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Paulo Villac Filho

Da Pintura Antigua


Francisco de Hollanda

Prof. Mauro LuccoIn Italy, according to a tradition dating from Raczynski (1846), the name of Francisco de Hollanda is linked inextricably — even among specialists — to the Roman Dialogues with Michelangelo, of which there are at least four different Italian language editions, the first having appeared in 1926; and despite the knowledge that the Dialogues represent just one chapter of a larger work, the rest of the treatise has remained as familiar to the Italian public as the dark side of the Moon.

The work of Paulo Villac Filho has two quite simple points of departure: first, a passage from La Fortuna dei Primitivi, in which Giovanni Previtali refers to De Hollanda as being among the leaders of the debate on the "maniera devota" and the "maniera moderna", quoting the pertinent references in Portuguese; second, the fact that Paulo Villac Filho himself, being Brazilian, is a native Portuguese speaker and therefore perfectly able to render the full text of the original in Italian. The idea behind the task was at first broadly "minimalist" in nature: on the one hand, the curiosity as to what indeed did lie on that dark side of the Moon; on the other, the wish to contribute to scholarly research by making available a first complete Italian translation of De Hollanda’s Da Pintura Antigua, rather than simply revisiting the Dialogues, already translated several times.

In reality, translating De Hollanda has meant plunging into an adventure of knowledge presenting many twists and turns. It would have been possible, for example, to start from the first modern edition in Portuguese, by Joaquim de Vasconcellos, serialized initially between 1890 and 1892 in the Oporto weekly "A Vida Moderna", then republished as a volume in 1918 and again in 1930, but this dissertator felt bound by philological correctness to work from the original manuscript. Surely. But which one? The manuscript used by Vasconcellos was not the original, but a copy made in 1790 by José Joaquim Ferreira Gordo apparently from the De Hollanda autograph, kept in those days at a private library in Madrid; there has been no further mention of the presumed original over the two centuries since, and it is now regarded as lost, or in any event untraceable. Ferreira Gordo had been urged to make his copy by the Portuguese government, no less. On the occasion of a visit to Madrid, he was entreated in his capacity as member of the Real Academia das Ciências de Lisboa to locate and duplicate any documents of Portuguese origin, so it is evidently no coincidence that the copy he made is still conserved to this day at the Academia das Ciências, in Lisbon.

All the same, a copy made in 1790 from an original penned between 1541 and 1548 must be regarded as none too dependable, strictly speaking, given that Ferreira Gordo, swayed by the ideas of his times, could have interpreted the more tricky passages "alla moderna", so to speak.It would therefore be better to find as early a source as possible. Searches conducted around the various Portuguese and Spanish libraries (made easier as Paulo Villac happened at the time to be in Barcelona studying for a first and different Spanish doctorate), led to the conclusion that the text closest to the lost original by Francisco de Hollanda would be the Castilian version translated by his personal friend Manuel Denis in 1563, conserved today in Madrid at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

Thus, the source text for the Italian translation of Da Pintura Antigua presented by Paulo Villac Filho in his dissertation is based both on the 1563 translation by Manuel Denis and on the copy made by Ferreira Gordo from the original Portuguese in 1790. In certain instances where De Hollanda’s somewhat circumvoluted and contorted writing proved difficult to express in Italian, cross-referencing provided a solution. In other instances, however, the meaning unfortunately remains obscure.

In 1538, Francisco de Hollanda was sent by King John III to Italy with instructions to learn about Italian art and make drawings of its more "notable" aspects, not excluding military art, which Portugal had great need of. He stayed there until 1541, and during this period seems to have been particularly engrossed in assuming all the manners and the ways of a “gentleman”, including the social attributes, and not least that of literary culture. Accordingly, the first part of the treatise Da Pintura Antigua, written between 1541 and 1548 following his return from Italy — at a time, it will be remembered, when Vasari’s book had not yet appeared — appears to be an almost literal borrow from Pliny’s Naturalis Historia; but where he digresses, even if only to make rare references, he shows, as Previtali had already emphasized, that the debate on the "maniera devota" was already raging in the Thirties. In this regard, the positions taken by De Hollanda are rigoristic, intransigent and reactionary, prefiguring those expressed more famously by Giovanni Andrea Gilio (1564), some twenty years on, and by Cardinal Paleotti (1582) forty years later; and indeed it may be said that everything voiced subsequently by these two authors is already stated succinctly, albeit with extreme clarity, in the treatise produced by our artist and writer.

Many of the decisions taken years later during the Council of Trent, on the subject of the arts, were heralded by the ideas of De Hollanda.

The reasons for this are debatable. Deeply-held religious convictions? A “Holier than the Pope” attitude urging him to defend to the hilt a social order, propagandized by the Church, of which he aspired to be a part? Perhaps all of this. But perhaps also the aspiration, through his treatise, through the propedeutic and pedagogical function of his writings, and through a clear vision of what was holding his country back from attaining the highest levels of artistic achievement, to be the prime mover of a nationwide artistic renewal that would bring Portugal into step with the other nations of Europe, and in particular with the cradle of art, Italy. The notion of rendering this service, of coming forward as initiator of a new art, is implicit and readily discernible in many parts of the treatise.

A dream unfulfilled, as we know. Not least for political reasons. He never obtained from the King that position of prominence he craved, and his treatise remained a manuscript, unknown to the wider public. Then again, there was a basic contradiction in Da Pintura Antigua: the public it addressed may have been Portuguese, but the basic ideas were Italian, and the terms of the debate were Italian, as also ultimately would be any readers capable of understanding the point at issue. Written retrospectively and away from Italy, De Hollanda’s opus nonetheless touches the very essence of the problems addressed by Italian treatise writers of the Renaissance, and indeed is one of the earliest examples.

It is this link with the Italian situation that Paulo Villac Filho seeks to show in his dissertation, by way of a carefully constructed body of explanatory notes, revealing the sources of statements, identifying events or individuals, and so forth. In addition, the initial essay dealing with the life and the ideas of the Portuguese painter (insofar as it has been possible to reconstruct the details), provides a tangible image of the position occupied by Da Pintura Antigua in the overall picture of Italian treatise writing at the time.

Clearly, after a long history of partial knowledge, and comments made by “professional detractors”, so to speak, unwilling to admit the substantial veracity of the words put into the mouth of Michelangelo, this dissertation sets out to make a thorough reassessment of Francisco de Hollanda: of the man, of his work, and of his ability to voice ideas on given issues and problems for which others who lived many years later are now hailed (in truth, with appreciably less reason) as initiators. Nonetheless, the work is handled with sober and measured propriety, eschewing apologetics and avoiding over-reliance on elements of surprise and novelty for effect.

In short, the dissertation certainly succeeds as that commendable "contribution to scholarly research" it was intended to be from the outset, and indeed has emerged as a well-considered study conveying knowledge gained from long familiarity with the work of Francisco de Hollanda.

Bologna, July 31st 2004
©Mauro U. Lucco
Professor in History of Renaissance Art at the University of Bologna

Translation: Robert Burchill