 7’6” x 5’4”

Michelangelo sadly burned many of his preparatory drawings and sketches so that he wouldn’t share his techniques and process with others and also so that people would think he was divinely inspired and not see any work that didn’t measure up to his standards.  However Michelangelo had extremely high and probably unrealistic expectations for his work, even his small sketches show his artistic genius. There are only two surviving cartoons from him and the Epifania is one of them.  This work, done on a large scale is over seven feet high and was created on twenty six sheets of paper.  Cartoons were often done on separate sheets of paper or the originals were cut up to make the transfer process easier. The Epifania was drawn for a project that was never created and the actual subject of the cartoon is unknown.

Let’s compare and contrast the two cartoons: Michelangelo’s cartoon has a greater level of detail in the drawing but he doesn’t use the same level of chiaroscuro that Leonardo’s cartoon had.  Unlike Leonardo's cartoon he has focused less on the emotion between the figures and more on anatomy.

After the fresco lost its popularity in the 16th century and painters frequently drew directly on their canvases this style of Renaissance cartoon fell out of use.  Over the next century the word cartoon took on its modern meaning of another type of drawing, frequently used in political satire and later as illustrations.

*Vasari, Giorgio. The Lives of the Artists. Translated from Italian by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

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