This previously anonymous study is an important and vital addition to his corpus of drawings, and one which can be definitively linked to an existing and documented commission. Moreover, it is extraordinary that this preparatory drawing is fully described as the work of Rosso Fiorentino by the painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) in his life of a lesser known Aretine painter, Giovanni Antonio Lappoli (1492-1552).1 According to Vasari, Lappoli seems to have benefited during his artistic career from the help of several distinguished and talented friends, among them not only Rosso, but also Pontormo, Perino del Vaga, Giulio Romano and Parmigianino.2 Vasari and Lappoli were both natives of Arezzo, so it is perhaps not surprising that the famous biographer wanted to promote the cultural and artistic life of his city by dedicating a significant amount of text to a detailed account of the life of a relatively minor artist. Vasari would also use his account of Lappoli as an excuse to record some of his own works in their hometown.
The first altarpiece by Lappoli mentioned by Vasari in the Vite is a Visitation, a panel commissioned by a wealthy Aretine citizen, Cipriano d’Anghiari, for his family chapel in the Badia of Sante Flora e Lucilla, in Arezzo (fig. 1).3 The panel was completed by Lappoli with a lunette representing God the Father, now lost. The altarpiece remains to this day in the same church, though it is likely to have been moved from its original chapel.
Shortly after the election of the new Medici Pope, Clement VII (1523-1534), Rosso went to Rome in the hope of receiving some significant commissions, now that a Florentine pontiff was in power. On his way he stopped in Arezzo and stayed with his friend Giovanni Antonio Lappoli. Vasari writes: ’Passando intanto per Arezzo il Rosso che se n’andava a Roma, ed alloggiando con Giovanni Antonio suo amicissimo, intesa l’opera che aveva tolta a fare, gli fece come volle il Lappoli, uno schizzetto tutto d’ignudi molto bello: perchè messo Giovann’Antonio mano all’ opera, imitando il disegno del Rosso, fece della detta tavola la Visitazione di Santa Elisabetta, e nel mezzo tondo di sopra Dio Padre……. ‘ (‘On his way to Rome he stopped in Arezzo and stayed with his very close friend Giovanni Antonio, and having understood the requirements of the commission, Rosso did as requested by Lappoli a small sketch of naked figures, very beautiful: starting the work and following the drawing Giovann’Antonio executed the panel with the Visitation of St. Elizabeth, and in the lunette God the Father with some putti….’).4
The beautiful study with ‘ignudi molto bello’, described in the passage above, was believed by scholars to be lost, but can now unquestionably be identified as the present drawing. It is extraordinary that it has survived and is preserved in such good condition, despite its importance being unrecognized for so long. Two factors may have contributed to its preservation: it bears on the verso an old attribution to Michelangelo (probably 17th century), and it has stayed in the same family since the 18th century (see Provenance, and below).
The drawing is delicately executed in black chalk and handled with great sensitivity. It conveys a sense of energy in the posed naked figures illuminated by a raking light, falling from the right, enhanced by the skilful use of chiaroscuro. The black chalk contours are in places sharper and more incisive, while a soft shadowing suggests subtle variations in the bodies and in the space around them. The ten-figure composition, almost square in format, is completed by an elegant architectural setting. The scene evolves mostly on the steps outside a classical building, and the focus is on the two main central figures: The Virgin Mary and the kneeling St. Elisabeth meeting in front of the doorway decorated by a marble architrave. Two openings – possibly windows – are suggested both sides of the central entrance. The architectural setting has been partly indented with a stylus and the sheet is squared with black chalk and stylus for transfer.
Although Lappoli largely followed Rosso’s design very accurately, his painted altarpiece does show certain interesting and important changes. These must have been at the behest of the patron Cipriano d’Anghiari, who also surely requested some of the striking compositional elements that are present in both drawing and painting, such as the prominent presence of the figure of King David in the immediate right foreground. The woman and child seated in the left foreground in the drawing are, however, substituted, in the painting, by the figure of Mary Magdalene holding her ointment jar. The two pairs of figures to the left and right of the central scene (St. Joseph with a maidservant carrying a bundle on her head, and on the opposite side two unidentifiable female figures) remain almost unchanged in the painted version. Moreover, while in the background of the drawing we see emerging from the doorway another unidentifiable female figure, in the painting there is a Saint who accompanies a man in contemporary dress, bearing a sword, possibly, as David Franklin has suggested, the donor with his namesake saint, the Bishop St. Ciprian.5
This work must have been commissioned just before Rosso’s presence in Arezzo in 1524 and it was completed two years later in 1526. In 1997, David Franklin published new documents relating to this commission (see Literature) which provided us with more specific dates for the construction of the chapel and for the completion of Lappoli’s altarpiece and lunette. On 10 October 1521, a site for the chapel dedicated to the Visitation was conceded to Cipriano d’Anghiari by the Benedictine monks of Sante Flora e Lucilla. Vasari informs us that the architectural setting for Lappoli’s panel and lunette was executed in stone, and was designed by Guglielmo Marcillat, a French artist better known as a stained-glass painter.6 Moreover, the biographer quotes the price of ’cento scudi’ (one hundred florins) to be paid to Lappoli for his altarpiece, though this information seems to be contradicted by other documents published by Franklin. In fact, one of these, dated 19 March 1526, elects two experts to establish a final price for Lappoli’s completion of the painted work in the chapel: Guglielmo Marcillat and Domenico Pecori. From this document and another, written a few days later, which records the assessment of the two artists, we are aware that the altarpiece and its lunette were completed by March 1526.7
Rosso would return to Arezzo in 1528, on that occasion staying in the house of another young painter, Benedetto Spadari. According to Vasari, with the help of Spadari and his old friend Lappoli, Rosso received, on the 24th of November, the commission for a series of frescoes for the atrium of the Aretine church of Santa Maria delle Lagrime. In relation to the preparation of these frescoes – never executed – Vasari mentions another preparatory drawing with nudes, ‘studio d’ignudi’, now lost.8 It is possible that Rosso was already in Arezzo in March of that year, in connection with his attempt to win this commission, and met the young Vasari for the first time. In September 1529 he left Arezzo during a rebellion against the Florentines, who ruled the city, and fled to Borgo San Sepolcro.
Not long afterwards, Rosso was called to the service of the French King François 1er, moving to Fontainebleau by November 1530. He would never return to Italy and his style would shape the artistic future of France. An accomplished and innovative master, he was well placed to satisfy the taste and ambitions of such a Royal patron, and his ten years in France, before his death in 1540, were to be the most productive of his career.
The reappearance of this rare preparatory study is extremely instructive, and adds significantly to our understanding of Rosso's working method. It is also a testament to Rosso’s reverence and admiration for the work of Pontormo, in particular the artist’s fresco of the same subject in the atrium of the church of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, executed around a decade earlier, in 1514-1516. The drawing is also a striking record of the standard Renaissance practice of studying figures initially in the nude, and only clothing them at a later stage. The extreme delicacy of the execution, and the subtle use of light to modulate the forms of the naked bodies, in contrast to the sharper and more angular lines with which they are accented, demonstrate Rosso’s incredible skill as a draughtsman, and anticipate his extraordinary instinct for colours, which are so very sharp and vivid in his paintings.
What is perhaps most extraordinary about his drawings, so clearly visible in the present sheet, is Rosso’s analytical eye and his exposure of human truth through close observation, expressed with clarity and combined with the most sophisticated and elegant use of the medium. Vasari, in Rosso’s life, records that there was hardly a day that passed without Rosso drawing from the nude model, but unfortunately almost all of his graphic work has been lost over the intervening centuries.9
This sheet was acquired by the artist A.C. Hauck (1742-1801) and formed part of his collection of old master drawings. At his death the drawings were inherited by the painter's family with the contents of his studio, thereafter passing by descent through the generations to the present owner. Hauck was born in Mannheim, where he received art lessons from his father J.J. Hauck (c.1694-c.1769). He worked after 1756 mainly as a portrait painter in several cities, including Krefeld and ‘s-Hertogenbosch, before establishing himself in Rotterdam. In 1778 he was nominated as instructor to the art society and drawing academy “Hierdoor tot Hooger”, and it is likely that Hauck used his own collection of drawings to teach his students.
1. See Literature; for a more readily available edition, see G. Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti Pittori scultori ed architettori…., ed. G. Milanesi, Florence 1881, vol. VI, p. 9
2. Ibid., p. 10
3. Ibid., p. 9
4. See note 1
5. Franklin, op. cit., p. 199
6. G. Vasari, op. cit., vol. IV, Florence, 1879, p. 429; Marcillat is first documented in Arezzo on 31 October 1516, designing the stained-glass windows for the Cathedral.
7. Franklin, op. cit., pp. 197-9
8. Vasari, op. cit., vol. V, p. 164
9. Ibid., vol. V, p. 166
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