detail: Head of a Satyr by Giuseppe Cesari.
Creative Paper Trail
to Drama: Italian Works on Paper 1500-1800
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.
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
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
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.