Creating the Italian Altarpiece in the Renaissance and Baroque
(Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, until 14 October 2013)
Since I was in Oxford to see the Ashmolean exhibition, I took the opportunity to pop in to see the current display at Christ Church Picture Gallery. I’m very fond of the gallery because, despite their limited resources, they make a real effort to keep the College’s drawings accessible through a frequently changing programme of displays. The collection isn’t digitised (which is something it would be great to change, if any Oxford students are looking for a bit of volunteering for their CV?), and James Byam Shaw’s famous catalogue doesn’t illustrate all the sheets, so these displays are the only practical way to see the lesser-known drawings.
Of the 33 sheets I noted on display, three followed the exhibition title exactly and showed us the artist ‘creating’ an entire altarpiece in its setting. One of these was my personal highlight of the show: a lovely drawing by Jacopo Zucchi (JBS 214), representing an altarpiece of The Adoration of the Magi in place in a circular chapel, lit by an oculus overhead. Here the painting is shown in all the richness of its intended context, framed by a wealth of marble or stucco ornament: caryatids, swags of foliage, putti and prophets. Similarly, a design from the studio of Giulio Campi (JBS 1113) showed how the main painting was framed as part of a wider narrative, flanked with subsidiary pictures and ornamental flourishes, and with further smaller scenes in the predella beneath.
These drawings demonstrate how the artists conceived and created altarpieces: not as the isolated pictures we see in museums today, but as integral parts of a much broader decorative scheme. Beyond these, the display was rather uneven in terms of quality: there were some wonderful things, but also some studio replicas, like the Assumption after Annibale Carracci (JBS 946), which didn’t really fit with the exhibition’s theme of ‘creation’, but shows how compositions were copied to form part of the workshop’s portfolio.
The most famous drawing on show was probably Pontormo’s compositional study for his Deposition in Santa Felicità in Florence (JBS 119), which is one of the gems of the collection. It differs in only a few details from the finished painting and it’s squared in red chalk, which points to its very direct role in the creation of the altarpiece, as the artist transferred the composition over square by square onto the prepared panel. Despite the tumult of figures, you can already see how the artist has focused the attention on the two key characters: the elongated figure of Christ and the agonised Madonna who stares out from beneath the Cross – whose expression made me think, rather irreverently, of Munch’s Scream. Nearby was a drawing by Ventura Salimbeni, showing The Vision of a Saint (JBS 346), which interested me because it showed how artists borrowed from one another. Salimeni has taken the upper part of its composition almost verbatim (in reverse) from Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo; yet Byam Shaw says he’s not aware of any print that was published early enough for Salimbeni to have made use of it. Fascinating stuff.
There were some drawings whose attributions were less certain (according to Byam Shaw, anyway – if further research has clarified any of these, do let me know), but which were still striking images regardless of their authorship. The drawing of The Body of the Christ, given on the label to Ligozzi, is in fact only attributed to him by Byam Shaw (JBS 222). I see why the stiff, over-literal tendency of the lines might be cause for some doubt, especially when you compare it to the artist’s undisputed Dante drawings (also at Christ Church, but not in this show). However, it’s still an imposing composition, in the characteristically Ligozzi-like medium of brown wash on brown paper, heightened with little touches of gold; and I enjoyed the way that the angels’ wings broke the fictive borders of the drawing and strayed into the margins. I was also interested by the drawing of St Peter Nolasco (?) interceding with the Virgin for two Captives, attributed to Giacinto Brandi (JBS 636), which struck me as a very dynamic composition, with the struggle at the bottom leading the eye up, through the figure of the saint (precariously supported by angels) to the Madonna, who leans gracefully down as if peering over a window-sill.
And, since I have to limit myself in some form, I just want to mention one final sheet: The Martyrdom of the Quattro Coronati, which is given to Giovanni Battista Lenardi despite the fact (as Byam Shaw says) that it’s considerably more energetic than any other known drawing by him (JBS 655). This really impressed me. It’s impossible to get a real idea of its power from the black and white image I show here, but you must imagine it executed on ochre-washed paper, with the black ink penwork swirling in a veritable frenzy, conveying the fury of the executioners and the tumult of the crowd. The setting is unusual too, with the martyrdom taking place in what looks like an arena, with a garden and a classical architectural capriccio glimpsed behind the retaining wall. The lighting of the scene is splendid too: shafts of sunlight pierce through from the left-hand side, so that the shadowed figures in the left foreground don’t prevent our eyes from being drawn directly to the central figures of the saints and their tormentors. It’s a real tour de force.
I’ve always regretted that there are no catalogues of these little exhibitions, not even a little booklet to take away. This means that the really keen visitor has to conscientiously copy out the details of each drawing, with its JBS number, and look it up in the catalogue at a later stage. (Guess what I’ve been doing all evening.) In the past there have been (unillustrated) A4 lists of the exhibits, but this time even these were missing. Such a list isn’t just an aide-memoire for the visitor, but would also give the curator the chance to add an introductory paragraph, explaining the selection of drawings and offering a little historical context. In this particular case, he or she could have explained the various ways in which drawings were used in the planning of an altarpiece: preparatory studies; modelli; presentation drawings for the patron’s approval; ricordi; and so on. Then the more casual visitor would have been better armed to look at the series of drawings, of which only some have notes (of varying helpfulness).
Until the end of June, the exhibition is accompanied by a display of the College’s five Barocci drawings, in homage to the National Gallery’s show earlier this year. While it is great to see them from a completist perspective, I have to say that the drawings in the NG’s exhibition rather cast these into the shade. A large part of the problem is condition, in that the Christ Church Baroccis have all suffered a little, especially the Head of a Bearded Man (JBS 326), which is rather foxed and stained. It is probably too late to see these before they are taken down, but the main exhibition remains on view until October and I’d recommend it to anyone passing through Oxford (as a double bill with the Ashmolean, perhaps?!), as another welcome chance to see a selection of the College’s drawings.