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

Bulletin 28, 1976

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Speculations on Two Drawings 
Attributed to  Giorgio Vasari

by David McTavish

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Twice in his life, Vasari visited Venice. The second time was in 1566 and the purpose of his visit was to collect information for the second edition of his Lives, which appeared in print two years later. But the purpose of his first visit, in 1541-1542, was very different. Pietro Aretino, Vasari's compatriot from Arezzo and best known for his scurrilous writing, had invited Vasari to Venice to execute the apparato for his play La Talanta. (32) The play was about a Roman prostitute, and it was performed by a company of young gentlemen who called themselves the "Sempiterni.". The "Sempiterni" were one of the Compagnie della Calza, these being clubs formed in Venice to celebrate the Carnival season by the performance of all manner of festive spectacles. In February 1542 Aretino's play was duly staged in an unfinished "casa grande" in the Cannaregio district of Venice. Vasari's apparato for it included not only the actual stage set - a perspective view of Rome - but also a series of painted decorations on the other three walls of the room, and on the ceiling as well. After the performance of La Talanta, the apparato was dismantled; thus, nothing remains of it today.

From Vasari's own written accounts and from a number of drawings reliably associated with the apparato, Professor Juergen Schulz has been able to reconstruct the original appearance of this important, but ephemeral, commission. (33) On the ceiling were installed four large allegories of the times of day and around them twenty-three smaller personifications of the hours. The painting on the entrance wall of the room showed a triumphal arch. On each of the side walls were situated four large rectangular paintings representing personifications of the rivers and related geographical features of the Venetian territories. (34) Between each painting there appeared fictive niches flanked by stucco terms, and each niche in turn included a personification of a Virtue.

Our best visual guide to the appearance of the side walls is a drawing in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (see fig. 9). (35) This drawing shows one whole bay, and it is to the niches at either end that our attention should be specifically directed. These niches contain figures of Fame and Pallas Athena. Yet the figures protrude beyond the edges of their niches as do the figures in the drawings in Ottawa, Florence, and Vienna, and the niches themselves also bear proportions similar to those in the other drawings with single allegorical figures. It is true that the Amsterdam drawing does not make any provision for the tablets above and below the niches that are found in the Florence and Vienna sheets; but since one of Vasari's written accounts of the apparato indicates that inscriptions were included with each of the niche figures, these inscriptions could have been accommodated by the tablets. (36) It seems entirely possible, then, that the drawings with single allegorical figures of a Virtue Notes may well have been designed for these wall decorations.

As was the case with the drawings showing St Peter and the lost frescoes of San Pietro in Vincoli, again we lack conclusive proof that these drawings served this specific purpose. In this instance we do, however, possess written descriptions of the relevant figures by Vasari himself. What is immediately significant in this regard is that Vasari confirms - in both descriptions of the apparato - that figures of Prudence and Peace were included in the niches along the side walls. (37) In his letter to Ottaviano de' Medici, Vasari says that the figure of Prudence was shown with two faces; one representing an old man, the other a youth reflected in a round mirror. (38) Clearly this description is appropriate to the drawings ill Ottawa and Florence. And in the same letter, Vasari gives an even more complete description of the figure of Peace. She is shown, modestly dressed, turning her head in an attitude of gratefulness towards heaven, while below she was setting fire to arms and trophies with a torch. (39) Surely this description is equally suitable for the figure in the drawing in Vienna. As well, a date of 1541-1542 would be appropriate for this figure, for, as we have already seen, Vasari repeated the pose, with some variations, in a fresco of September 1542.

To conclude, there is one other aspect of the two drawings which conforms with Vasari's two written accounts of the apparato. Although they are not always consistent with one another, both accounts indicate that the figures of Prudence and Peace were locatcd on opposite walls of the auditorium. (40) Since presumably there was one source of light for all the paintings in the room, and all the paintings responded logically to this single source of light, that the light falls from opposite sides in the drawings in Ottawa and Vienna could be explained by the fact that they were intended to be situated on opposite walls, as Vasari indeed says they were. (41)

If these proposals can be accepted, they would afford visual testimony of works long since lost, in the case of the apparato for La Talanta of a work whose entire existence was extremely brief. With regard to the drawings showing St Peter in prison, the lost works would come from that particularly vital period of sixteenth-century Italian art, the years between the death of Raphael in 1520 and the Sack of Rome in 1527. And the drawings of allegorical figures for the apparato would augment what is already known about the introduction of Florentine maniera into Venice, at an equally significant moment in the history of that city's art. Such figures as Peace and Prudence would have been looked at with critical interest in Venice and, with time, partially absorbed into the visual vocabulary of the art of that city. It may even be possible to see distant echoes of the figure of Peace in the National Gallery of Canada's Penitent Magdalen, though the artist, Paolo Veronese, was not to settle in Venice until a good ten years after Vasari's visit. (42)

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