Grey Room

On Cristoforo Sorte’s Osservationi nella pittura: Water, Fire, and Landscape in Early Modern Venice

James Pilgrim

Cristoforo Sorte. Map of the Trevigiano, 1556. Archivio di Stato, Venice.


Published in Venice in 1580 and again in 1594, Cristoforo Sorte’s Osservationi nella pittura is the work of what the art historian Moshe Barasch describes as “a modern type of art critic”—one who was attuned to the psychology of artistic creativity, the practical dimensions of art making, and the expressive potential of color. Drawn to Sorte’s understudied text because of his interest in the role of color in Italian art theory of the sixteenth century, Barasch saw the Osservationi as a particularly thoughtful contribution to a Venetian art-theoretical tradition that, in contrast with a more regulated Florentine tradition that emphasized anatomy and perspective, tended to focus on the pictorial effects that could be achieved through the careful modulation of tone. Among the first to introduce the Osservationi to an English-speaking audience, Barasch notes that his own remarks were made possible by the text’s recent republication in Paola Barocchi’s Trattati d’arte del cinquecento, a series that brought renewed attention to the work of several important early modern Italian theorists and critics of art. But while many of the treatises included in Barocchi’s series were later translated into English, Sorte’s was not. Indeed, the Osservationi has remained an outlier in anglophone scholarship on early modern Italy despite its fascinating insights into period thinking not only about color but also about a range of other issues lately of interest to historians of art, science, and ideas, including the relationships between practical and theoretical forms of knowledge, between elective and empirical approaches to artistry, and between cultural production and the environment.