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.
© 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.
© 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.
© 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.