Invention and Design: Early Italian Drawing
Morgan Library and Museum
February 15 to May 19, 2019
Reviewed by Ed Voves
The new art show at the Morgan Library and Museum, Invention and Design: Early Italian Drawing, is a perfect example of how a museum can draw on the strength of its collection to create a major exhibition. In the Morgan's case, the museum's curators have one of the world's greatest collections of works on paper to "draw" upon - prints, watercolors, sketches and finished drawings.
Invention and Design is particularly noteworthy because it illustrates the rise of drawing during the Italian Renaissance. From sketches in source or "model" books, dating to the 1300's, to drawings of the 1500's intended as unique works of art, this exhibition documents a major turning point in the world of art. During this era, artists in Italy raised themselves from the role of anonymous craftsmen to acknowledged masters of their own destiny. Skill in disegno was their passport to social recognition as well as a source of income.
The growing importance of disegno reflected other major cultural developments, notably the emergence of individuality as a major feature of Western European society. A gradual realization of humanity's natural environment took hold as well. Portrait drawings and - surprisingly - detailed landscapes created with pen and brown ink feature prominently in the Morgan exhibit.
The constant reference to the word disegno reminds us of the often-told story of the Renaissance rivalry of disegno and colore. In this celebrated face-off, Michelangelo and Florentine draftmanship crossed swords with Venetian mastery of oil painting. The Italians refer to such an aesthetic rivalry as a paragone or comparison.
Andrea Mantegna, Three Standing Saints, ca. 1455–1460
Certainly, such a difference of vision and style existed, but desegno ultimately was a unifying feature of the shared visual culture of Italy.
“Draw Antonio," Michelangelo urged his assistant, Antonio Mini. "Draw and don't waste time.”
Antonio, alas, failed to take Michelangelo's advice, but the rest of Italy did. As the Morgan exhibition shows, skill in drawing flourished in Tuscany, Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and - yes - even among the Venetians.
The exhibition begins with an amazing, if rather mundane looking, artifact. It is a group of studies, drawn with pen and brown ink, on the back of a real estate document.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Figures and Decorative Motifs, drawn on a parchment legal deed, dated 1321
This illustrated sheet dates to the middle of the 1300's, the Trecento as the Italians call the fourteenth century. This was so long ago, that pencils as we know them had not been invented and paper, made from linen rags, was still very rare. There are traces of leadpoint on these sketches. Leadpoint was an early drawing instrument, a stylus tipped with lead. Silverpoint was later to be used more frequently before the arrival of graphite pencils.
According to the insightful museum text, the various images on this sheet of parchment were copied from illuminated manuscripts making it "a rare early record of a copying exercise, perhaps done by an aspiring artist."
Ed Voves, Photo (2019)
Sketch of the martyrdom of St. Stephen from Figures and Decorative Motifs, above.
It's all a jumble, but the individual scenes could have been used later as source material for book illustrations or as a design for a fresco.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) An artist's model book from the late 1300's on view at the Invention and Design Exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum.
Nearby is a model book, a more systematic way of preserving images for later use than individual sheets of parchment. Model books were the well-used props of artists' studios, handed down from master to journeyman artist.
This model book, is open to pages which certainly did not supply images for a church wall or a devotional book. A pair of lovers, safe from prying eyes, are "joined together" while naked boys cavort and practice with sword and shield on the opposite page.
Circle of Tomaso da Modena, Model Book, ca. 1370–80
It is tempting to see these pictures as examples of the growing individualism in Italy during the Renaissance, especially as there is a similarity to the recognizable style of an artist named Tomaso da Modena. These drawings, however, are equally indicative of the earthy humor of the Middle Ages.
The transition from medieval to renaissance style is more apparent in a series of animal drawings on parchment. These are dated to the 1400's by an unknown artist, perhaps from Lombardy. The careful, nature-based depiction of a lynx is matched with an equally impressive imagining of a unicorn.
Italian School artist, Lynx and a Recumbent Unicorn, c.1400
It is a bit startling to see these images in such close proximity. Here, on this parchment page, there is no glaring distinction between renaissance ideals and medieval worldview, no "autumn of the Middle Ages", no brilliant dawn of the Renaissance.
Over time, there was a shift in human consciousness. The late-Middle Ages was a dynamic period in European history. In Italy, the remains of buildings and sculpture from antiquity were far greater in number than north of the Alps. This stimulated an appreciation of the mighty achievements of ancient Rome and Greece, exciting a desire to emulate and if possible to surpass the ancients.
This breakthrough occurred first in the realm of portraiture. Of all the genres of art, realistic depiction of the human likeness mattered little to medieval artists. For a thousand years following the fall of Rome, the aim of the arts had been to encourage contemplation of God. Religion was no less important during the Renaissance, but the allure of Greece and Rome was difficult to resist.
The Morgan exhibition has a number of first rate portrait drawings on view. Using Roman coins and medallions as examples, artists during the 1400's initially concentrated on the portrait in profile.
Italian school artist, Head of a Monk in Profile to the Left, c.1475-1500
The identity of the artist who created the Head of a Monk in Profile to the Left remains unknown, but this drawing with black and white chalk is outstanding. It matches the best of ancient sculpture in the way it focuses on the sensitive features and moral probity of this clergyman.
Head of a Monk in Profile to the Left is likely to have been created as a presentation piece. But another profile, much less finished, is even more remarkable. Head of a Woman in Profile to the Right was created by a little known painter named Timoteo Viti (1469-1523). It was used to create an altarpiece for the Church of Sant' Angelo Minore in the town of Cagli, near to Urbino.
Timoteo Viti, Head of a Woman in Profile to the Right, c.1515
The incredible rarity of Viti's sketch is based on the way it was originally used. It is a fragment of a cartoon used to create a fresco. Since these drawings were placed on wet plaster so that the design could be transferred to the plaster and then painted, cartoon sheets almost never survived. This one, showing the head of St. Mary Magdalene, somehow was preserved. Given the importance of fresco painting during the early Renaissance, this drawing is one of the key works of art in the Morgan exhibition.
It is fascinating to study the portrait drawings on display in Invention and Design. We are able to see the shift from profile to three-quarters portrait style during the 1400's.
Lorenzo Costa, Head of a Bearded Man Looking Down to the Right, 15th century
In part, this transition was due to a need for greater naturalness in narrative painting. The study for a head of Jesus or a Christian saint by Lorenzo Costa testifies to the progressive development of portraiture in Italy.
A beautiful three-quarters portrait of a Venetian (or Lombard) woman shows the full triumph of the new realism - significantly in the region dominated by Venice. The merchant republic had strong ties to Germany and Flanders, where the three-quarters portrait style flourished. This outstanding work most likely was a preparatory drawing for a formal portrait painting. The Morgan curators have detected stylistic borrowing from Leonardo's influential La Belle Ferroniere, painted during the 1490's.
Italian school artist, Portrait of a Woman with Hairnet, ca. 1500-1520
Judging from style of the headband, called a lenza, and the hairnet, this accomplished drawing was created during the first decade of the 1500's, the Cinquecento. To art historians this marks the High Renaissance, a period of supreme achievement by Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. This Morgan exhibition displays work by the first two of these Renaissance masters, along with other major figures such as Andrea Mantegna and Filippo Lippi.
It is the special merit of the Morgan exhibition that it demonstrates how the development of drawing in Renaissance Italy was a broadly-based phenomenon. The talents of many artists, barely remembered today, are allowed to shine, marking their places and contributions to the triumph of disegno.
We have only to admire Giovanni Agostino da Lodi's Head of a Youth Facing Left (which introduces this review) to realize how profound and deep-rooted was the visual revolution which took place in Italy from the late 1300's to the 1500's. Had this angelic-faced youth been drawn by Raphael, it would have been celebrated as one of his signal achievement.
That this red chalk on paper masterpiece was created by a comparatively unknown artist is proof of a salient feature of civilization.
When genius resides in the talents of the many, rather than a select elite, and scope is given for these talents to be utilized, then a glorious rebirth of the arts, a Renaissance, is bound to occur. ***
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City
Introductory Image: Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (Italian, ca.1467–ca.1524), Head of a Youth Facing Left, 15th century, red chalk on paper. The Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.35:2; Gift of János Scholz.
Andrea Mantegna (Italian, 1431–1506), Three Standing Saints, ca. 1455–1460, pen and brown ink on laid paper toned with red chalk. Thaw Collection, The Morgan Library & Museum, 1985.100.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Figures and Decorative Motifs, drawn on the back of a parchment legal document, dated 1321. Pen and brown ink, yellow watercolor, over lead point (?), on parchment; verso: deed of sale, dated 1321. 12 1/16 x 30 3/16 inches (307 x 766 mm) Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.46; Purchase with the special assistance of the Fellows Fund.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Sketch of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, detail from Figures and Decorative Motifs, credit information above.
Ed Voves, Photo (2019) Artist's model book (attributed to an artist from the circle of Tomaso da Modena) from the late 1300's on view at the Invention and Design: Early Italian Drawing Exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum.
Circle of Tomaso da Modena (Italian, 1325/6–1379) Pages from a Model Book, ca. 1370–80. Most sketches are in pen and brown ink, with terra verde wash, on parchment; some with additions of colored wash. Leaves: 9 1/8 x 6 7/8 inches (232 x 176 mm) Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913) in 1909 II, 2-25
Italian School artist (active 15th century), Lynx and a Recumbent Unicorn, c. 1400. Brown and black watercolor with opaque white watercolor on parchment: 6 3/8 x 4 3/4 inches (162 x 121 mm) Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909. The Morgan Library & Museum, I, 83
Italian School artist (active 15th century) Head of a Monk in Profile to the Left, ca. 1475-1500. Black and white chalk with smudging, on light brown paper cut to octagon shape. 10 7/16 x 9 3/4 inches (265 x 247 mm; maximum dimensions) Morgan Library & Museum, 1976.43: Thaw Collection
Timoteo Viti (1469-1523), Head of a Woman in Profile to the Right, c.1515. Black chalk and charcoal, with white chalk, incised with stylus, on two pieces of brownish paper of joined vertically: 8 3/16 x 9 1/2 inches (207 x 242 mm); support: 9 7/16 x 9 9/16 (239 x 243 mm). Morgan Library & Museum, IV, 186; Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.