Fantasy and Invention

Vasari: Lorenzo de' Medici

Rosso Fiorentino and Sixteenth-Century Florentine Drawing

(The Morgan Library, New York, until 3 February 2013)

Current service has been temporarily interrupted by a business trip to New York, but even there I did my best to keep up the ‘idle’ spirit. On the afternoon of my arrival, I hotfooted it down Madison Avenue to the Morgan, hoping to keep the jetlag at bay by looking at some wonderful drawings. This January’s crop of exhibitions in New York aren’t as focused on the Old Masters as they were last year, and so the show at the Morgan was the one that bore the brunt of my expectations. I was a little disappointed to find that it took up only one room and there was no catalogue; but, nevertheless, that one room contained some beautiful things, many of which I hadn’t seen before. The purpose of the exhibition was to trace the development of Florentine drawing as it grew out of the Renaissance tradition into the full, eccentric bloom of Mannerism.

Arranged chronologically, the exhibition begins with a landscape in brown ink by Fra Bartolommeo, showing The Ospizio della Madonna del Lecceto from the West. Drawn around 1506, it’s part of a series of studies which may have been intended to document the estates of the Dominican order. In Fra Bartolommeo’s hands it gains a lightness and delicacy of touch, including not only the buildings themselves but also the surrounding trees and indications of people and animals passing by. It’s among the first examples of a landscape drawn from nature in Italian art (although not the first: that honour probably belongs to Leonardo’s 1473 view of the Arno valley, now in the Uffizi).

A little further on are three tiny drawings by Michelangelo, executed around 1548, which explore the dynamism of the struggle between David and Goliath in a veritable tumult of chalk. The gallery label noted that the drawings probably grew out of the Renaissance paragone – the comparison between different art forms in order to judge which was most naturalistic and most worthy. In this case Michelangelo seems to have been experimenting with ways to convey a three-dimensional image on paper, perhaps hoping to show that even with three separate images one can’t gain an idea of the struggle in its entirety. If so, it’s rather ironic that his drawings were later adopted by Daniele da Volterra as the basis for his (two-dimensional) painting of David and Goliath in the Louvre, although Daniele did cleverly suggest another solution to the problem by making his painting double-sided, showing the struggle respectively from the front and the back. These little drawings aren’t the most dramatic or breathtaking that I’ve seen by Michelangelo but they suggest the restlessness of his mind: never satisfied, turbulent, always attempting to find a better way of depicting the human body in motion or under strain.

Fra Bartolomeo: The Ospizio della Madonna del Lecceto

Fra Bartolomeo, The Ospizio della Madonna del Lecceto from the West, c.1506, Morgan Library (detail)

Next up were drawings by the three most notable young Florentine artists of the period, who were also good friends: Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino himself. In comparison to the other two, Andrea has a less eccentric approach to figure and composition: the two drawings by him in this exhibition were confident, well-proportioned figure studies, inscribed within fluid, firm outlines and giving a convincing sense of volume. While I think very highly of Andrea as a draughtsman (and prefer his drawings to his paintings, as is the case with so many artists), there’s no doubt that his vision lacks the punch and power of a drawing like Pontormo’s Three Male Nudes.

This large drawing, about the size of a sheet of A3, captures the eye with its dramatic full-length nude, seen from behind, which takes up most of the paper. Two other figures are folded in slightly awkwardly below, as if they’re bathers sitting on the edge of a pool, one staring out with Pontormo’s characteristically round, empty eyes. The chalk flows over the paper, reinforcing the contour of a torso or arm, several lines jostling on top of one another as Pontormo seeks out precisely the right stroke that will capture the pose. The forcefulness of the outlines is countered by the more subtle, delicate hatching that builds up the musculature of the standing figure’s back, and all in all – despite its slight foxing – it’s a fantastic thing. That was the main contender for the drawing I’d most like to take home.

Rosso was primarily represented by the painting of the Holy Family loaned to the Morgan from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, shown at the top of this post, which exemplifies his odd and (to me) rather troubling style: the eerily wide eyes, the strangely gaping mouths and tapering fingers. In its freedom of execution, the painting gave a very different impression of Rosso than did the drawing alongside: an elaborate and very detailed fantasy head. Complete with braids and curls and extravagant coiffure, this looks almost like the kind of thing you see Fuseli drawing almost three hundred years later. I have to admit that, while I can appreciate Rosso’s talent, I don’t like him: I find him rather unsettling, while for some reason Pontormo doesn’t trouble me at all.

Rosso Fiorentino: Madonna and Child

Rosso Fiorentino, Madonna and Child with St Joseph, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (detail)

Moving on from these enfants terribles of the early 16th century, the exhibition looked at the way that Mannerism developed into the more formal and staid style that became the norm in the later part of the century. Vasari was one of the key proponents of this more academic Mannerism and, although I’m not the biggest fan of his paintings, I have to say that the Morgan had picked out a particularly lovely drawing to represent him in this show: a design for his ceiling in the Palazzo Vecchio showing Lorenzo de’ Medici receiving gifts from his ambassadors; a drawing on a surprisingly small scale, considering the amount of detail packed into it.

In the centre of the room, complementing the drawings, was a case containing original documents written by some of the artists who were on show: chief among them for value, perhaps, was a letter from Michelangelo in his characteristically loose and sprawling script, but the one which intrigued me was a letter from Bronzino, written in an absolutely beautiful italic hand of such clarity that you could read every word as easily as if it were printed. For me, handwritten documents have the same kind of power as a drawing: they are more intimate than a painting and suggest more of the artist’s character and personality (I’m the kind of person who’ll stand for ages in front of a Leonardo drawing trying to decipher the mirror-writing) – so I’m delighted that the Morgan chose to draw on this aspect of their collections too.

It was a carefully-curated little show, but once again I do wish there had been a catalogue. The information on each drawing was restricted to what could fit onto a wall-label and I would very much have liked more information on some of the attributions (there were a couple of drawings that had recently been switched between Alessandro Allori and Bronzino). As it stands, it appears to illustrate the development of Mannerism rather than explaining it and I’m not sure that I’ve come away with a new or different perspective. But it gave me the chance to see some beautiful drawings, which must be among the highlights of the Morgan’s collection; and, being small, it didn’t tax my jetlagged mind too much – for which, under the circumstances, I was pathetically grateful.

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