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Before they painted, they drew

27 November 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees an Oxford show that is bound for Florence

© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

At the Ashmoleum: Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697-1768), An Island in the Lagoon

At the Ashmoleum: Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697-1768), An Island in the Lagoon

FOR the latest exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Catherine Whistler has assembled more than 100 works on paper from about 1500 to the establishment of the Venetian Academy in 1750. To supplement the museum’s own holdings, she has brought in works from Christ Church Picture Gallery and, more significantly, the Uffizi in Florence, where this exhibition will feature next summer as the main show in the Prints and Drawings department, the Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi.

Dr Marzia Faietti was excited that the Oxford exhibition was one of three currently that showcase works from the Florentine collections, the others being at the Frick in New York and in Rome (Raphael, Parmigianino, and Barocci). This developing policy for allowing the holdings of the Polo Museale Fiorentino to be more widely seen also contributed drawings by Vincente Carducho to a spectacular exhibition in the Spanish National Library in Madrid this summer.

In a famous canard, the Tuscan writer and artist Giorgio Vasari damned Venetian art for being all about colour at the expense of drawing, disegno. As Faietti shows in her catalogue article, this was a deliberate later misunderstanding of the intention of Vasari’s philosophical rhetoric when his main purpose, beyond celebrating the lives of Tuscan painters, had been to promote the newly established Florentine Academy (1563).

To refute this claim, taken up by Sir Joshua Reynolds publicly (although he owned several drawings himself) and still voiced by art historians, Dr Whistler features some four dozen artists from Venice and the Veneto, many of them members of the same family, among them the Bassanos, Carpaccios, Guardis, Tintorettos, Tiepolos, and Veroneses, fathers and sons, cousins and brothers.

She also shows just how much painting, very much run as a family business, was grounded in a shared knowledge of making marks on paper and keeping such drawings in the studio as works of reference. At one point, a wall of drawings by Jacopo Tintoretto (1518/9-94) invites us to see how he used wax models suspended in a light box and casts from the antique to copy down difficult poses.

The exhibition bursts into life with one of Titian’s surviving sketches, a study of a young woman (Uffizi). With her demure eyes cast to one side, she might be a study for a Magdalene, as it is unclear what is in her hand. This bravura work has been linked to his paintings of the years 1510-12, while his pen-and-ink drawing of St Jerome against a lagoon background is a slightly earlier work.

It was made in response to the calligraphic detail achieved by his contemporary Giulio Campagnola (c.1482- after 1517) in drawing landscapes, and can be dated to before 1508. Titian’s own work was widely circulated in an engraving made from it by Marcantonio Raimondi, but is a delicious piece in its own right, nervously playing with light values as the scholar saint sits reading.

Years later, in the 1570s and 1580s, Odorico Pillone (or possibly his son Giorgio) commissioned Titian’s cousin, Cesare Vecellio (c.1532-1601), to decorate the fore-edges of a substantial number of codices in the famous family library at Belluno, in northern Italy, with paintings related to the content of the incunabula and later books. In all, Vecellio painted some 154 volumes, of which 18 were on show at Frieze Masters (Dr Jörn Günther Rare Books AG). Jerome’s pose clearly derives from the one that his cousin Titian had drawn.

Titian (c.1485/90-1576) could master violence, and the exhibition includes important studies for the figure of the executioner in The Martyrdom of St Laurence (Gesuiti in Venice, a picture that has recently been cleaned magnificently) and A Horse and Rider falling which had been owned by Nicholas Lanier court musician to Charles I. A study for the scene in Gethsemane painted for Philip II in 1559 is both tense and tender in its simplicity.

For the first time, two drawings in black chalk with brown washes on blue paper by Jacopo Bassano (c.1510/15-92), of the Virgin Annunciate (Christ Church) and the Archangel Gabriel (Uffizi), designs probably for Scuola di San Paolo in his native home town in January 1569, are side by side again, having been dispersed in 1651. The flowing drapery of both figures suggests something of the liveliness of the encounter of the Messenger with the Word-bearer.

On a single sheet from the Ashmolean Jacopo Palma, known as Palma Giovane (1548-1628), shows us his working method in pen and ink. He first sketched a naked female figure seated. She turns her head to look back over her shoulder. Then, in rather more detail, he has shown a figure, possibly his wife, sitting after a bath occupying herself in the humdrum task of clipping her toe nails. It is a rare insight into the sheer ordinariness of living in Venice.

In the bottom left-hand corner, he then squares up the final composition, which would become Bathsheba watched by David, a painting of the 1610s which is now in the Accademia di San Luca in Rome.

With the coming of the Baroque, the mantle of drawing passed to Bologna and Rome, although there were some interesting artists still working in Venice, among their work a drawing by Gaspare Diziani from Belluno for a cycle of the life of St Benedict in the church of St Anne in Venice.

The last drawings bring us back to some of the big names like Tiepolo, Canaletto, and Guardi, from the age of the Grand Tour. Dazzling works on paper were now as much sought after as canvases, and the Venetians were quick to supply the demand.

Giovanni Battista Piazzetta was the first director of the newly formed Academy of Fine Arts in Venice and his drawings alongside Tiepolo’s, and sometimes confused with them, show that his life drawing was central to the teaching and training of a new generation of artists who might work independently and no longer grow into the family business.

Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) returned again and again to the narrative themes of the nativity and, in a black chalk and brown ink sketch for The Holy Family (Ashmolean), St John the Baptist stands behind the Virgin and Child as a man seated in front of them (Joseph) raises his hands in prayer. Shimmering angels make a slightly off-centre appearance at one corner.

The same angelic messengers kneel in adoration before the Holy Family as they take their rest beneath a palm tree on the flight into Egypt in a deliriously simple and overpowering work currently with Le Claire Kunst in Hamburg, and shown at Frieze Masters. It comes from the same album as the Oxford drawing that the artist had passed to the library of Santa Maria della Salute (where his son Giuseppe Maria was a priest), when he left Venice to go to Spain, and later came to be owned by the sculptor Antonio Canova.

The contemporary artist Jenny Saville, who first came to know the Ashmolean collection as a child when visiting an uncle and aunt, and who now lives in Oxford, has been invited to respond. The third gallery offers an extraordinarily rhapsodic response that one might expect to pay good money to see at the Gagosian Gallery. Hers is a considered response, and sent me back several times to look at the drawings that had inspired and encouraged her.


“Titian to Canaletto: Drawing in Venice” is at the Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 10 January 2016. Phone 01865 278000. www.ashmolean.org 

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