Grey Matters

Giorgio Vasari (Arezzo 1511–1574 Florence)
The Adoration of the Shepherds, ca. 1540-45
black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash / a sketch, by another hand, of a Martyrdom of Saint Catherine, in black chalk (verso), ca. 1540-45
7 1/2 x 6 inches
191 x 151 mm
225,000 USD

As yet unpublished, this beautifully preserved drawing conveys an excellent idea of Giorgio Vasari’s drawing style, technique, and type of subject matter that he concerned himself with in his early career. His hand had already been recognized at least by the early nineteenth century when the drawing was owned by the distinguished London collector William Esdaile (fig. 1), and most likely even earlier when it was in the collection of Sir Thomas Lawrence. It was the second of two drawings given to Vasari in Esdaile’s 1840 sale catalogue. The first, a Holy Family, remains untraced. Unbeknownst to him, however, Esdaile also owned several other drawings by Vasari. These include lot 170, sold on the basis of an attribution by John Barnard, a previous owner, as Francesco Rondani, a follower of Correggio. Today in the British Museum (fig. 2), the drawing is in fact a study for Vasari’s now-lost painting commissioned for the christening of Francesco de’ Medici in Florence in 1541.[1] Further Vasari drawings from Esdaile’s collection are the Allegory of Justice in the William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley, which remains untraced in his sale catalogue,[2] and a large, unusually Michelangelesque Holy Family, exclusively drawn in pen and ink, now at Vienna.[3] The latter drawing cannot be linked to a lot in the Esdaile sale with certainty either but it may possibly be identified as lot 45, which was sold as Michelangelo (The Holy Family, a grand design in pen).

Fig. 1 George Sharples, Portrait of William Esdaile, pastel, engraved 1826. National Portrait Gallery, London NPG 4660
Fig. 2 Giorgio Vasari, The Baptism of Christ, pen and brown ink drawing. The British Museum, London 1895,0915.745

The drawing presents a variation on one of Vasari’s most successful compositions, which the artist developed early in his career. It can be dated to circa 1540-45 when Vasari’s style as a painter and draughtsman reached early maturity. Its composition is closely related to the altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds, or Natività, as Vasari calls it in his account book, painted in the summer of 1538 for the church of SS. Donato e Ilarione in the monastery at Camaldoli (fig. 3-4).[4] Vasari spent the summer months of 1537-40 in the mountainous forests of Camaldoli to escape the scorching heat of Florence. One painting was finished in each of the first two summers, but the third, the much larger Deposition from the Cross, required two summers to complete. By the summer of 1538, when Vasari conceived the Nativity, he had just returned from a six-month stay in Rome, during which time he and his friend Francesco Salviati studied extensively the works of Raphael, of his school, and of the antique. This stay had a profound influence on Vasari’s style, and its effects are immediately observable in his subsequent works.

Fig. 3 Camaldoli, Poppi
Fig. 4 Giorgio Vasari, Adoration of the Shepherds. Camaldoli, Poppi
Fig. 5 Giulio Romano, Pala Fugger (Holy Family). Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome

This newly discovered drawing shares with the Camaldoli composition the main protagonists in the center and the arched all’antica architecture in the background, but it reduces the number of shepherds on the left to two and omits the women at right. The Virgin is shown in adoration of the Christ Child, rather than lifting a veil over Him, as in the Camaldoli painting. The idea of the veil was an adaptation from Raphael’s Madonna di Loreto of about 1510 (Musée Condé, Chantilly), then fresh in Vasari’s memory since it hung in the church of S. Maria del Popolo, Rome. Vasari offers a precise description of the Madonna in his Life of Raphael, praising it for its somma bellezza, allegrezza e pietà.[5] The all’antica architecture with the prominent arch and antique sculptures in the backgrounds of the Camaldoli painting and, with variations, in our drawing, is Vasari’s take on another famous painting of the subject in Rome, Giulio Romano’s Pala Fugger in S. Maria dell’Anima of circa 1520 (fig. 5), a work Vasari praised in great detail in the Lives.[6] The kneeling shepherd at left in the Camaldoli painting is based on the figure of Moses in Raphael’s fresco of Moses and the Burning Bush on the ceiling of the Stanza d’Eliodoro in the Vatican.

The composition of the Camaldoli Nativity proved to be a great success, and Vasari subsequently painted several variants. Four years later, in September 1542, just after his return from an eight-month stay at Venice, Vasari painted a fresco of the Adoration of the Shepherds for the convent of S. Margherita in Arezzo, today known only from a photo. Here, Vasari reversed the direction of the composition, reduced the number of figures but increased their size. He also increased the size of the architecture. A preparatory drawing for the fresco is in the collection of Jean Bonna, Geneva (fig. 6).[7] It is executed in exactly the same technique and style as the present drawing, which shows the composition in reverse, with several differences in the architecture and the individual poses. It was most likely made at the same moment and for the S. Margherita commission. Another drawing of the subject, in the Louvre, but executed in a more elaborate technique on blue paper, may also have been made for that fresco (fig. 7).[8] Subsequently, in his monumental rendering of the subject on the inside of the organ shutters of Naples Cathedral in 1546, Vasari reused the figure of the kneeling Virgin in our drawing almost identically except that she is holding a veil over the child, as in the Camaldoli altarpiece.[9] Vasari used a variant of the Camaldoli composition for his monumental altarpiece now in the Chazen Museum of Art, Madison, as late as about 1570.[10]

Fig. 6 Giorgio Vasari, Adoration of the Shepherds, Jean Bonna Collection, Geneva
Fig. 3 Giorgio Vasari, Adoration of the Shepherds, Musée du Louvre, Paris INV2086-recto

The drawing displays Vasari’s typically fluid handling of the pen, over a slight sketch in black chalk, with broadly applied dark-brown wash to achieve a lively distribution of the light. Drawings close in style and technique include the Allegory of Justice at Chatsworth (1543), a Madonna and Child with Saints in the British Museum, the Descent from the Cross at Weimar (1543), and the study for a Saint Jerome in the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome, of about 1540-45.[11] ❖

Florian Härb

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Installation view of Grey Matters at Nicholas Hall, 2021
Left: Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgio Vasari; center and right: Striding Nude with Arms Raised, A Standing Figure of a Young Boy, both by Jacopo da Pontormo

Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), London (Lugt 2445)

William Esdaile (1758–1837), London (Lugt 2617, partially erased), his inscription, 1814 (WE) P108 N450II

His sale, London, Christie and Manson, 18 June 1840, lot 116

Private collection

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