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"Nebulae in Pariete"; Notes on Erasmus' Eulogy on Drer

Author(s): Erwin Panofsky

Source: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 14, No. 1/2 (1951), pp. 34-41
Published by: The Warburg Institute
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By Erwin Panofsky
after a long and painful delay, received his
Diirer (B. Io7) he was mildly disappointed. But with characteristic politeness he attributed the lack of similarity
to the lapse of time rather than to a failure on the part of the artist and began
at once to look for a suitable way of expressing his gratitude. "Alberto
Durero," he writes to Pirckheimer on July 30, 1526, "quam gratiam referre
queam, cogito. Dignus est eterna memoria. Si minus respondet effigies, mirum
non est. Non enim sum is, qui fui ante annos quinque."1
Erasmus of

portrait engraving by Albrecht

1 P. S.
Allen, Opus epistolarum Des. Erasmi
Roterodami, Oxford, 19o6 ff., VI, p. 371 f.,
no. 1729 (cf. also E. Reicke, "Albrecht
Diirers Gedichtnis im Briefwechsel Willibald
Pirckheimers," Mitteilungen des Vereins fair
Geschichteder Stadt Niirnberg, XXVIII, 1928,
p. 263 ff., no. 76). It may be well briefly to
summarize the antecedents of this ill-starred
enterprise. Between August 28 and September 2, 1520, Darer had made two charcoal
drawings of Erasmus (one of them, L. 361,
preserved in the Louvre), neither of which
was quite completed; cf. Erasmus' letters to
Pirckheimer of July 19, 1523, and March
1525 (Allen, V, p. 307 ff., no. 1376, and VI,
p. 45 if.,
1558; Reicke,
In the first of these letters Erasmus deplores
this state of affairs ("utinam perfecisset") and
in the second he explicitly says: "A Durerio,
tanto nimirum artifice, pingi non recusem;
sed qui possit, non video." The same desire
is expressed in a letter of January 8, 1525
(Allen, VI, p. 2 f., no. 1536; Reicke, no. 56):
"A Durero cuperem pingi, quidni a tanto
artifice? Sed qui potest? Coeperat Bruxellae
carbone, sed iam dudum excidi [meaning:
"I have long lapsed from his memory],
opinor," and Erasmus adds that Durer,
working from memory and with the aid of a
medal, might try to make him a little fatter:
"Si quid ex fusili et memoria sua potest,
faciat in me, quod in te fecit, cui addidit aliquid obesitatis." In the end Dfirer yielded to
these entreaties; for, on August 25, 1525,
Erasmus already looks forward to receiving
his portrait (Allen, VI, p. 154 f., no. 1603;
Reicke, no. 63). He had, however, to wait
another year. On June 6, 1526, he definitely
expects the engraving (Allen, VI, p. 351 f.,
no. 1717; Reicke, no 75), and it was not until
July 30 of this year that he could confirm its
arrival. Needless to say, here, as very often

in I6th-century Latin, the words pingere, pingi

and pictus refer, not to a painting but to a
graphic representation, drawing or print, in
contradistinction to a sculpture or medal.
In this connection I should like to offer a
suggestion for the interpretation of a puzzling
passage in Erasmus' letter to Pirckheimer of
January 8, 1524 (Allen, V, p. 381 f., no. 1408;
Reicke, no. 46) which reads: "Gaudeo Durero
nostro contigisse sutorem suum," "I am delighted that our Durer has met his cobbler."
Since the letter also mentions the Erasmus
medal frequently alluded to in this correspondence (though as an aid to DMirer's
memory, and not as a work to be produced
with his participation), it has been proposed
to emend sutorem into fusorem. However, as
Erasmus constantly refers to Durer as "noster
Apelles" or "Apelles tuus," the phrase is
much more likely to allude to the famous
anecdote of Apelles and the critical cobbler
(Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXXV, 85: "ne
It would
supra crepidam sutor judicaret").
seem to be a joke rather than a statement of
fact, and we may even venture a guess as to
the specific point of the joke. Being in doubt
as to whether his letter of January 8 had
reached its destination, Erasmus repeated
most of its content on February 8 (Allen, V,
p. 396 f., no. 14 17; Reicke, no. 47: "An meas
acceperis, non satis quivi ex tuis litteris intelligere"); and from this second missive we
learn that Pirckheimer's "previous letter"that is to say, the letter already answered on
mentioned the presence in
January 8-had
Nuremberg of Dr. Edward Lee (Leus or
Leeus), Bishop of Colchester and, later on,
Archbishop of York. According to Pirckheimer, this bellicose churchman had sharply
criticized certain paintings by Direr ("de
Dureri tabulis censuram egisse"). But he was
also a pet aversion of Erasmus, with whom he


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About two years later, following a friendly reminder by Pirckheimer,1 the

debt was paid.

On March 20, 1528, Erasmus expressed to him his grief for

Diirer's mortal illness and added, by way of consolation, as it were: "Arbitror

te legisse locum, in quo mentionem illius facio. Totum opus nunc absolutum
est. Fortasse dices esse coactius; fateor, sed non dabatur alia occasio, et
arbitror eum libellum, qualis qualis est, maxime volitaturum per manus
hominum."2 And on April 24, a little more than a fortnight after Diirer's
death, he writes: "Quid attinet Dureri mortem deplorare, quum simus
mortales omnes? Epitaphium illi paratum est in libello meo."3 It should be
borne in mind, though, that this chilly-sounding remark was made after
writing a letter of condolence which has not been preserved,4 and that it
comes from a man in constant wonder that he himself was still alive5 and who
was accustomed to think of his own death "with a kind of pleasure."6
The epitaphiumis, of course, the famous eulogy on Diirer inserted-not
without a certain strain, as the author was the first to admit-into Erasmus'
charming Dialogus de recta Latini Graeciquesermonispronuntiationewhich had

appeared a few weeks prior to his letter of April 24th.

According to Erasmus' spokesman, Ursus, young boys should receive some
instruction in drawing and painting while they are learning to write, not only
as a means of recreation (for, "most children are naturally attracted by this
art, enjoying to express what they recognize and to recognize what others
have expressed") but also because "he whose fingers are practised by shaping
lines into all sorts of forms will also draw his letters more smoothly and
felicitously, much as those trained in music will pronounce more correctly
even when they do not sing."'7 "If you want to have more specific and precise
had started a violent controversy in 1520 and
in whose writings he was to detect no less
than twenty-one heresies in 1527; and we can
imagine both Pirckheimer's glee in reporting
Lee's encounter with Diirer to Erasmus and
the latter's amusement at hearing that the
"new Apelles" had fallen foul of the same
"cobbler" as he had himself.
1 Letter of October 19, 1527 (Allen, VII,
p. 214 ff., no. 1893; Reicke, no. 84): "De
Alberti Dureri nomine celebrando
sponte cogitabam. Tamen admoneri gratum
2 Allen, VII, p. 364 ff., no. 1977; Reicke,
no. 86.
3 Allen, VII, p. 382 ff., no. i99i; Reicke,
no. 90.
4 Cf. Allen, ibidem.
r Cf. Darer's
Diary of his journey to the
Netherlands (K. Lange and F. Fuhse, Diirers
schriftlicher Nachlass, Halle, 1893, p. 164,
line 29 ff.).
6 Letter ofJuly 19,
1523 (cf. above, note i) :

"Persentiebam animo voluptatem quandam,

quod ex hoc turbulentissimo seculo migraturus essem ad Christum."
I quote from the Leyden edition of I643,
p. 70 ff.: "Vt autem qui musices periti sunt,
rectius pronuntiant etiam non cantantes: ita
qui ducendis in omnem formam lineis digitos,
habet exercitatos, mollius ac felicius pinget
literas. Siquid super his requiras subtilius
exactiusque, extat liber ALBERTI DURERI,
Germanice quidem, sed eruditissime scriptus,
in quo priscos huius artis heroas imitatus,
nominatim Pamphilum natione Macedonem,
quum omnium literarum, tum Geometrices
& Arithmetices egregie peritum, nam sine his
disciplinis artem absolvi posse negabat. Ad
haec Apelles, qui & ipse ad Perseum discipulum de arte sua conscripsit, multa praeclare tradit de mysteriis graphices, ex Mathematicorum petita disciplinis, & in his non
pauca de figuris elementorum ac ductibus,
proportioneque literarum. L. Dureri nomen
iam olim novi, inter pingendi artifices primae

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information about this," Ursus goes on to say, "there is a book by Albrecht

Diirer, written in German but very learnedly,1 'wherein he emulates the
ancient heroes of this art, especially Pamphilus the Macedonian, outstandingly
proficient not only in literature but also in geometry and arithmetic, who
believed that art could never reach perfection without these disciplines. In
addition, Apelles, who himself wrote to his pupil Perseus about his art,
brilliantly teaches much of the mysteries of design culled from the doctrines
of the mathematicians, and [there is] not a little therein about the shapes and
lineaments of the elementary figures2as well as the proportions of letters."
Here the interlocutor, Leo, conveniently remarks: "Diirer's name has
long been known to me among the most renowned masters of painting; some
call him the Apelles of our age." And this gives Ursus his chance to launch
into the eulogy proper:
"U. Equidem arbitror, si nunc viveret Apelles, ut erat ingenuus et candidus, Alberto nostro cessurum huius palmae gloriam. L. Qui potest credi?
U. Fateor Apellem fuisse eius artis principem, cui nihil objici potuit a caeteris
artificibus, nisi quod nesciret manum tollere de tabula. Speciosa reprehensio.
At Apelles coloribus licet paucioribus minusque ambitiosis, tamen coloribus
adiuvabatur. Durerus quanquam et alias admirandus, in monochromatis,
hoc est, nigris lineis, quid non exprimit? umbras, lumen, splendorem, eminentias, depressiones: ad haec, ex situ rei unius, non unam speciem sese oculis
intuentium offerentem. Observat exacte symmetrias et harmonias. Quin ille
pingit et quae pingi non possunt, ignem, radios, tonitrua, fulgetra, fulgura,
vel nebulas, ut aiunt, in pariete, sensus, affectus omnes, denique totum
hominis animum in habitu corporis relucentem, ac pene vocem ipsam. Haec
felicissimislineis iisque nigris sic ponit ob oculos, ut si colorem illinas, iniuriam
facias operi. An non hoc mirabilius, absque colorum lenocinio praestare,
quod Apelles praestitit colorum praesidio?"
It has been noted that much of this praise is borrowed from Pliny, and
special attention has been called to the close correspondence which exists
between Erasmus' "Quin ille pingit et quae pingi non possunt, ignem, radios,
tonitrua, fulgetra, fulgura" and Pliny's "pinxit [Apelles] et quae pingi non
possunt, tonitrua, fulgetra fulguraque" (Naturalishistoria,XXXV, 96).3
Observations like this can easily be multiplied and are by no means
limited to Pliny's paragraphs on Apelles. The introductory passage about the
painter Pamphilus is lifted from Naturalishistoria,XXXV, 76: "Ipse Macedo
natione ... primus in pictura omnibus litteris eruditus, praecipue arithmetica
et geometria, sine quibus negabat artem perfici posse." The phrase "Observat
exacte symmetrias et harmonias" is reminiscent of Pliny's praise of Parrhasius
who "primus picturae symmetrian dedit" (Naturalishistoria,XXXV, 67) and
appellant horum alphabet.
temporum Apellem."
3 Cf. H. Wolfflin, Die Kunst Albrecht Darers,
1 Erasmus refers, of course, to Dtirer's Munich, 1905, P 316; fifth ed., Munich,
Underweysung der Messung mit dem Zirckel uh 1926, p. 400; sixth ed. (K. Gerstenberg, ed.),
Richtscheyt, Nuremberg, 1525.
Munich, 1943, P- 417.
Or, possibly, but less probably, the

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Euphranor who "primus videtur expressisse dignitates heroum et usurpasse

symmetrian" (Naturalis historia, XXXV, 128). Diirer's ability to render
makes him a second Nicias of
Athens who "lumen et umbras custodiit atque ut eminerent e tabulis picturae
maxime curavit" (Naturalishistoria,XXXV, 131). And in expressing sensus,
he is heir
affectusomnes,deniquetotumhominisanimumin habitucorporisrelucentem
to Aristides of Thebes who "omnium primus animum pinxit et sensus hominis
expressit, quae vocant Graeci
(Naturalishistoria,XXXV, 98).
No doubt this headlong flight
into Pliny evinces a certain embarrassment;
Erasmus' response to art, like that of all Northern humanists, was literary
rather than visual, and his regard for Diirer, though unquestionably sincere,
was born of respectful admiration rather than instinctive predilection. But
the very multiplicity of his borrowings bears witness to his desire to do justice
to Diirer's universality. Crowned with the crowns of so many different painters
of yore, "Albertus noster" grows into an artist of truly heroic proportions and,
ultimately, into an almost ideal figure in which his real features all but merge
with those of his classical prototypes: while the historical Duirer is credited
with Apelles' ability "to depict what cannot be depicted," the historical
Apelles-whose treatise ad Perseumis mentioned but in no wise described in
Naturalis historia, XXXV,
I I--is practically credited with Diirer's Underder
weysung Messung.
All in all, however, Erasmus'synthetic portrait does not lack verisimilitude.
By adding ignem and radios to Pliny's tonitrua,fulgetra fulguraque,Erasmus
conjures up the Apocalypseand the Betrayalof Christ,the DescentintoLimboand
the Resurrection.And in subordinating the whole eulogy to the idea that
Durer could do in black-and-white what Apelles could do only in colour, he
manages to bring out the all-important fact that Diirer's claim to immortality
rests on his greatness, not as a painter but as a draughtsman, engraver, and
woodcut designer. It is quite true that the word monochromata
occurs in Pliny
no less than four times (Naturalishistoria,XXXIII, 117; XXXV, 15; XXXV,
56; XXXV, 64).2 But nowhere does Pliny express "admiration for the expressive qualities of a mere black-and-white medium,"3 let alone of a medium
not as
limited to a linear mode of expression. He describes the monochromata,
in red (cinnabari,minio)or, exceptionally, white (ex albo) on black. He thinks
of them-though they were "still in use" at his time-as specimens of a
primitive technique which he attributes to the veteres:to painters so early
that "their age is not transmitted," and, as a kind of anomaly, to Zeuxis who
flourished a hundred years before Apelles; and he would never have thought
of marvelling at the expressivenessof this archaic medium, much less of stating
that it is "more wonderful to achieve without colours what Apelles achieved
is Pliny's, its re-interpretation
with their aid." While the word monochromata
as what we call the graphic arts is Erasmus'; and nothing could be finer than
Erasmus' remark that "he who would spread colours on Diirer's prints would
injure the work."
This, incidentally, enables us to
Erasmus' sensus more adequately than
is the
case in E. Panofsky, AlbrechtDiirer, Princeton,

1943, 1945, 1948, p. 44.

W61fflin, loc. cit.
3 W61fflin, ibidem.

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Appearances notwithstanding, Erasmus' eulogy is by no means a jumble
of quotations. It is a well-ordered exposition, and this can be demonstrated
by an examination of two phrases which, not manifestly derived from Pliny,
have always constituted a cruxinterpretum.
The first phrase reads: "[Exprimit] ex situ rei unius, non unam speciem
sese oculis intuentium offerentem." This difficult passage has been thought
to imply a contrast between the malerische
("pictorial appearance")
and the klare Vorstellungor vollstandigeBegreifung("clear idea," "comprehensive

understanding") of the thing itself: "Duirerdid not content himself with the
accidental view of the object but presentsto us a comprehensiveimage thereof"
in emphasizing "the essential" and "the typical" as opposed to the accidental
and particular; "Hans von Marees once said that he who does not know that
a tree consists of root, trunk and crown will never be able properly to draw
a- tree from life."1
This interpretation may be in harmony with Diirer's intentions but it
does not, I think, express the meaning of Erasmus. As demonstrated by
the ex situ, which would remain unexplained if res were taken to mean a
kind of Platonic idea and speciesthe particularized and merely phenomenal
appearance thereof, he uses his terms as did the theoreticians of optics rather
than the philosophers. Res is the three-dimensional object seen; situs its
position in space; and speciesits visual image or "aspect" which is, by definition, a flat projection of the object. In ordinary visual experience, Erasmus
means to say, one object placed in a given position in relation to the eye will
present only one aspect. Durer, however, "expresses more than this one
aspect" (we happen to know that Erasmus uses non unusas an equivalent of
non unus tantum);2 he manages to suggestthat the object is a complete, three-

dimensional entity extending, as it were, behind the one surface image which
"presents itself to the beholder's eye." In short, Erasmus extols Duirer as a
stereographer or perspectivist; and if I am not mistaken, his phrase attempts
to condense what Pliny says in praise of the same Parrhasius who "primus
picturae symmetrian dedit": "Ambire enim se ipsa debet extremitas et sic
desinere, ut promittat alia et post se, ostendatque etiam quae
surface [of the object] must go around itself and leave off inoccultat"3
such a manner
that it promises something else behind itself and shows even what it hides").
The phrase "ex situ rei unius, non unam speciem sese oculis intuentium
offerentem"-ushered in by Ad haec ("moreover")-thus adds to Duirer's
ability to produce an illusion of three-dimensionality by what we would call
pictorial means (umbras, lumen, splendorem,eminentias, depressiones)his prowess
in the application of projectivegeometry. It forms a perfectly logical transition
to the "Observat exacte symmetrias et harmonias," and a similar compositional purpose is achieved by the second enigmatical phrase: "vel nebulas,
1 W61fflin, ibidem and p. 294 f. (5th ed.,
6th ed., p. 350).
p. 2357;
Erasmus, Adagia, Basel, 1520, p. 788, 4th

Chilias, 5th Centuria, no. XXIX: "Non una

manu capere, oi -

una tantum manu &rkp.

id est, non

Pliny, Naturalis historia, XXXV,

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ut aiunt, in pariete." With a well-known dictum of Leonardo da Vinci1 in

mind, I had mistakenly interpreted these nebulasin parieteas either the indistinct spots caused by discoloration or fleeting shadows cast by clouds.2 In
reality, however, Erasmus here alludes to a passage from the late antique
poet Ausonius where the noun nebulais explicitly qualified by the participle
Ausonius' best known poem, "Cupido cruciatur,"3 is prefaced by a letter
to his son, Gregorius, in which the author describes the genesis of his poem.
In the dining-room of a certain Zoilus at Treves, he says, he had seen a
picture of Cupid tortured by his vengeful victims, the mulieresamatricesof the
heroic past, and such was his enthusiasm that he decided to "translate the
amazement of looking at it into the foolishness of making a poem about it"a poem in which, as his mock modesty prompts him to add, "nothing is
pleasing except the subject (lemma)." It is this poem which Ausonius likens
to "a cloud painted upon a wall," the unsubstantial image of an unsubstantial
object: "En umquam vidisti nebulam pictam in pariete? Vidisti utique et
meministi." And it is to this phrase that Erasmus himself refers in his Adagia:
"Clouds upon a Wall. In a letter to his son, Gregorius, Ausonius used the
phrase 'clouds upon a wall' for something most similar to nothing or a dream;
'have you ever seen a cloud painted upon a wall?' he says. [By this]- he
indicates that the subject (lemma)of the poem subjoined to this letter is trifling
and empty; for, a cloud is too unsubstantial to be expressed by colours."4
Erasmus, we perceive, has made a slight but significant change. Ausonius,
apparently having in mind illusionistic wall paintings simulating a prospect
onto the open sky, thinks of a cloud as an airy yet perfectly. suitable object
for pictorial representation5 and applies the simile to his poem only in so far
as the latter is derived from a mere picture. Erasmus, however, explicitly
including the lemmawhich Ausonius as explicitly exempts, thinks of a cloud
as something which cannot be painted at all ("inanior quam ut coloribus
exprimi queat") and, therefore, of a paintedcloud as a kind of chimera-as
"something most similar to nothing or a dream." And it is precisely in this
sense that he exploits Ausonius' phrase in his eulogy on Diirer. As the "ex
situ rei unius, non unam speciem sese oculis intuentium offerentem" achieves
a transition from "shade, light, radiance, eminences and depressions" to
"symmetries and harmonies," so does the "nebulas, ut aiunt, in pariete,"
1J. P. Richter, The Literary Works of
Leonardo da Vinci, London, 1883, I, p. 254,
no. 508; Trattato della Pittura (Lionardo da
Vinci, Das Buch von der Malerei, H. Ludwig,
ed., Vienna, 1882), I, p. 125, no. 66.
2 Panofsky, op. cit., p. 44.
3 Decimi Magni Ausonii Burdigalensis Opuscula, R. Peiper, ed., Leipzig, 1886, p. Iog ff.
Cf. A. Warburg, GesammelteSchriften, Leipzig
and Berlin, 1932, I, p. 183.
4 Erasmus, Adagia, p. 405, 2nd Chilias, 4th
"Nebulae in pariete.
Centuria, no. XXXVIII:
Ausonius in epistola quadam ad Gregorium
filium, nebulas in pariete dixit, pro re nihili
somniique simillima. An numquam, inquit,

Carvidisti, nebulam pictam in pariete?

minis, quod ei subscribitur epistolae, lemma
significat, frivolum, ac vanum. Nam nebula

res est inanior quam ut coloribus exprimi

5 Cf. also his letter to Q. Aurelius Symmachus (Peiper, p. 222): "Hoc velut aerius
bratteae fucus aut picta nebula non longius,
quam dum videtur, oblectat . . ." ("This
[scil., the flattering content of a letter from
Symmachus at which Ausonius often looks
for comfort], not unlike the specious colour
of gold leaf or a painted cloud, delights only
as long as it is seen").

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referring to something entirely devoid of existence, achieve a transition from

that which "cannot be depicted" yet belongs to the realm of visible reality
("ignem, radios, tonitrua, fulgetra, fulgura") to that which "cannot be
depicted" because it transcends the sphere of even imaginary visibility:
"sensus, affectus omnes, denique totum hominis animum in habitu corporis
relucentem, ac pene vocem ipsam."

So logical is the structure of Erasmus' little discourse that we may feel
tempted to condense its content into a formal synopsis:
Introduction. Diirer, the "new Apelles," equals the great painters of
classical Antiquity in that he is an artist distinguished also as a scholar
and theoretician.
Proposition. Duirer even surpasses Apelles in that he can do with black
lines what the
latter could do only with colours.

(A) By means of these black lines Diirer expresses the visible world

(i) in its pictorial aspects (umbras,lumen, splendorem,eminentias,


(ii) in its stereographical or perspective aspects (ex situ rei

unius. . . offerentem).

(B) He applies the mathematical rules of design and proportion

(Observatexacte symmetriaset harmonias).

(C) Moreover he is able to "depict what cannot be depicted," viz.,

(i) luminary phenomena
gura) ;

(ignem, radios, tonitrua,fulgetra, ful-

(ii) imaginary or chimerical concepts (nebulas, ut aiunt, in

pariete) ;

(iii) phenomena of a psychological order (sensus,affectusomnes

. . . vocemipsam).

Summary. All this he represents so perfectly in black-and-white that the

addition of colour would be detrimental to his works, which is more
admirable than the achievement of Apelles who needed colours to accomplish his purpose.
In conclusion I shall attempt to translate the body of Erasmus' eulogy in
its entirety:
"I hold that Apelles, were he alive to-day, would as an honest and candid
man concede the glory of this palm to our Albert."-"How can this be
believed?"-"I admit that Apelles was the prince of this art, upon whom no
reproach could be cast by other painters except that he did not know when
to take his hand off the panel-a splendid kind of blame. But Apelles was
assisted by colours even though they were fewer and less ambitious [than
to-day]-still by colours. Diirer, however, though admirable also in other
respects, what does he not express in monochromes, that is, by black lines?

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Shade, light, radiance, eminences, depressions; moreover, from the position

of one thing, [he expresses] more than the one aspect that offers itself to the
beholder's eye. He accurately observes proportions and harmonies. Nay, he
even depicts what cannot be depicted: fire, rays of light, thunderstorms,sheet
lightning, or even, as the saying is, the clouds upon a wall; all the characters
and emotions; in fine, the whole mind of man as it shines forth from the
appearance of the body, and almost the very voice. These things he places
before our eyes by most felicitous lines, black ones at that, in such a manner
that, were you to spread on colours, you would injure the work. And is it not
more wonderful to accomplish without the blandishment of colours what
Apelles accomplished [only] with their aid?"

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