This drawing is the work of a very ambitious and talented young artist, highly influenced by the styles of Pinturicchio, Signorelli and Perugino, and it is a rare example of a sheet datable to the late 1400s. It is a detailed compositional study of a group of female figures with their children for a Massacre of the Innocents,
but the draftsman has intentionally left out all the male figures from the scene. Although an unusual approach, it is plausible that the artist intended to study at first the role played by the victims of the massacre, women and children, and then to integrate the male figures at a second stage. Clearly he emphasized the drama of the event by including the strong image of a woman screaming, kneeling in isolation, at the extreme right of the composition. This naturalistic image, worthy of the monumentality of Giotto or Masaccio and the pathos of Donatello, contrasts with and balances the rest of the composition. She bears echoes of the work of Luca Signorelli, an influence which has been detected by a number of scholars who have studied the drawing recently. Signorelli's style could easily have played an important role in the formation of this young master.
The preliminary study appears to have been drawn first in black chalk and then delicately and systematically finished in pen and ink. Several interesting pentimenti
in black chalk can be clearly seen: first of all on the head and on the right foot of the woman towards the center to the immediate left of the kneeling female figure, holding a baby. In this group of mother and child, the artist has chosen not to rework part of her right arm in pen and ink. Her baby is sketched quickly although the outlines have been reinforced with pen and brown ink, a technique often used by Perugino and by the young Raphael. Around the same infant there are some discarded preliminary thoughts in black chalk, now not clearly legible. Other changes are visible in the two background figures to the left: on the head of the child of the standing mother closer to the center, and on the flowing clothing of the female figure nearby. The number of pentimenti
are a clear indication that the artist continued to make changes to his composition in black chalk, only finalizing in pen and ink his final thoughts. He seems particularly interested in the rendering of the intricacy of the draperies, introducing an abundance of occhiellature,
especially in the flowing dresses of two women in the foreground to the left.
This long and narrow sequence of figures could have been a preliminary study for a predella
panel. The predelle
played a fundamental part in the narrative of the majority of altarpieces of the time.
The pen and ink line to the far right, just over the elbow of the screaming woman, seems to be an indication of the end of the composition. It is also plausible that this scene was to be integrated into the background of a painting; see for instance the Massacre of the Innocents
by Bartolomeo di Giovanni in the left background of Domenico Ghirlandaio's altarpiece the Adoration of the Magi,
painted in the early 1480s, for the Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence.1
The innovations achieved by Perugino at the end of the 15th century were well understood by his contemporaries and he was regarded as one of the best, if not the best, painter in Italy, even if this fame was brief and his merits were soon overshadowed by the incredible and rapid achievements of the young Raphael. Perugino's style spread quickly, creating a modern devotional language and a visual delicacy and elegance of composition, and this new artistic formula was extremely influential on many artists of the period. Although a lot of artistic innovations were transmitted from Florence to Umbria in the second half of the 15th century, and Perugino himself kept two workshops actively functioning at the same time in Perugia and in Florence, the present drawing retains a strong Umbrian character. The draftsman of this sheet seems also to be quite strongly indebted to Pinturicchio, a native of Perugia, an influential artistic personality who was one of Perugino's collaborators in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. Not surprisingly, in the past this was considered the work of Raphael, as is demonstrated by the old attribution boldly inscribed on the recto, while by the 19th century the collector P. Collin seems to have agreed with the opinion of others that it was by Pinturicchio, as he writes on the verso.2
It is worth noting that although the draftsman has absorbed the lesson of Perugino and strong elements from both Pinturicchio and Signorelli, he has retained a very personal character, detectable in the individuality of the facial features of his female figures. He is also capable of creating an elaborate and powerful composition which conveys both the narrative and the emotion of its subject. An attribution to Girolamo Genga (1476-1551) has been suggested and should be seriously considered. Genga, a very talented artist, painter and architect from Urbino, was most probably involved in the workshop of Giovanni Santi, the father of Raphael, and learned from both Signorelli and Perugino, but unfortunately very little has survived of his work before 1500.
1. Jean K. Cadogan, Domenico Ghirlandaio, New Haven and London 2000, reproduced p. 163, fig. 173
2. See Provenance