Research Magazine 2006

On the use and exchange of drawings in Renaissance art

Dr. Mary Vaccaro

Dr. Mary Vaccaro

Drawings record an artist’s ideas. They may be used to map the genesis of a particular project or broader patterns of creative exchange.

The great Michelangelo attempted to regulate what his rivals and friends would know of his working methods. He destroyed many of his drawings, but he also, though less frequently, gave designs to fellow artists to assist them in their endeavors.

By the 16th century, disegno—roughly translated drawing or design—had assumed a central role in artistic practice and theory. A number of factors contributed to the phenomenon. Paper became more readily available, which in turn facilitated a growing interest among artists to develop their ideas through graphic preliminaries. Quick sketches (schizzi) were typically made to find the manner of an initial composition. More detailed drawings would follow: studies of individual figures, groups of figures, drapery, as well as more carefully rendered compositional studies. The process might culminate in a full-scale design, known as a cartoon (cartone), the outlines of which were transferred onto the surface to be painted. After establishing the blueprint, so to speak, a master artist could delegate its execution, in part or entirely, to workshop assistants.

Since I began teaching art history at UT Arlington in 1994, my main research focus has been on Parmigianino (1503-1540), an artist named after his native town of Parma in northern Italy. Although hardly as familiar as Michelangelo, Parmigianino recently has received considerable attention. The celebration in 2003 of the quincentenary of his birth inspired publications and international exhibitions in venues from Vienna to Ottawa to New York City.

book cover of 'Parmigianino: The Paintings'

Parmigianino's existing drawings number more than those of any Italian Renaissance artist except Leonardo da Vinci.

Parmigianino was one of the most prolific and inventive draftsmen of the 16th century. His extant drawings number more than those of any other Italian Renaissance artist except Leonardo da Vinci and display his virtuosity in all media. To arrive at solutions for his pictures, he would rehearse a prodigious variety of ideas on paper. He loved to draw. I wrote a book on the artist’s paintings (2002) after co-authoring another volume on his designs (2000), only to realize that I share Parmigianino’s decided preference for the graphic arts.

My first truly intensive contact with Old Master drawings took place in 1998-1999 when I held a fellowship at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, which enabled me to conduct research in the famed drawings collection of the Uffizi museum (Florence, Italy) for a year. I decided to teach myself the skill of connoisseurship—how to attribute works of art to a particular artist based on a scrutiny of details. Day after day in the Uffizi, I looked and learned.

Slowly, I began to distinguish the styles or “handwriting” of respective artists. I noticed a drawing with a generic attribution (anonymous Spanish) and realized that I knew its correct author (Parmigianino’s cousin Bedoli) and exact function (preparation for a painting now in Piacenza). I paid closer attention to an object’s physical properties: its paper, medium and other technical aspects that cannot be fully, or even necessarily, discerned by simply consulting a photograph or digital reproduction.

For example, although Renaissance artists frequently drew on both sides of a sheet of paper, many collectors later mounted the designs so that only one side is visible. By lifting the sheets to the light, I looked through the backed mount and detected sketches that have been hidden for centuries.

Over the past eight years, I have continued to delight in the detective work. Last summer, I used electronic databases to survey the holdings of the Department of Drawings in the Louvre museum and tentatively reattributed nearly a dozen drawings to various artists. I needed to see the originals to confirm my attributions, which I did in January. The chief curator of drawings at the Louvre agreed with my findings and has asked me to write a series of articles for a French journal.

My current major project focuses on bringing together such discoveries in a book about the use, practice and exchange of designs among artists in 16th-century Parma. I intend to clarify their individual and collective approaches to art-making and the resulting patterns of continuity and invention. How did these artists collaborate and learn from each other? How might extant drawings elucidate their interaction? And what are the wider implications of such a case study for the history of Old Master drawings?

To write the book, I have received a senior fellowship in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the academic year 2007-08. This honor will afford me daily access to one of the world’s richest collections of Old Master drawings. Among the holdings is one of Michelangelo’s most celebrated designs, a spectacular red chalk study for the Libyan Sibyl on the Sistine Chapel ceiling that, thankfully, he didn’t destroy.

— Mary Vaccaro

Dr. Vaccaro is a professor in the Department of Art and Art History.