Paintings

2018 Oxford Slade Lectures ‘From Drawing to Painting in the Italian Renaissance’

By Sofia Garré and Irene Wang, MSt History of Art and Visual Culture


In March 2018, people visiting the Ashmolean Museum had the rare opportunity to see a remarkable group of drawings by Michelangelo. This temporary exhibition offered a unique insight into the artist’s draftsmanship while hinting at the role played by drawings in the creation of artworks that are now considered among the most representative of the Italian Renaissance. But the Ashmolean Museum was not alone in raising questions on the wider significance of Renaissance drawings. This year’s Slade Lectures, given by Professor David Ekserdjian (University of Leicester), considered how drawings by some of the most famous Italian artists from the period honed the form and content of their major works. Starting with Michelangelo and ending with the Carracci brothers, Prof Ekserdjian surveyed nearly a century of Italian art, discussing ‘la crème de la crème’ of Renaissance draftsmanship. Each lecture focused on a single pictorial project, endeavouring to reconstruct its evolution through a close examination of the artist’s preparatory drawings.

The lectures were framed by a preliminary discussion on the history of drawings’ use in the process of art production, demonstrating that such an investigation would hardly be possible in Europe prior to the sixteenth century. For the second lecture focus was turned to some of the sketches and drawings created by Michelangelo for the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, examining a number of examples from the Ashmolean’s own collection. This lecture was especially interesting in its reconstruction of Michelangelo’s creative process. In fact, the sketches and letters considered by Prof Ekserdjian encouraged an understanding of the Chapel as the product of a collaboration between the artist and his patrons. This perhaps unsurprising conclusion was nevertheless intriguing in light of Michelangelo’s notorious ambition to be acknowledged as the sole author of his work.

FI photo 1© Department of History of Art

The significance of drawings in the professional relationship among artists and their patrons was not limited to Michelangelo. This is certainly the case for Correggio’s drawings of The Assumption of the Virgin, the fresco decorating the dome of the Cathedral of Parma. The preparatory sheets suggest that the dome had already been sketched by Correggio before he signed the contract, pointing to the crucial role played by drawings themselves in the dynamics of the artist’s recruitment. Parmigianino’s studies for his unfinished Madonna with the Long Neck, the subject of the fifth lecture, were equally informative in highlighting otherwise elusive details in the history of the work’s commission. Reflecting on the quality of the finish of Parmigianino’s preliminary drawings, Prof Ekserdjian compellingly suggested that the artist must have used them to illustrate the project to his patrons.

Despite placing emphasis on the collaborative nature of these artworks, Prof Ekserdjian did not undermine the importance of the individual artist, whose direct engagement was often seen as essential by the patrons themselves. Correggio’s contract for the Assumption of the Virgin, for example, specifies that all the figures included in the fresco had to be made exclusively by the artist. This attests to the perceived superiority of the artist in Renaissance Italy, but it also testifies to the technical difficulty of the project, which required an experienced artist to tackle. Correggio had to conduct extensive studies before assembling the composition of the fresco, which was to include numerous figures viewed from below.

FI photo 6© Department of History of Art

These studies lend themselves particularly well to illustrating how artists in general used sketches to negotiate the difficulty of engaging with curved surfaces, large scale or unusual viewing perspectives. A similar challenge was also faced by Annibale and Agostino Carracci in planning their monumental cycle for the curved ceiling of the Farnese Gallery, The Loves of the Gods. As Prof Ekserdjian argued in his final lecture, the Carracci brothers’ exploratory sketches show that they were well aware of the difficulties of transposing the pictorial composition onto the ceiling of one of the rooms in the Farnese Gallery. To solve the problem, they designed an architectural and sculptural grid framing the pictorial scenes of the fresco that would transpose well onto the curved ceiling.

The fact that artists were facing complex practical challenges is demonstrated not only by their studies on how to transpose drawings onto unusual surfaces, but also by the representational strategies they adopted while completing the drawings themselves. The sheets examined in the lectures often reflect the hierarchy of mediums used by artists in their drawings to distinguish final ideas from exploratory studies. Michelangelo, for example, relied on colour to draw such distinctions, using red chalk for finished works and black pen for initial sketches. Florentine artist Bronzino also adopted a somewhat hierarchical approach to mediums in his studies for the decoration of the private chapel of Duchess Eleonora of Toledo. Looking at the relatively few surviving sketches for this project alongside those made in preparation for other frescoes, Prof Ekserdjian observed that Bronzino used chalk for his finished drawings, while pen was used when the artist was ‘thinking out loud.’

All the aforementioned aspects of Renaissance drawing practices seem to point in a single direction. That is, they all bear eloquent witness to the assiduous studies, often impossible to detect in the final work, that lie at the root of these artworks’ creation. This is perhaps most evident in Raphael’s sketches for the Stanza della Segnatura, examined early in the series. Indeed, Raphael’s frantic drawings, in which numerous poses and combinations are considered by the artist before settling on a final arrangement, betray the amount of work behind his seemingly effortless frescoes. Using drawings as his starting point, Prof Ekserdjian proved that Raphael was so meticulous in his formal investigation that he even sketched the reliefs decorating the architectural setting of the School of Athens. Not unlike Raphael, the lesser known Federico Barocci also completed punctilious preparatory studies for his altarpiece of the Madonna del Popolo, now on display at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Over one-hundred sheets tracing the gestation of the altarpiece survive, mirroring the artist’s diligence in studying both the poses of the individual figures and the composition’s overall appearance.

slide53© Ashmolean Museum

The reasons behind artists’ alterations of their original plans were varied, ranging from purely aesthetic and formal motivations to changes endowed with deeper symbolic and political significance. Correggio’s changes to his depiction of the Virgin belong, at least in part, to the latter category. The artist’s studies for the Assumption reveal that the Virgin’s pose, which originally envisioned the Madonna with her legs spread and visible, had to be changed to avoid causing a scandal. Similarly, Raphael’s Poetry in the Parnassus fresco, originally drawn nude, was partially clothed in the fresco to elude the risk of seeming inappropriate to his contemporaries. Drawings thus give us information about how the artist modified his design in order to comply with contemporary norms of decorum regulating artistic representation.

In our opinion, the enormous potential of Prof Ekserdjian’s minute analysis of Renaissance drawings lies precisely in its ability to detect such differences and to hint at their politically and culturally charged nature. His largely formal investigation of the relation among the final piece and the artist’s preparatory sheets constitutes an intriguing counterpart to our own research, which pays greater attention to questions of gender, class and race in connection with Renaissance art. Nevertheless, this year’s Slade Lectures consistently raised points that may be interpreted under the lens of cultural studies. By way of example, the fact that the Carraccis first sketched a female model while developing a male character of the fresco may open up interesting questions related to the politics of gender inversion in art.

All in all, this year’s Slade Lectures offered interesting insights to an audience of students and experts in the field as well as Art History enthusiasts. Prof Ekserdjian can be sure to have passed on to the public very thorough yet accessible information on the making of some of the most iconic artworks of the Italian Renaissance, ultimately furthering our understanding of this complex historical period. He is to be truly congratulated for his fascinating analysis.


Professor David Ekserdjian is the Slade Professor 2017-18 at Oxford. He is Professor of Art and Film History at the University of Leicester. 

Please look out for a follow-up blog by Irene and Sofia on a student workshop held by Professor Ekserdjian in the Department of History of Art.

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Inside Christ Church Picture Gallery

By Jacqueline Thalmann, Curator of the Picture Gallery


Studying in Oxford also means access to a number of world class museums, collections and objects – some of them better known than others. The lesser known ones have the stigma of inaccessibility attached, but it is often just a matter of less prominent placement and publicity and the uncomfortable fact, voiced by Goethe, that we only see what we know.

Have you, for example, seen Giampietrino’s important copy of Leonardo’s Last Supper or Mark Wallinger’s impressive sculpture Y, both in Magdalen College, or the El Greco in the chapel of New College? These are overlooked objects that surround us – just waiting to be noticed and seen.

Christ Church Picture Gallery and its collection somewhat share this fate – even though to a much lesser degree. However, until the opening of Pembroke College’s art gallery in 2013 – showing their remarkable JCR’s collection of mainly British 20th century art – Christ Church was the only Oxford (and Cambridge) college with a dedicated and open-to-the-public gallery and a world-class collection to fill it. In fact, Christ Church can be proud to have opened the first permanent public art gallery in Britain. It opened its doors in 1768, with the first catalogue of the paintings being published in 1771. The Ashmolean did not yet have paintings and the Bodleian’s art collection consisted almost exclusively of portraits, whose main pull was to entertain the visitors with the likenesses of the famous and infamous sitters, rather than their artistic execution.

0803_pg-137view-to-drawings-galleryInterior Views of the Red Gallery and Picture Gallery © Christ Church Picture Gallery

But the ‘art scene’ in Oxford changed when Christ Church accepted an exceptional bequest of almost 2,000 drawings and over 200 paintings by one of its alumni, General John Guise (1682-1765). The collection consisted mainly of Italian Old Masters, including all of the famous names: Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carracci, Tintoretto, Veronese et al, especially among the drawings and some of the less famous and anonymous masters, whose works are no less enticing – visually and academically. The acceptance of this vast number of works also meant that Christ Church took on the responsibility of caring for them and showing them. They were not hung in private or semi-private college rooms, as would have been the easy option, but from the beginning, the idea was to share the works by displaying them together in a dedicated gallery space. This was ground-breaking: for the first time one could see paintings and drawings by the great Italian masters without having to travel to the continent or having to gain access to private residences and collections.

jbs-62v-webMichelangelo, Study for a left leg (JBS62v) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

John Guise’s awareness of the importance of the visual arts had been fuelled by one of his Oxford teachers, Dean Henry Aldrich, but also by writers and collectors like Jonathan Richardson who wrote in 1715:

” supposing two Men perfectly equal in all other respects, only one is conversant with the works of the best Masters […] and the other not; the former shall necessarily gain the Ascendant, and have nobler Ideas, […]; he shall be a more Ingenious, and a Better Man”

These thoughts have become even more poignant today in view of recent developments in art education. But let’s continue with the pioneering history of the collection: The then new Christ Church library, which was designed with an open loggia on the ground floor, was modified and the loggia was abandoned in favour of creating the necessary wall space to hang the incoming collection. This newly developed space was called the Picture Gallery (today it is known as the Lower Library) and was open to the public. The library itself (today known as the Upper Library), was the actual college library and only open to members of Christ Church and by permission. It is important to stress these distinctions in order to fully appreciate the sagacity and unprecedented act of – not only incorporating art into the Oxford education – but extending that to a wider audience.  We even have a caricature by Thomas Rowlandson of an early guide to the collection – Mrs Showwell (1807).

mrs-showwellThomas Rowlandson (after John Nixon), Mrs Showwell © Christ Church Picture Gallery

Establishing the gallery, attracted other gifts and bequests: The Continence of Scipio, an important early van Dyck, was added in 1809, bequeathed by Lord Frederick Campbell; two gifts of Early Italian paintings, by the pioneering collectors W T H Fox Strangways (1828) and Walter Savage Landor (1897) widened the scope of the collection and more recently we added a collection of British 18th century drinking glasses and Russian metal icons to it.

van Dyck, Anthony, 1599-1641; The Continence of ScipioAnthony van Dyck, The Continence of Scipio (JBS 245) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

The growing number of paintings and the library’s need for more space heightened the need for a new dedicated gallery building and this, the current building, sensitively designed by Powell and Moya, opened in 1968. It was almost too sensitively designed, without any façade or wall visible from the outside, the gallery sits, nearly undetectable, within the gardens and grounds of Christ Church. This outwards invisibility almost conceals its content: one of the most important Old Master collections in Britain. But, after finding the rabbit hole through which to squeeze (the entrance in Canterbury Quad), the visitor resurfaces in a light, modern and cleverly designed building to encounter some of the great masterpieces of Western art: be it Annibale Carracci’s Butcher’s Shop, a highly visceral, early (the first) monumental genre painting or the cerebral Wounded Centaur by Filippino Lippi, or Hugo van der Goes ‘religious close-up’ – or one of our drawings exhibitions (at the moment, until the 30th January 2017, Drawing in Red, an exploration of red chalk drawing).

Carracci, Annibale, 1560-1609; The Butcher's ShopAnnibale Carracci, The Butcher’s Shop (JBS181) © Christ Church Picture Gallery

Having said all this, if you have not been visited the Picture Gallery, yet, do drop by. You will find us at the back gate of Christ Church, off Oriel Square. The porter at the gate can point you in the right direction – and while there is a small entrance charge – current and former members of the University and Oxford Brookes have free access, just show your University card at the gallery entrance desk.


More information about the Picture Gallery can be found here.