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In detail: Head of a Satyr by Giuseppe Cesari.

The Creative Paper Trail

By Meisha Rosenberg

Drawn to Drama: Italian Works on Paper 1500-1800

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., through Jan. 4

As I schlepped around Italy on my honeymoon, craning my neck ever-upward to find yet more putti frolicking in the clouds, I wondered how Italian artists designed all those frescoes and altarpieces. At least I could head for the nearest café, but I reflected that the poor artists (or their apprentices) had to stand nose-to-nose with ceilings for hours on end.

Partly, they minimized neck strain time by making preliminary drawings, as Drawn to Drama, curated by graduate student Melina Doerring and senior curator Richard Rand, demonstrates with more than 60 examples, from rough exercises to fully elaborated works. Half come from the museum’s collection and half are from collector Robert Loper. That these drawings have survived the centuries is itself something of a miracle worthy of the saintly episodes they portray. Many drawings from this period were destroyed in the transfer process (holes were sometimes poked in them for tracing), or discarded. According to Rand, true sketches (such as Andrea del Sarto’s Study of Drapery, 1510-13) are even more rare than finished drawings.

Giorgio Vasari (who has work here) wrote that drawing was the father of the arts, and in some ways these drawings are superior to the paintings they may have preceded—less florid, less inducing of Grand Tour cherub stupor. Half a wall of works by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo underline this: He executed them toward the end of his life, and they show a far more fluid, dynamic hand than might be familiar to anyone who’s blinked at his Venetian ceilings. (Several drawings by his son, Domenico, also are here).

As Richard Rand explains, “Drawings are increasingly seen in the museum world, and I would hope with the general public, as one of the points of access to the creative process. One thing to remember is all artists draw, no matter what period you lived in, what country, or what medium you work in. So even the conceptual artist today, or performance artists, or artists who make videos have to draw, and they look at drawings.”

Students of art will find much to learn. It’s like looking behind the curtain of art to view The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Vasari (1556-7), an ink of the saint with his finger probing a wound on Jesus’ chest. The drawing is “squared,” or covered with a grid the artist used to convert it to a painting. It is wonderful to see the calligraphic hatch marks in Domenico Campagnola’s The Virgin and Child in a Landscape with Saints Michael and Jerome (1520-25).

It would have been nice if the curators had reproduced one or two paintings for comparison with the drawings on which they were based. But Drawn to Drama is less focused on method, instead being organized according to what the curators call the narrative tradition: the imperative for art to tell stories. Subsections are titled The Male Nude, Attributes, Miracles and Martyrs, and Heaven and Earth, among other things. Church-sanctioned ideology divided pictorial space into divine and human realms. Symbols, like Saint Peter’s key, denoted scriptural figures. Even nudity reflected religious values of humility and shame.

Visitors do also gain insight into technical effects along the way. Giovanni da San Giovanni’s Young Woman in a Yellow Robe (1630) is a stunning example of soft chalk shading. In Luca Cattapane’s Adoration of the Shepherds (1590), brown wash and white heightening create a wonderfully intimate sense of light. Battle of the Nude Men by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (1470) is a finely worked, mysterious engraving of naked men in mirror poses. Sfumato, or smoky effect, is used in a beautiful silverpoint by Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Head of a Woman (1490s).

Despite great early drawings like Boltraffio’s, most works come from after 1600, and these can be formulaic and overwrought (such as a couple of later Assumptions and an Ascension (Stradanus, 1590). The innovations of the high renaissance gave way to a sometimes sclerotic didacticism. The best works do more than demonstrate a schematic, such as Pietro Marchesini’s detailed Vision of Saint Margaret of Cortona (1728). It depicts the saint with closed eyes in intimate reverie as a crowd of angels supports her, symbols (a skull, a book) at her feet. Trying to escape cliché, some artists plumbed the Bible for less common stories, as Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo did with Nebuchadnezzar Returning From the Wilderness to His Palace (1770-90), showing the king from behind as he mounts a Venetian stairway.

Another work that escapes redundancy is Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s Crucifixion (1651), which viscerally expresses the windswept desert scene with lightly applied oil paint on paper. Rand says, “What’s amazing is how he tackles a very traditional subject—the most traditional subject, the crucifixion—but he portrays it from this totally bizarre angle, from the side, as if the viewer is one of the thieves on the cross.”

Most of these drawings don’t bear an artist’s signature; drawing was, during this time period, just beginning to gain esteem as an art in itself. In quiet studies and pious scenes, the afterglow of the renaissance burns just as brightly so many centuries later—with no schlepping required.

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