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

Pages  1  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  
Because no known painting by Vasari corresponds to this subject, it should not be excluded that an un-recorded painting may have done so. It will be recalled, however, that the New York and Milan drawings do not disclose any overt connection with Vasari's style, and neither of them has been previously associated with his name. If they are copies after a lost composition by Vasari, it seems strange that they show so little evidence of his style. Might they not, instead, be copies after the work of another artist? Such a proposal would of course have to apply to the Ottawa and Christ Church drawings as well. And that these drawings by Vasari are unlikely to have been done in preparation for a painting is supported by the very nature of their draughtsmanship: in both the pen line is notably dry and hesitant, and the drawings are almost totally lacking in pentimenti. This effect would be more easily explained if the drawings were copies after another work of art. (11) Furthermore, Vasari makes no mention of ever having painted this subject in his autobiography or in the record book of his own companions. (12) Surely, if the composition was by Vasari and was prominent enough to have been copied by at least two other artists, he would have recorded the commission in his written accounts.

If Vasari had taken the trouble to make copies after some other other artist's painting, then presumably that artist, and also perhaps the painting with St Peter in prison, would have been mentioned in Vasari's Lives. (13) Vasari in fact informs us that he was a particularly dedicated copyist of other works of art, both ancient and modern. During only a few months in Rome in 1538 he made more than three hundred drawings of this sort. (14) And also, he reports that he had previously made copies after such artists as Michelangelo, Raphael, Baldassare, Peruzzi, and Polidoro de Caravaggio. (15) These names might give us some clues about the identity of the author of the composition showing St Peter in prison.

Since this particular design with St Peter seems not to be otherwise known, our proposals must now become increasingly conjectural. So far, it has been suggested that the Ottawa and Christ Church drawings were executed en suite and by Giorgio Vasari, and that they, together with the drawings in New York and Milan, are all copies after some hitherto unidentified work of art. In order to acquire some additional knowledge about that work, we might continue to investigate the evidence at hand, such an inscription on the drawings themselves. The drawings in both Ottawa and Milan bear inscriptions to Guilio Romano. But while some points of contact between the drawings and Giulio's work may be found, they are not sufficient to encourage an association with his name; nor, for that matter, does Vasari in his "Life of Giulio Romano" mention any such subject. On the other hand, the Christ Church drawings bears an old inscription to another pupil of Raphael, Polidoro da Caravaggio. Already we have noted that Vasari says he made copies after this artist. And Vasari also records that Polidoro painted frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St Peter on the façade of the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome. (16) Though Vasari does not specify which scenes appeared on the façade, it is impossible to believe that a painting of St Peter in prison was not included: for the church not only proudly preserved the chains which had reputedly bound St Peter while in prison, but was dedicated to this very event in the life of its titular saint.

Since the frescoes were located on the façade of a public building, they were completely accessible and could be easily copied. (17) Caution, however, must temper our conclusions for there is no proof that these drawings are after Polidoro's lost frescoes. The frescoes themselves must have been done in the early 1520s, or at least before 1527, when the Sack forced Polidoro to leave Rome. Like many exterior decorations, those on the façade of San Pietro in Vincoli were subject to the ravages of the elements, and by the seventeenth-century they were in a ruinous condition. (18) No engravings seem to have preserved the designs of the paintings of the life of St Peter, and none of Polidoro's drawings have been relaibly connected with them. (19) Instead, we have to rely primarily on the stylistic evidence of the four copies - and, at best, this is a hazardous undertaking. The following, however, may be said: in the four drawings there is nothing that is distinctly alien to Polidoro's style and, in contrast, there is much that is sympathetic to it. This includes the setting and the dress, the gestures, and the inclination of heads and limbs - in short, the cadence of the composition as a whole. (20) Not unnaturally, the design with the sleeping St Peter shows some influence of the most celebrated interpretation of the subject, Raphael's fresco in the Stanza d'Eliodoro in the Vatican. (21) But since Polidoro was Raphael's pupil, this connection is by no means extraordinary. In any case the design as a whole was a traditional one, and precedents for it can be found in both painting and sculpture. (22)

In the case of drawings their possible weaknesses of execution would thus be explained by their being copies by Vasari, after Polidoro, rather than their being copies after Vasari. And the curious similarity between the style of the Ottawa drawing and that of Battista Franco's drawings might be explained by the fact that when Vasari likely executed this drawing - in Rome in the 1530s - Battista Franco was also, at times, in Rome; Vasari may well have corne under his influence, if only for a short period. (23)

The second drawing considered here was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1974 (see fig. 5). (24) This sheet shows a standing figure placed in a niche, as if it were a statue. This sheet shows a standing figure placed in a niche, as if it were a statue. The figure holds a serpent in one hand and a round mirror in the other. Into the mirror a youthful face peers, while at the back of the head an aged face looks solemnly downward. From this combination of features it is obvious that the subject of the drawing is an allegorical figure of Prudence. (25)

From the time of its purchase, some doubt has existed about the attribution of this sheet to Giorgio Vasari. (26) But by taking into account two other drawings with the same design in the Uffizi, Florence, this matter can be considerably clarified. One of the drawings (see fig. 6) (27) has been cropped around the beyond it, as the sheet in Ottawa has been. The other drawing (see fig. 7) (28) extends beyond the niche and includes rectangular tablets above and below the figure. All three drawings are in the same medium: pen and brown ink and wash, heightened with white ink, on blue paper. Yet it is apparent that the two drawings in the Uffizi have been executed with more life and spontaneity than has the Ottawa sheet. In this respect the drawing in fig. 6 is especially notable. Some details such as the hair have been achieved with a vigorous and varying application of the ink, while others, such as the drapery over the shins, candidly reveal the explorations of the underlying drawing in black chalk. Thus there can be little doubt that the drawing in Ottawa, with a hesitant and lifeless execution, is a studio repetition. And that the Uffizi sheets should be considered autograph works by Vasari is supported by comparisons (both of morphology and of technique) with drawings more securely attributed to the artist. (29)

In the Albertina, Vienna, there is yet another drawing which shows the same arrangement of a niche and two tablets, but instead of a figure of of Prudence this sheet includes an allegorical figure of Peace (see fig. 8). (30) Attributed in the past to Perino del Vaga, the Vienna drawing should surely be assigned instead to Vasari, as an annotation by Mr Pouncey on the drawing's mount already points out. In September 1542 Vasari, in fact, repeated almost the same pose and figure type in a fresco; but showing a female personification of Architecture. (31) In the drawing in Vienna, parts of the figure also protrude beyond the limits of the niche, and the medium is again pen and brown ink and wash on blue paper, through there is no white heightening. But as even more convincing evidence that these drawings of allegorical figures were conceived together, the dimensions of the niches in each case are almost exactly the same: 29.4 x 9.0 cm. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two designs is that the light falls from the left in the Prudence, from the right in the Peace. None the less, there can be little doubt that these designs were executed at the same time and for the same commission. And again, Vasari's written accounts can help us clarify what that commission may have been.

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