Ivan Nagel

Painting and Drama - Giotto, Masaccio, Leonardo

(German title: Gemälde und Drama)
ca. 350 pages
Ivan Nagel
Foto: Ivan Nagel
© Isolde Ohlbaum

Ivan Nagel, born in Budapest in 1931, was the Director of Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg from 1972 to 1979 and later Head of Drama in Stuttgart. His most recent position was that of Professor of History and Aesthetics in the Performing Arts at the Berlin University of the Arts. Ivan Nagel died on April 9, 2012 in Berlin.

Ivan Nagel’s Complete Works are now published by Suhrkamp Verlag, starting with Painting and Drama in 2010.

Selected Backlist:

Drama und Theater. Von Shakespeare bis Jelinek (2006)

Das Falschwörterbuch. Krieg und Lüge am Jahrhundertbeginn (2004)

Der Künstler als Kuppler. Goyas Nackte und Bekleidete Maja (1997)

Autonomie und Gnade. Über Mozarts Opern (1985) Translations: USA (Harvard UP), Argentine (Katz), France (l’Aube)

Rights available

The new standard work on the emergence of Occidental painting from the spirit and body of theater.

»The book makes me want to leave for Florence instantaneously, and I curse myself for no longer being able to travel.« Elfriede Jelinek


Ivan Nagel, one of the most significant dramaturges and director generals in the Federal Republic's post-war theatre, follows up the history of the European history painting from Giotto to Leonardo. In a unique way, he understands painting not as narrative but as drama.

In his detailed interpretations, he establishes relationships to cultural history. He enlivens and intensifies the image of the Renaissance individual.

Ivan Nagel illustrates the rise of the new historical painting from 1300 to 1500. It was a wide-spread prejudice to consider Giotto’s, Masaccio’s and Leonardo da Vinci’s works »narrative images«. Ivan Nagel, however, demonstrates that they do not have their ability to momentarily illuminate a plot in common with the epos or novel but with the drama, which they renewed long before the theater did.
The author shows how, together, Giotto and Dante discovered art as visible speaking, »visible parlare«, as a dialogue of gestures, facial expressions and looks and how Giotto depicts his lifelong hero Francis of Assisi in these visual dialogues: at first as a rebellious reformer of life, then as a canonized miracle worker and, finally, as a modern man of independent decisions.
In conclusion, Ivan Nagel analyzes the most significant pictures of the New History: Giotto’s »Navicella«, Masaccio’s »The Tribute Money« and Leonardo’s »The Last Supper«.


»The dialect of humanism reveals Nagel as true student of Adorno. Like the great artist he discusses, Nagel writes history in the present tense. His essay is personal and passionate […] and this makes his book so refreshing. It has ambitions that go beyond the traditional scope of art history, which is precisely why reading Nagel’s book makes one realize again that studying the Renaissance is relevant.« Renaissance Quarterly

»In this beautiful and incredibly inspiring major essay, theater critic and cultural scholar Ivan Nagel examines the highly dramatic visual dialogues Giotto, Masaccio and Leonardo da Vinci present to us.« Sigrid Löffler

»An amazing book. I am lying flat on the floor, face down, like the visitors to the Old Sacristy in Florence when they want to see the Medici sarcophagus underneath the incredible marble table by Brunelleschi. Yet, I am doing it out of deep respect. The book makes me want to leave for Florence instantaneously, and I curse myself for no longer being able to travel.« Elfriede Jelinek

»With singular energy and enthusiasm, Ivan Nagel goes right to the heart of European art in the Modern Age. His book begins with Dante and carries on after Leonardo. He takes Caravggio as well as Jacques-Louis David and Goya into his sights. For Nagel aims to convince his readers that, since the fourteenth century, art has revolved around the central question: Is painting narrative or drama? The title of his book, Painting and Drama, hints at Nagel’s own answer.« Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

»Ivan Nagel’s new book prompts two immediate reactions: surprise and delight. Surprise that someone from another discipline has engaged so deeply with (early) Renaissance painting. And delight at the many observations he makes that might have escaped many an art historian blinded by déformation professionelle« Neue Zürcher Zeitung

»And with the perspicacity of the amateur, he points out what generations of iconographer failed to see despite their forensic analysis of paintings: that what makes a painting powerful and distinctive is that it tells a story against the grain, recounting a familiar narrative in a different way, not as a chronological sequence but as a dramatic intensification. […] Nagel’s analysis of the paintings is brilliant, concise, an exciting new take on familiar tableaux.« Tagesspiegel

»He traces the path of history painting from »The Capture of Christ« by Giotto at Capella degli Scrovegni in Padua to »The Last Supper« by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. With this type of history painting the author aims to bring to mind long-gone history. It is about breathing new life into texts. Letters transform into breathing, speaking, sweating bodies. […] We would do well to read Ivan Nagel’s book a second time. Not to learn about what we have done with the pictures but as an attempt to understand what the pictures are and will be doing to us.« Frankfurter Rundschau