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Michelangelo's Cangiantismo

Originally published 14 July 2011

In Cennini and the Superbrights I discussed the Cennini system of painting found in the treatise Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook), written by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini in 1390. In this system painters model volume by using pure colours in the shadows, and adding white to the pure pigment to achieve mid-tones and more white for highlights.

Detail from The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints about 1423-4, Fra Angelico, The National Gallery, London

A variation on this technique involves using a different completely colour for a shadow.  This technique was called Cangiante. This was used within the context of the Cennini system, so the shadow hue is still pure and ideally unmixed except for white if desired. Black is not used for shadows, preserving the brilliance of the overall aesthetic.

Giotto (1266 -1337) is credited as introducing this technique. This practice provided options for greater compositional variety in the limited pure-colour palette of the Cennini system. At the time Cennini wrote his treatise, it was often used for the drapery of Angels – the unnaturalness perhaps indicating unworldliness. Here are examples of paintings using Cangiante found in the National Gallery, London.

The Virgin Mary with the Apostles and Other Saints about 1423-4, Fra Angelico, The National Gallery, London
The Abduction of Helen about 1450-5, Attributed to Zanobi Strozzi, The National Gallery, London

The Cennini system began to fall out of favour as early as 1435 when Alberti wrote his treatise Della Pittura and recommended adding black to create dark and more natural shadows. By the time of Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistene Chapel in 1508, painters were experimenting with a variety of modelling styles including Sfumato (Leonardo da Vinci), Chiaroscuro (including Sebastiano) and Unione (Raphael).  The Cennini system was not considered a modern approach, until Michelangelo revived the essential features of it (ref 1).

He kept strong colours (not black) in the shadows, and extensively used white mixes for highlights.   But he took Cangiante one step further and used it not just occasionally for Angels, but extensively, wherever he wanted the impact of paired colour hues.  This revival of Cangiante was called Cangiantismo. His Sistine chapel composition recalls isochromatism (see Cennini and the Superbrights) where colour areas create pleasing surface patterns, and his Cangiantismo often echoes and unites adjacent colour blocks.

Detail from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo di Buonarroti, 1508-1512

Some may ask why he painted in this style which seems to avoid the seriousness of Leonardo da Vinci’s Sfumato for example. Explanations include the practical difficulties of subtle dark shading, best achieved with oil, over such a vast area. The effect is celebratory, in keeping with the story it represents. The more ‘natural’ approaches to colour at the time including the Alberti system of using black in shadows, which spawned Leonardo’s sfumato, tended to tone down the brilliant colours of the early Renaissance.

Raphael and his Unione sought to preserve the undiluted colour hues while introducing blended shadows, but Michelangelo wouldn’t have wanted to be a follower of his rival’s style. Instead he made a bold statement, reviving the sacred brilliance of the Cennini system, but taking it  further, to create a rippling Cangiantismo colour effect which was unique, unprecedented, and as a result, modern.

Contemporary examples of Cangiantismo can be found in (the also celebratory) Monsters, Inc. as well as Muramasa the Demon Blade.  Muramasa the Demon Blade (developed by Vanillaware for Wii, and released in 2009) uses a drawn 2D art style. Contrasting colour overlays create rippling shadow and highlight effects over large background areas including sky, rocks, and foliage. For me this recalls Cangiantismo drapery. The glowing coloured backdrop creates a suitable setting for a Japanese mythological adventure.

Muramasa the Demon Blade
Muramasa the Demon Blade

Monsters, Inc. stays even truer to the spirit of Cangiantismo by avoiding black entirely for shadows, and instead using shades of purple and mauve. This technique can be applied to an entire room as well individual objects.

Here a soft mauve shadowed area contrasts with areas of orange illumination.

Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Outside, note again this colour theme with mauve shadows cast on the orangey buildings, car and sidewalk.

Pixar's Monsters, Inc. (2001)

The overall effect is slightly dreamy, and an appropriate environment for non-threatening monsters.  In early Renaissance art “the angel’s rainbow-coloured wings symbolise a link between Earth and Heaven, the pact established between man and God.” (ref 2). The Cangiante Monsters inhabiting the sub-conscious mind of childhood are like the angel wings of Catholicism, rainbow bridges between the imagination and reality.

Detail from A Choir of Angels: From Left Hand Shutter, about 1459, Simon Marmion, The National Gallery, London

References 1. Hall, Marcia B., Color and Meaning: Practice and Theory in Renaissance Painting, Cambridge University Press (1992), p. 92.

2. A closer look at The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, The Louvre Museum (no longer accessible)


  • Alberti, Leon Battista, Della Pittura (On Painting) Translated with Introduction and Notes by John R. Spencer. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1970 [First printed 1956]

  • Cennini, Cennino D’ Andrea, Libro dell ‘Arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook) Translated by Daniel V. Thompson, Jr. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1933, by Yale University Press.


Archived Comments

Hill 17 Oct 2012 Very good comparison…..Thank you for the insight… .and a return to understanding the brilliance of those who paved the roads for our understanding…



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