Martyrdom: Part 2 – The Engraving

In Part 1 of this blog post, I told you about a painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by the obscure Renaissance artist Giuliano Bugiardini. And I told you that I recently bought a drawing which replicates the composition of the painting.

If you have read Part 1 (and if not, I recommend that you do so right now!), you already know what the drawing looks like, but I haven’t yet provided a physical description.

The image is 366 mm tall by 248 mm wide, drawn on a sheet of laid paper 404 mm by 276 mm. There is no watermark that I can detect without removing the sheet from its card mount. I expect an expert could tell me the paper’s age and place of manufacture, but I don’t know an expert whom I could ask.

The medium used to draw the image appears to be graphite:

“a crystalline form of the element carbon, which occurs naturally in various types of rocks … graphite easily produces marks on paper or vellum … Graphite was used for drawing in Central Europe during the sixteenth century, but its use became more widespread in the late eighteenth century … this soft, high-quality material was cut into sticks and either wrapped with twine for grasping between the fingers or placed in a porte-crayon, a tool designed to hold a small piece of chalk or charcoal.” [1] 

Graphite sticks were improved from the late 18th century by being encased in a wood sheath – what we think of as a pencil.

The drawing is unsigned. In the bottom right-hand corner of the sheet is a small number 47 written in ink.

On the left in the lower margin there is a handwritten inscription which I was able to translate with help from a Facebook expert. It gives, in Italian, the measurements of the original Bugiardini painting: 

Alto B:7 e un terzo   Largo B:5

(Height 7 and one third braccia (cubits), Width 5 braccia (cubits))

A braccio is an Italian unit of length which was non-standardised and varied from place to place throughout Italy. The Florentine braccio equated to 0.5836 metres [2], which means that the painting would measure around 4.3 metres high by 2.9 metres wide. Unfortunately I can’t find any documentation to corroborate the size, but the next time I’m in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence with a measuring tape, I’ll check it out.

The above information is all very well in itself, but none of it provides much of a starting point for the next stage of my research. I had (with help) discovered the source painting for my drawing, and could assume from the inscription that the artist was probably Italian. Now it was a matter of sifting through Italian artists active between the mid-16th and mid-19th centuries, and then working out which one of them drew my drawing. Shouldn’t be a problem.

In this cheerful and optimistic frame of mind, I started to look at online images of black-and-white copies of Renaissance pictures. Thousands and thousands of them, by dozens and dozens of artists. The vast majority were engravings, which I discounted because I was looking for artists who made not engravings but high-quality charcoal or graphite drawings.

The Virgin Mary and Christ child with Saint Antony of Padua, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint John the Baptist as a child. Drawing by F. Rosaspina, c. 1830, after G. Bugiardini. (

After some hours of image-searching, a possible candidate came into view: Francesco Rosaspina (1762-1841), professor of engraving at the Academy of Bologna. He was a prolific engraver of copies of Renaissance paintings, including some by Bugiardini. A large collection of his original graphite drawings is held in the Wellcome Collection in London [3].

So I emailed a query to the Wellcome, attaching some photos of my drawing, and received a very prompt and helpful reply from one of their eminent curators, the upshot of which is that I was (again) entirely wrong, and that Rosaspina had nothing whatsoever to do with my drawing. His activity was mainly confined to Bologna, and the Bugiardini original which my drawing reproduces is located in Florence. Forget Rosaspina.

That was the bad news. But there was also good news. The expert from the Wellcome knew of the existence of an engraved print based upon the Bugiardini painting. It was published in Florence in 1791 in a book entitled L’Etruria Pittrice Ovvero Storia Della Pittura Toscana Dedotta Dai Suoi Monumenti Che Si Esibiscono In Stampa Dal Secolo X Fino Al Presente. This translates roughly as The Tuscan painter, or the history of painting in Tuscany shown from examples exhibited as prints, from the 10th century to the present.

Thus I learned that having first failed to identify from my own researches the source painting for my drawing, I had subsequently failed to discover a published engraving after the painting. Which goes to show how totally inadequate Google and other online resources are to the half-baked amateur detective who tries to use them as substitutes for real research and expert knowledge.

Despite my abject failure to find out for myself, but thanks to the intervention of two experts, I was now in an immeasurably better position than formerly. I knew that this particular composition was painted around 1530; I knew that it was engraved 261 years later in 1791; and I knew that it had also been drawn because I owned the drawing. The next step was to work out what relationship might exist between the three versions: painted, engraved and drawn. How difficult could it be?

It proved quite straightforward to source an online copy of L’Etruria Pittrice. There’s an excellent digitised edition on the Hathi Trust website [4]. The book is in two volumes, published in 1791 and 1795. There are 60 engraved plates in each Volume. The engravings reproduce a selection of Florentine paintings from the 10th to the 18th centuries, and each engraving is followed by a couple of pages of descriptive text printed in both Italian and French. The editors are Niccolo Pagni and Giuseppe Bardi.

The Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Giuliano Bugiardino appears as Plate no. 42 in Volume 1. It’s a striking and business-like black-and-white engraving which does its job of showing the reader what the original painting looks like.

The image is labelled in the lower margin with the title of the painting, the name of the painter, and the names of the artists responsible for engraving the plate: on the left, designer Giuseppe Pera, and on the right, engravers Carlo Lasinio and Giovanni Battista Cecchi. From this we can tell that the engraving was prepared from a copy of the oil painting prepared by Giuseppe Pera, and was not a direct copy of the large Bugiardini oil painting hanging in the church of Santa Maria Novella.

The lower margin also provides the measurements of the original painting expressed as follows:

alta Ba. 7 1/3     larga Ba. 5

(height 7 1/3  braccia     width 5 braccia)

The expert from the Wellcome Collection explained a little about the collaborative process of publishing series of prints showing the works of Old Masters. It seems that an important step was the commissioning of artists to make scaled-down drawings of the often very large original works, so that the engravers could work from the drawings rather than directly from the originals. Thus, in between the oil painting and the engraving there existed an intermediate drawing, made around 1791 by a copyist/ designer/ draughtsman/ artist called Giuseppe Pera.

Not much is known about Pera: I can’t find a birth or death date, but he floruit in Florence from before 1791 until at least 1839. His name appears in the left or right lower margin of hundreds of engravings both as designer/ draughtsman (disegnatori) and as engraver (incisori). Many of the works in which he was involved are copies of Renaissance, Mannerist, Baroque and later paintings, but there are also architectural studies, a series of delightful hand-coloured botanical subjects, costume studies and scenes relating to people and events of the Napoleonic wars.

Whilst there are lots of printed engravings by Pera described and pictured online, I haven’t discovered records of any original drawings or paintings by him. And yet we know for certain that for each engraving where his printed name is followed by dis(egnatori) he made a drawing for its engravers to copy.

Could it, then, possibly be that my drawing is the actual copy of the Bugiardini painting which Pera made in order to assist Lasinio and Cecchi in the preparation of their engraving of Plate 42 of L’Etruria Pittrice? And since I have failed to trace any other original works by Giuseppe Pera (although this might be down to my own inefficiencies as a researcher) could it be that mine is the first drawing of Pera’s to have been discovered and subjected to scrutiny?

The intuitive answer to these questions is no way. The strong probability must be that the drawing is a competent but unremarkable copy of the painting or of the engraving, but without any closer relationship to either. On the other hand, if there is even the remotest possibility that the answer is yes, and that evidence could be found to authenticate the drawing as Pera’s own preparatory study, standing between the painting and the engraving, then it is an interesting, rare, and possibly quite an important object.

We know that the painting came first, but which came next, the drawing or the engraving? I must look for proof one way or the other, despite the paucity of information about the artist and a total absence of provenance for my drawing. For the next phase of my investigation, further online research won’t help. I need a new methodology.

I pressed on. Find out what I did next and how I reached my conclusion in the third episode of my report: Part 3: The Drawing.






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