This extremely rare colored drawing is preparatory for one of the four scenes from the legend of St Blaise which Bartolomeo Montagna painted in the apse of the chapel dedicated to the Saint, in the church of SS. Nazzaro and Celso, Verona (fig. 1). This cycle of frescoes was executed in 1504-06. All the frescoes, including the Beheading of St. Blaise, are in a damaged condition and seem to have been so for quite a long time.
The present sheet seems to be an elaborately executed modello for one of the compositions in the cycle. Although the condition of the fresco makes a precise reading of its details difficult, there are clearly numerous and important differences between the present drawing and the final work. Using the photograph in Venturi, Storia dell' Arte Italiana (the most legible of the available sources), the most striking of these differences are the following: in the fresco the hands of Saint Blaise are joined in prayer; the position of the sword and the arm of the executioner have been moved forward to avoid being too close to the horseman behind to the left; the head of the horse to the right is turned and rider's sword lies along his left leg; there are two decapitated heads, not one, and they lie further to the left. There are also many small changes evident in the group of soldiers and onlookers behind the main figures, and the architecture too has been significantly revised. In the drawing, the procession of dignitaries coming out of the main gate of the castle is more prominent. Also, in the drawing there is a clearer understanding and description of the rocky ledge in the foreground where the execution takes place.
Borenius, who first published this drawing, wrote: ' I think it is quite possible that it may be a preparatory study for the fresco, from which it differs in so many respects that it is hard to imagine that it could be a copy'. Although Puppi, who never saw the drawing in the original, described it as possibly a copy in his 1962 monograph, at the time of the Venice exhibition of 1980, scholars agreed with the original opinion of Borenius, that this is a unique example of a modello by Montagna himself for his Verona fresco. On a smaller scale, the stylistic details of the drawing also support the attribution, and the rather finished figures in the foreground are drawn with the point of the brush in many parallel strokes in a manner very characteristic of Montagna's graphic style.
Though very consistent in terms of handling with the small number of surviving drawings by Montagna, this drawing is without parallel in the artist's surviving work in being a rather finished modello for a fresco. It is therefore a very important addition to our understanding both of this important artist's working methods, and of the practice of making modelli and presentation drawings in the Veneto at the very beginning of the 16th century.
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