National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 28, 1976

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Speculations on Two Drawings 
Attributed to Giorgio Vasari

by David McTavish

Résumé en français

Pages  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  

Sixteenth-century Italian drawings were rarely intended as independent works of art. They may, however, tell us much about an artist's attitudes and aspirations. Sometimes they may also tell us about a work of art now lost, or one whose existence was ephemeral by intention. But if drawings are thus to inform us, they need to be reinvested with their initial function, and also returned (if only for purposes of study) to their original context. While the following discussion of two drawings attributed to Giorgio Vasari (Italian, 1511-1574) in the National Gallery of Canada does not conclusively establish the initial function of either, perhaps it will partially clarify the original context of both.

Giorgio Vasari, best known today as the author of the ambitious Lives of the Artists, (1) was in his own time just as celebrated as a very reliable and prolific painter. On occasion he also turned his hand to architecture, and as a collector, his Libro de' Disegni represented one of the first systematic and extensive collections of drawings to be made. (2) But as much as he was intrigued with other artists' drawings, he was also a draughtsman of some talent and of considerable industry himself; in the Louvre alone there are more than one hundred and twenty drawings by hill. (3)

Born in Arezzo in 1511, Vasari made his way to Florence while still in his early teens. There he received the greater part of his training as an artist, and there, too, his artistic sympathies lay for the rest of his life, as any reading of his Lives makes abundantly clear. Though he worked in many parts of Italy, he received his most important commissions in Florence and Rome, where he was employed by the most illustrious patrons of the day.

In 1962 the National Gallery of Canada acquired the drawing by Giorgio Vasari showing St Peter being delivered from prison by the angel (see fig. 1). (4) Purchased on the advice of A. E. Popham, the sheet was at the time attributed to Battista Franco, an artist from Venice who spent part of the 1530s and 1540s in Rome. However Mr Philip Pouncey pointed out that the facial types of the drawing - regular ovals with distinctive noses and mouths and especially animated hair - are unquestionably in the style of Giorgio Vasari. And it is under his name that the work was published by A. E. Pophall and Kathleen Fenwick. But, as Pophall seems to imply, there are certain features of the work that are not entirely consistent with Vasari's usual manner of drawing: "It is not impossible that Vasari was in this instance copying or consciously imitating Battista Franco." (5) For while the morphology of the figures is generally typical of Vasari's style, the technique of drawing is not altogether so. Executed in pen and brown ink, the drawing exhibits none of the brown wash applied with a brush that is most commonly, though not invariably, found in Vasari's drawings. More important, the pen line is thin and dry, and the cross-hatching lacks much of the artist's typical linear vitality. These are features, none the less, that are sometimes encountered in Vasari's works from the 1530s.

The purpose of this drawing has not been discussed at any length. Since the vast majority of Renaissance and Baroque drawings were done in preparation for more substantial works of art, it follows that the present sheet may well have performed a similar function. This would be the more interesting in that the subject is reasonably rare in Renaissance art. Yet no painting has been found for which this drawing might have been the preparation.

A number of other drawings are relevant to this discussion. A drawing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (see fig. 3), presents the same composition as does the drawing in Ottawa. (6) In the right-hand section a similar angel leads a similar St Peter up the prison steps while the guard sleeps. There are, however, a number of minor differences between the two compositions, the most prominent being the spatial relationship between St Peter and the angel. In addition, Vasari's characteristic facial types are not to be discerned in the summary treatment of the New York sheet. On general stylistic grounds, it is evident, in fact, that the New York drawing is not by Giorgio Vasari, nor has it ever been considered as such. Instead, it must be after the drawing (or a finished painting) by Giorgio Vasari, or else after some other work of art. And if the latter, Vasari's drawing must also be after the same work of art.

The drawing in New York is not, however, the only other drawing to record this composition. In a private collection in Milan there is an additional sheet that shows the same event in a similar fashion (see fig. 4). (7) Distinctly lacking Vasari's characteristic facial types, the Milan sheet repeats some of the particular features of the New York drawing (e.g. the horizontal position of the angel's wing) and also incorporates some new ones (e.g., the second soldier). The graphic style of the drawing in Milan makes it clear, none the less, that it is by neither Giorgio Vasari nor the author of the New York sheet, and so must represent the work of yet another copyist.

While the right half of the New York drawing is devoted to St Peter being delivered from prison, the left half involves the immediately preceding event: St Peter, asleep in prison, being visited by the angel. (8) Mr John Christian was the first to observe that this composition is repeated in a drawing at Christ Church, Oxford (see fig. 2). (9) Despite an old attribution to Polidoro da Caravaggio, this drawing has been assigned by Mr Pouncey to Vasari's studio, and more recently it has been classified as a copy after Vasari. (10) Like the Ottawa drawing, the sheet in Christ Church is executed entirely in pen and ink, and it also shows Vasari's unmistakable facial types - including the frenzied hair - as well as the sharply pointed fingers. Surely this combination of features indicates that the Christ Church drawing is also by Vasari and, given the fact that both drawings measure 21 cm in height, it is even possible that they were once part of the same sheet.

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