New York

Italian Renaissance Drawings

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Drawings from the Italian Renaissance is the first of a series of exhibitions devoted to master drawings from public and private collections located in the New York area to be organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art together with the Pierpont Morgan Library. Beginning logically with the first great epoch in Western art from which drawings survive in any number, the exhibition provides a sumptuous first course in what promises to be a feast for the eyes extending over several seasons. As the masters of the Italian Renaissance still hold the favored position in public taste that they have enjoyed for centuries, this joint show will perform a valuable service in introducing many to the enjoyment, connoisseurship, and study of the whole field of drawings through examples by well-loved artists. Still most passionately explored by specialized collectors and scholars, drawings hold an immense store of artistic pleasure for those who might still regard them as “second class,” or “not that important.” It is apt, too, that the collection of drawings as works of art begins in the Italian Renaissance with the compilation of Vasari’s “Libro,” the great chronicler’s attempt to assemble a comprehensive representation of drawings by the great artists up to his own time.

Italian drawings of this period are almost invariably connected in some way with the production of yet another work of art toward which the drawing is a step. Almost all kinds of these preparations for a great variety of works may be seen here; first sketches for the composition of paintings, cartoons for both fresco and panel paintings, projects for sculpture, careful renderings of details of larger compositions, studies from the model, designs for prints, medals, engraved gems, embroideries, and highly finished “modelli” for the approval of a patron are all present in examples of high quality. There are as well one or two rare examples of “presentation drawings,” intended only as exquisite gifts. A precious “Judith and Holofernes” by Francia may have been a gift of esteem to Raphael. The varied drawing media used in the period offer a wonderful range of visual excitement, from the finest metalpoint and electric penwork to broad and muscular brush and chalk drawings.

The artists represented include both superstars like Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Correggio and enigmatic anonymous masters whose identities are still points of conjecture. Considering the rarity of works by the greatest names and the youth of American collections, the representation is impressive. However, there is no Mantegna, the one more or less secure Titian, though still lovely, has suffered apparently on account of its use in the preparation of a print, and none of the Raphaels can compete with the dazzling suite from Chatsworth seen not long ago at the Morgan Library. These reservations are minor in the face of the wonderful masterpieces to be seen by Parmigianino, Cellini, Pontormo, Andrea Del Sarto, Veronese, Tintoretto, Filippo Lippi, and Carpaccio. Artists whose reputations were perhaps greatest during their lifetimes, such as Perino del Vaga, Primaticcio, and Polidoro da Caravaggio shine in brilliant works that will give the general viewer an idea (and remind the student) what all the fuss was about. The specialist however need not feel deprived of his select pleasures; there are sufficient iconographical riddles and questions of attribution to engross hosts of graduate seminars for countless semesters.

Among the special treats offered in the show are the group of eight ravishing works by Fra Bartolommeo, the Metropolitan’s glittering Carpaccio “Youth in Armor,” Ian Woodner’s magnificent Cellini “Standing Male Nude with a Club,” the Met’s truly grand Tintoretto “Head of Vitellius” and Walter Baker’s nervous and rich Battista Naldini “Dead Christ Supported by Three Figures.”

An attractive and extremely useful catalog reproduces each work in the show and contains detailed entries dealing with the fascinating lore of provenance, collector’s marks, past attributions, interpretation of subjects, exhibition history, and the like. Composed by the excellent staffs of the Metropolitan and Morgan Library together with other prominent scholars, it appears under the direction of the curators of drawings at these institutions, respectively, Jacob Bean and Felice Stampfle, and is available both in hardbound and paperback.

Dennis Adrian