In Part 1 of this blog post (read it here), I told you about a painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria painted around 1530 by the obscure Renaissance artist Giuliano Bugiardini. And I reported that I recently bought a drawing which reproduces the composition of the painting.
In Part 2 of this blog post (read it here), I related the discovery of an engraving showing the same image as in the painting and in the drawing. It was published in Florence in 1791 in a book called L’Etruria Pittrice, and an inscription on the engraving tells us that it was prepared from a drawing by the artist and draughtsman Giuseppe Pera. I wondered if it might be remotely possible that evidence could be found to authenticate my drawing as the actual preparatory work made by Pera for copying by the engravers.
In the absence of any signature on the drawing or any other documentary evidence, it seemed to me that the best – or only – way to answer this important question was to set desk research to one side for a moment. I must forget about names and dates and techniques and styles, and instead focus on the images themselves. Time to apply a modicum of connoisseurship. Or, if you prefer, time to attempt to play a high-stakes game of Spot the Difference.
If I could get the three versions of the composition alongside each other and examine them closely, might they be able to tell me something about how they relate to each other? Could a detailed comparison produce convincing evidence that the drawing stands in an intermediate position between the painting and the engraving and must therefore be by Pera? Could I show firstly that the drawing was copied directly from the painting, and secondly that the engraving was subsequently copied directly from the drawing? I decided to make the attempt.
The only publicly available physical copy of the two-volume publication L’Etruria Pittrice in Scotland is kept in the Special Collections Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland. I booked a consultation online, popped my drawing into a large folder, and, deploying my pensioner’s bus pass and face mask, boarded a No. 7 Edinburgh bus for the 30-minute journey from home to George IV Bridge, where the Library has its headquarters.
There, I passed a stimulating hour with the drawing and the engraving side-by-side, while at the same time cross-checking them both against a photographic image of the Bugiardini painting on my smartphone.
I emerged from the Library with seven pieces of evidence to present. Random Treasure blog readers please be warned that a blizzard of minute detail is about to descend upon your unsuspecting heads. I’m hoping that you will accompany me through this evidential snowstorm, but if you quail at the prospect of more than a thousand words of detailed (and possibly dodgy) argument accompanied by microscopic visual observation, then I’ll understand if you decide upon some judicious skimming. But I trust that you’ll re-join me later on when I reach my conclusion. Here goes.
1. The Dimensions.
The sizes of the image in both the drawing and the engraving are identical to the millimetre, at 366 mm tall and 248 mm wide. This doesn’t help to distinguish which one is a copy of the other. It does, however, show fairly conclusively that the two are closely related. Bear in mind that the original painting is big: according to the calculation made in Part 2 of this post, it’s about 4.3 metres high by 2.9 metres wide. If the drawing and the engraving had been produced independently as separate unrelated copies of the original oil painting, we can be certain that the coincidence of their sizes being perfectly identical would be incredibly remote.
2. The Measurements.
We have already seen that both the drawing and the engraving have inscriptions giving the measurements of the painting. But there are differences in the way they are expressed:
Drawing: Alto B: 7 e un terzo Largo B: 5
Engraving: alta Ba. 7 1/3 larga Ba. 5
To make a big deal of these small differences of expression seems quite picky but could be an important clue. First, assume that the maker of the drawing is working in the Rucellai Chapel copying the original painting. He measures it with a rule and jots down the dimensions using his graphite stick, employing his own version of the notation of late 18th century Italian measurements (Alto, B:, Largo, etc). The engravers then use the drawing as a model for the copper plate from which the printed impressions will be made. In doing so they convert the notation of measurements as recorded on the drawing, to match the conventional way that measurements are recorded and abbreviated consistently throughout most of the 120 engravings in L’Etruria Pittrice, (alta, Ba., larga, etc.). That makes sense.
By contrast, assume now that the engraving came before the drawing, and the maker of the drawing copies it from a printed impression. He takes great care to ensure that the dimensions of his drawing exactly match those of the engraving. But when he copies down the measurements of the original painting as they are expressed in the lower margin of the print, he gets all sloppy and changes the way that they are notated into a slightly different format. Why would he do that? It doesn’t make any sense at all.
From this it seems much more likely that the drawing came first and the engraving second.
3. The Steps.
If you compare the painting with the drawing and the engraving, you will immediately see an important difference: the steps up to the podium upon which the torture apparatus is built are significantly taller in the both the drawing and the engraving than they are in the painting. Somehow, in the copying of the painting, the original vertical proportions have been elongated. This by itself doesn’t tell us whether the drawing was made before the engraving or otherwise, but it does show quite clearly that in one important respect these two versions are more closely related to each other than either of them is related to the painting.
4. The Beam.
In all three versions of the image, look closely at the central figure on the balcony, standing in the line of the beam of energy or bolt of lightning which passes from the angel to Catherine, and which detonates the explosion that destroys the torture wheels. In both the painting and the drawing, the beam passes in front of the balcony, and the figure is safely behind the balustrade, protected from the force of the beam. That makes sense.
But it doesn’t work that way in the engraving, where the figure is scarcely obscured by the beam at all and appears either to be standing simultaneously behind and in front of the beam, or else to be smack in the middle of it, where his chances of survival must be zero. Even in a world where angels appear and shoot beams of light to save virgin martyrs, there needs to be some sort of internal logic, but this logic is utterly lost in this section of the engraving.
The failure to obscure the figure safely behind the beam has to be a careless mistake made by the engravers, and you can see how they might have made this absurd error while copying the drawing, where the figure is shaded but slightly more visible than in the painting. Thus, the treatment of the figure in the drawing seems to be derived from the painting, while the treatment of the figure in the engraving might understandably be derived from a misinterpretation of the drawing.
5. The balcony.
While you’re looking at the details above which compare the Beams in the three versions of the composition, note also the angle of the balcony baluster rail: upward from left to right in the painting, and virtually horizontal in both the drawing and the engraving. In this respect the drawing is much more similar to the engraving than it is to the painting.
6. The Cloud.
Observe in all three versions the right-hand edge of the cloud which hovers over Catherine. In the painting and the drawing, the cloud partially covers the last carved stone roundel in the frieze below the balcony. But in the engraving, the cloud has drifted slightly towards the left, leaving the roundel fully exposed. Here, the drawing relates more closely to the painting than to the engraving.
7. The Arch.
Towards the background of the painting, behind the torture scene, there is a colonnade of arches holding up the balcony. If you look closely at the second arch from the right, you will observe that the arcade is open at the rear, and that you can see a small segment of a building standing behind the piazza. The building has an overhanging cornice below a battlemented roof balustrade (just like the roofline of the Florence Bargello ), and you can glimpse a patch of blue Italian sky above it.
Now look at the same spot in the drawing. It’s much more heavily shadowed than in the painting, and a bit difficult to see what’s going on, but you might just be able to make out that there is some vertical shading to suggest the left-hand edge of the opening at the rear of the colonnade, plus a scarcely-perceptible shadow of the battlemented roofline. This is easier to see in the drawing itself than in the photographic image presented here, so you’ll have to take my word for it.
Finally, look at the same area in the engraving. The engravers have totally missed the point and represent the arch as a simple closed niche with a shallow corniced apse. If they were familiar with the original painting, it isn’t logically possible to see how the engravers could interpret it in this way because they couldn’t miss the obvious patch of sky beyond the colonnade. But if they were using the drawing as their model, and if (as I suspect) they were busy jobbing engravers eager to move on to starting work on the next plate, then it’s easy to see how they might have hurriedly construed the draughtsman’s deep-shaded arch interior as indicating a simple blank curved wall.
To summarise my seven pieces of evidence:
- One example (the Cloud) suggests that the drawing has a closer relationship to the painting than to the engraving;
- Three examples (the Dimensions, the Steps and the Balcony) suggest that there is a close relationship between the drawing and the engraving but not necessarily that one is copied from the other;
- One example (the Measurements) suggests that the engraving might feasibly have been copied from the drawing;
- Two examples (the Beam and the Arch) suggest that the engravers made errors of interpretation which could clearly have been derived from slight vaguenesses in detailed features in the drawing;
- No examples were found to suggest that the drawing could have been copied from the engraving;
- No examples were found to suggest a relationship between the painting and the engraving other than through the intermediary stage of a drawing. This is as expected because we know that a drawing by Giuseppe Pera existed from which the engravers produced their copper plate for the print.
I hope that I’ve shown quite conclusively that my drawing has characteristics which place it firmly in the middle between the painting and the engraving. Thus, circumstantially, there does indeed seem to be a good case to believe that it might be the actual drawing made by Giuseppe Pera. But is this enough to make a firm attribution to Pera’s hand? Could my reasoning successfully be subjected to scrutiny by experts? What might their objections be?
I can think of two objections for starters.
Firstly, it could be argued that there was another drawing, actually by Pera but now lost, which provided the model both for the engraving and for my drawing. This idea might possibly help to explain discrepancies between the painting and some features present in both the drawing and the engraving: such as the increased height of the Steps in my example 3, and the altered angle of the Balcony in my example 5. However, none of my arguments actually rests on the existence of yet another version of the image. Applying Occam’s principle that the likeliest explanation is the one with the fewest variables, my opinion is that postulating the existence of a fourth image is an unnecessary complication. Forget it.
Secondly, we need to explain the number 47 written in ink in the lower right-hand corner of my drawing in relation to the fact that the engraving is Plate Number XXXXII (42) in L’Etruria Pittrice. There are lots of possible explanations for this discrepancy, for example: the Martyrdom of St Catherine might have been planned as Plate 47 in the original scheme for the book but the order of illustrations was changed during production; or the drawing might have been the 47th commission that Giuseppe Pera received from his publisher clients; or the 47 might have been inscribed by a later owner, perhaps a collector or curator. Frankly, I don’t think this is much of an objection and I’m ready to dismiss it.
I feel sure that other objections are available. In spite of which, I’m ready to make my attribution and to label my drawing as follows:
Giuseppe Pera, the Martyrdom of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, graphite drawing on laid paper. Drawing made in Florence around 1791, copied directly from the Giuliano Bugiardini painting of the same subject in the Rucellai Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Commissioned as a preliminary drawing for preparation of an engraving by Carlo Lasinio and Giovanni Battista Cecchi, published in 1791 as Plate 42 in Volume 1 of L’Etruria Pittrice.
Now, how do I go about getting this attribution confirmed (or negated) by someone whose opinion counts? Because (obviously) my opinion doesn’t count.
If this were a television documentary of the “art detective” type, this is the stage where a heavyweight celebrity art historian accompanied by a fashionable current-affairs presenter, seeking authentication of a putative Old Master, unveils it to gasps of wonder from a spellbound group made up of curators from the world’s foremost galleries, academics from the best university art history departments, and experts from leading auction houses. The ultimate prize of inclusion in the artist’s catalogue raisonné is followed by blanket media publicity, and subsequently by the even more ultimate prize of achieving an astronomical price at auction.
That method won’t work for me. I don’t have a budget for my research, or a film crew to follow me around. And there is no catalogue raisonné for Giuseppe Pera, an obscure figure who made many middle-of-the-road engravings but who apparently has no original artworks recorded other than this drawing. There is not much of a market for Pera’s work, so its value cannot simply be assessed by comparison with previous sales.
So, to some extent, in this quest I have merely been sleuthing for my own interest and pleasure. I am, however, aware that there will be some art historians interested in the drawing, especially if there’s enough evidence for it to be authoritatively attributed to Pera. And although I don’t have privileged access to the experts, I’m confident that some polite email and Facebook enquiries are likely to elicit further incredibly helpful advice.
My next move will therefore be to report my findings to the two experts who have helped me already: the Amsterdam curator who directed me to the Bugiardini painting, and the London curator who told me about the published engraving. If they are kind enough firstly to respond to my amateur efforts and secondly to give my reasoning a tentative thumbs-up, then I’ll write to other museum and gallery experts to see if they also support my findings. I’ll also consult the prints and drawings departments of some of the major auctioneers to ask if they think my drawing has an appreciable market value.
And then … well, I don’t know what then. I might sell the drawing or I might keep it, or I might even give it away. I quite like it but there’s no available space on my walls. But on the other hand I’ve worked so hard on it that I’d be sorry to see it go.
As you can see, my interaction with this drawing is far from over. At some future time, loyal Random Treasure blog readers might find themselves confronted with a further and final instalment in this saga: Martyrdom, Part 4: the Outcome. Brace yourselves!