The Department of Prints and Drawings in the National Gallery of Victoria possesses a small pen drawing1Pen and bistre: 20 x 21 cm, purchased through the Felton Bequest, 1923. In the lower right corner the collector’s marks of Jonathon Richardson Snr.(?), Lugt, 2184; William Esdaile, Lugt 2617; William Mayor, Lugt, 2799. (Gernsheim, Corpus photographicum. No. 65996). attributed to the Venetian-born artist Battista Franco (fig. 1). The drawing is unmistakably a study for a composition of an Adoration of the Magi. An elderly man kneels before the Madonna and Child and offers a vessel of some kind to the Child, who starts forward on Mary’s lap. While the Child reaches out with his right hand towards the Magus and his gift, Mary’s arms gently but firmly encircle his chest to restrain him, and the infant turns his head back to his mother’s face as if to ask her approval. 

It is now possible to place this sketch in the definitive context of Battista’s last commission, the decoration of the Grimani chapel in the church of S. Francesco della Vigna at Venice. 

Battista Franco (c.1510–61) had set off to Rome in his twentieth year to pursue an artistic career.2On Battista’s development, see, H. Voss, Die Malerei der Spätrenaissance in Rom und Florenz, Berlin 1920, 117 ff. A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana, IX, 6, 269–90. W. R. Rearick, ‘Battista Franco and the Grimani Chapel’, in, Saggi e memorie di storia dell’arte, 2, 1959, 105–40. S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500–1600, Harmondsworth 1970, 332–33. There he fell under the spell of Michelangelo and spent much of the next six years working solely as a draughtsman, specialising in the copying of Michelangelo’s works and of the antiquities of Rome. In 1536 he passed into the service of Duke Cosimo I in Florence, having only recently begun to practise as a painter. While maintaining his contacts in Rome, Battista worked mainly in Urbino in the second half of the 1540s, executing paintings in the Cathedral for Duke Guidobaldo and countless designs for the majolica produced at the Duke’s factory at Castel Durante. However, by 1552, when he painted the signed and dated Christ falling under the Cross, Battista had already begun to modify his dry, Roman style to accommodate the Venetian tastes of his north Italian patrons. By November 1554 Battista had returned to settle in his native Venice, no doubt thoroughly disillusioned by his failure to get a permanent foothold in central Italy. Vasari also gives us reason to think that persistent criticism of the shortcomings of Battista’s hard, exact, but essentially uninspired style may have contributed to his strategic withdrawal to Venice.3G. Vasari, Le Vite, ed. G. Previtali et al., Novara 1967, VI, 411–39, with comments throughout on the merits and faults of Battista’s works in drawing, engraving and painting. Ironically, it was the professional aura of Battista’s Roman commissions that recommended him to his Venetian patrons. When Cardinal Patriarch Giovanni Grimani, the learned and much-travelled collector of art, decided to create a sumptuous family chapel in S. Francesco della Vigna, probably in 1560, he commissioned Battista to paint the numerous frescoes. 

Vasari, in his biography of Battista Franco, tells us what transpired in this final chapter of Battista’s life: 

… Battista received from the Patriarch Grimani a commission to paint a chapel in S. Francesco della Vigna, namely the first on the left hand side as you enter into that church; and Battista set hand to the work accordingly, and began by preparing very rich compartments of stucco throughout the vaulting and figured histories in fresco, working with extraordinary diligence. But whether it happened through neglect of his health, or because Battista worked too much at frescoes, perhaps upon very fresh walls, for the villas of certain among the nobles, as I have heard, before he had completed the abovementioned chapel, he died and it was left unfinished.4ibid., 430–31. 

 

Vasari goes on to mention that Federigo Zuccaro, then only 19, but already experienced in the Roman style as an assistant to his brother Taddeo, was engaged to finish the chapel decorations, Federigo executed two frescoes, the Conversion of the Magdalene and the Raising of Lazarus, and finally the altarpiece painted on marble slabs, the Adoration of the Magi. The Adoration, which Federigo probably completed in September 1564, betrays the profound influence of Veronese on the young artist. In Professor Rearick’s words: 

Even the preliminary drawing in the Uffizi [fig. 2] differs from its counterparts for the Magdalene and Lazarus frescoes. Here a choice of pen and bistre wash heightened with white on pale green paper, creates a chiaroscuro effect not unlike Veronese’s celebrated drawings in the same medium. Gone is the stately classical setting, and in its place are picturesque ruins, rude beams, and a natural bridge through which a cavalcade approaches. Putti, of a type met repeatedly in the paintings of Veronese, flutter in past a large curtain, while below a homely group of the Madonna, Child, and St Joseph receive the Magi. In the painting [fig. 3] Federigo has been less willing to surrender to Venetian charms. Gone is the natural bridge and in its place appears a Roman arch. The Madonna is more stately and Raphaelesque, and the Magi less eccentric. But the rustic beams are still at the top of the scene, changed now from a round to a square shape, the putti and the cavalcade are still there, and the distant white clouded sky with a lone tree and silhouetted rider more than ever proclaim Zuccari’s debt to Veronese.5Rearick, art. cit., 136.

 

Thus the Grimani chapel was brought to a satisfactory completion, and the Adoration in particular won Federigo considerable praise. It was later engraved by J. Sadeler.6Voss, 452, note 1. 

Now it may have been reasonable to assume in any case that Battista Franco had at least begun work on preparatory studies for the Adoration altarpiece and the two frescoes before the winter of 1561. In his 1959 study on the Grimani chapel, Rearick pointed to a drawing in the Louvre which may be a study for the Lazarus.7Rearick, art. cit., 128, note 89. But it was only in 1976, in his excellent catalogue to the exhibition Tiziano e il disegno veneziano del suo tempo (Gabinetto del Disegni, Uffizi, Florence), that Rearick was able to identify beyond a shadow of doubt a preparatory drawing for the Adoration from Battista’s own hand (fig. 4). Rearick noted that Federigo’s preparatory study (fig. 2) is squared on the same proportional system, surely to facilitate the transference of the composition onto the finished bozzetto of Federigo’s Adoration in the Musée Wicar, Lille. Rearick went on to suggest that since both Battista’s and Federigo’s drawings (figs 2 and 4) have the scenes directed to the right and that since ‘they contain almost all the same elements disposed in such a similar way’, it is likely that the similarity can be attributed to the ‘precise iconological requests’ of the astute patron, Giovanni Grimani, who was noted for his minutely detailed instructions to artists.8W. R. Rearick, Tiziano e it disegno veneziano del suo tempo (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, XLV), Florence 1976, Catalogue No. 110, fig. 88: n. 1802 F. 

I have some reservations about this account, and these arise out of the observable differences between the Franco and Zuccaro compositions. To begin with, it should be noted that Battista’s drawing indicates only the lower half of his composition. The upper half, which may never be known to us, might have been quite different in conception to Federigo’s. Federigo’s drawing is considerably more finished and detailed than Battista’s. And, even more significantly, the iconography of his Adoration is different. Federigo uses the motif of the Madonna lifting forward the left leg of the Child so that the leader of the Magi can kiss his foot, having already placed his offering on the ground to the right. If Giovanni Grimani had issued detailed instructions to both Battista and Federigo in turn, then it is likely that he had changed his mind about the iconography. But it seems more probable that Grimani’s instructions simply called for an Adoration of the Magi, and that each artist was free to improvise. One would expect that a young artist like Federigo would have taken account of Battista’s surviving studies to provide a starting-point for a composition in keeping with the patron’s previous wishes. Yet Federigo would certainly have known that Battista had a poor reputation for invenzione, and would have been eager to demonstrate his own abilities in composition. It is fair to assume that he had his chance with the Grimani Adoration and that he made a success of it. 

At this point the significance of the Melbourne drawing becomes apparent. While clearly more advanced than a primo pensiero, the drawing is nevertheless sufficiently close to the Uffizi study (fig. 2) to indicate, as Vasari noted, that Battista’s approach to draughtsmanship was meticulous, even laboured. It may also be reasonable to deduce from the evidence of these two drawings that it was Battista’s practice to settle on a compositional idea and to pursue it through to the final drawings without substantial revision. There are, however, enough minor differences between the Melbourne and Uffizi studies to demonstrate that Battista’s inventive process was not without a certain flexibility. The sketching of the Christ Child in the Melbourne study is particularly instructive in this respect. The strongest contours locate the Child in a dynamic relationship with the Madonna and, potentially, with the Magus kneeling before him. At this stage Battista obviously intended to suggest a tender communication between the Madonna and Child regarding the acceptance of the Magus’s gift. But the fainter, looping contours about the Child’s head reveal that Battista was already considering the solution of the Child’s pose that was arrived at in the Uffizi drawing, where he directs his attention solely to the Magus and his gift. In the Melbourne drawing the Child is also marginally further forward on the Madonna’s lap, and of slightly heavier build, tending to increase the impression of the Child’s precariousness and potential movement. 

It is fascinating to watch how Battista transforms the nervous meanders of the pen on the Madonna’s drapery in the Melbourne sketch into the smoothly-furrowed patches of shadow in the Uffizi drawing. To see how the staccato, curving lines which define the lower contour of the Magus’s right thigh under his drapery, and the incisive stroke that forms the top of the thigh, are both dissolved away in the later drawing. Even more informative of Battista’s stylistic dilemma – that of the artist trained in the Roman manner but working for patrons with a Venetian slant on central Italian style – are the changes that Battista makes in the Madonna’s head. The instinctively drawn Roman profile of the Madonna in the Melbourne drawing, betraying our artist’s training in the school of Raphael, is metamorphosed in the Uffizi sheet into the characteristic physiognomy of Veronese’s women. 

Rearick has correctly identified Battista’s Uffizi Adoration study as an important document of the artist’s late style, around 1560–1.9ibid., 154: ‘… I, Adorazione di Battista Franco presenta tutti i caratteri del suo stile tardo: scultorea ed austera nella massiccia Madonna, pittoresca nelle figure del Magi allungate, molto controllata nei valori atmosferici delle stesure di bistro e incisiva nella linea filiforme e calligrafica.’. The Melbourne drawing too, adds a dimension to our understanding of Battista’s technical and creative activity in the last months of his life. It reveals to us an artist who was justly regarded by contemporaries as a superior draughtsman who could, in the privacy of his sketchbook, contemplate an invention for the Adoration of the Magi that was charming and deeply-felt, and yet abandon it in favour of the conventional schema we see in the Uffizi drawing.10Battista used the motif of the dynamically active Christ Child on the Madonna’s lap in at least two other earlier drawings: see K. T. Parker, Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum, II, Italian Schools, Oxford 1956, No. 233; A. Stix and L. Frǒhlich-Bum, Beschreibendes: Katalog der Handzeichnungen in der Graphischen Sammlung Albertina, I, Vienna 1926, No. 140. Battista doubtless acquired the motif from his study of Raphael’s and Giulio Romano’s Holy Families. The Melbourne drawing also confirms the persistence of Battista’s youthful drawing technique in his final years, a fact that one might easily overlook in studying only the Uffizi sheet with its overt Venetian tendencies. The fine calligraphic meanders on the Madonna’s drapery and the fragile quality of the lines that circumscribe her form take us back to the draughtsmanship of Battista’s Roman years (see fig. 5), when he created a rich corpus of drawings of the classical remains in Rome. The Melbourne study is a poignant reminder that the most personal convictions of artists have always been vitiated by the creative demands of their patrons. 

 

Postscript 

A further preparatory study by Franco for his Grimani Chapel Adoration came to my attention when the present article was already in press. It is a drawing in a private collection in Paris, which depicts two alternative groupings of figures for the central part of the composition. It shows that Franco considered two different poses for the kneeling Magus, and thus can be regarded as an earlier stage in the evolution of the composition than the Melbourne drawing. The Paris drawing is described as follows: “Feuille d’étude avec groupes de personnages”. Its connexion with the Grimani Adoration seems not to have been noticed. See Dessins francais et italiens du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle dans les collections privèes francaises, Decembre 1971, Galerie Claude Aubry, Paris, No. 52. I hope to publish an article on this drawing in the near future. 

Robert W. Gaston, Senior Lecturer in Art History, LaTrobe University (in 1977). 

Acknowledgements 

I should like to express my gratitude to Sonia Dean and Nicholas Draffin, whose generosity and help have made this study possible. 

 

Notes

1             Pen and bistre: 20 x 21 cm, purchased through the Felton Bequest, 1923. In the lower right corner the collector’s marks of Jonathon Richardson Snr.(?), Lugt, 2184; William Esdaile, Lugt 2617; William Mayor, Lugt, 2799. (Gernsheim, Corpus photographicum. No. 65996). 

2             On Battista’s development, see, H. Voss, Die Malerei der Spätrenaissance in Rom und Florenz, Berlin 1920, 117 ff. A. Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana, IX, 6, 269–90. W. R. Rearick, ‘Battista Franco and the Grimani Chapel’, in, Saggi e memorie di storia dell’arte, 2, 1959, 105–40. S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy 1500–1600, Harmondsworth 1970, 332–33. 

3             G. Vasari, Le Vite, ed. G. Previtali et al., Novara 1967, VI, 411–39, with comments throughout on the merits and faults of Battista’s works in drawing, engraving and painting. 

4             ibid., 430–31. 

5             Rearick, art. cit., 136. 

6             Voss, 452, note 1. 

7             Rearick, art. cit., 128, note 89. 

8             W. R. Rearick, Tiziano e it disegno veneziano del suo tempo (Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, XLV), Florence 1976, Catalogue No. 110, fig. 88: n. 1802 F. 

9             ibid., 154: ‘… I, Adorazione di Battista Franco presenta tutti i caratteri del suo stile tardo: scultorea ed austera nella massiccia Madonna, pittoresca nelle figure del Magi allungate, molto controllata nei valori atmosferici delle stesure di bistro e incisiva nella linea filiforme e calligrafica.’ 

10           Battista used the motif of the dynamically active Christ Child on the Madonna’s lap in at least two other earlier drawings: see K. T. Parker, Catalogue of the Collection of Drawings in the Ashmolean Museum, II, Italian Schools, Oxford 1956, No. 233; A. Stix and L. Frǒhlich-Bum, Beschreibendes: Katalog der Handzeichnungen in der Graphischen Sammlung Albertina, I, Vienna 1926, No. 140. Battista doubtless acquired the motif from his study of Raphael’s and Giulio Romano’s Holy Families.