Season’s Greetings

December 21st, 2012 § Comments Off on Season’s Greetings § permalink

and best wishes for 2013


Canova show at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi

December 4th, 2012 § Comments Off on Canova show at the Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi § permalink

Thanks to Antonio Canova’s half-brother, sole heir of the artist, Bassano del Grappa’s Museo Civico has the largest collection of Canova drawings in the world. Some 79 drawings from the collection’s 1,876 drawings are being shown at the Museo di Roma – Palazzo Braschi from 5 December 2012  to 7 April 2013.

Antonio Canova | Study of the Medici Venus – Before Conservation | Red chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

As you’d expect from the foremost Neoclassical sculptor, many of the drawings are after the antique. Like others in the show, the drawing above has Canova’s notations giving measurements–nice reminders that they inhabit real space. Even subjects of his own invention are strongly influenced by the classical world and very few of the drawings seem to be drawn from life.

Most of the works in the show relate to commissions. Canova was a great glorifier of the powerful–Clement XIV, Napoleon, Horatio Nelson, and George Washington among them. With his works, the word monument seems to fit them better than statue or sculpted portrait. Even if monument has a heavy ring to it, there’s something amusing about a work like the Napoleon as Mars the Peacekeeper (heroic nude didn’t appeal to the emperor and he sent it back), or young George Washington in Roman cuirass and pteruges (nowadays this kind of skirt is known as a car wash skirt). Though we might smile at these very Neoclassical portrayals, Canova was dead serious and immensely successful because of them. So successful that he could do things like buy the Giustiniani collection of antiquities and make a gift of them to the Pope. (Canova was also a curator at the Vatican.)

Antonio Canova | Hercules Hurling Lychas into the Sea | Graphite, pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The exhibition is being held in permanent exhibition rooms, with the Canova works set apart by blue panels. The panels, often freestanding, are used to create rooms that concentrate on one commission. Because the Bassano museum is so rich in Canova, it can provide several drawings for a commission, along with models, and prints (ordered by Canova) of the artist’s finished works.

Antonio Canova | Toilette of Venus | Black chalk | Museo Civico, Bassano del Grappa

The drawings are in a range of media: graphite, black chalk, red chalk, charcoal, pen and ink, brush and ink. They are often roughly sketched out or vigorously drawn. Because Canova’s marble works are so refined, snow-white, and polished, the drawings provide relief.

Canova. Il segno della gloria. Disegni, dipinti, e sculture
Curated by Giuliana Ericani, Dir. Museo Biblioteca Archivio di Bassano del Grappa
Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi
Catalogue published by Palombi Editore


November 8th, 2012 § Comments Off on Caricatures § permalink

Caricature, a branch of portraiture, is much more associated with drawing and printmaking than painting and sculpture. Caricatures are humorous in nature, often affectionately playful, but they can also be merciless in their ridicule. They are generally executed rapidly, and some of the best are drawn with the fewest lines.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680) – Caricature of Pope Innocent XI – Pen and brown ink on laid paper – 114 x 182 mm – Leipzig

Very often the portrayed doesn’t know they’re being caricatured, and the artist wishes to keep it that way. Bernini, who was deeply religious, would not have wanted his patron Pope Innocent XI to see his caricature of him. The pope, known as a sickly man, is propped up in bed, and his ant-like head is topped by a tiara, while his bony fingers signal orders. The sheet is small, and is meant for Bernini’s amusement, and for his friends. (The artist sometimes included caricatures in the margins of his letters.)

Bernini’s drawing and a drawing such as Pier Francesco Mola’s, just below,

Pier Francesco Mola (1612 – 1666) – Caricature of a Gentleman Viewing a Painting of a Monkey – Pen and brown ink, brush and brown wash on laid paper – 91 x 189 mm – Louvre

must have been satisfying to do. They must have had a therapeutic effect–there’s not much an artist can overtly do to get back at a powerful and difficult patron, but they could be cut down to size in a caricature.

The brothers Annibale and Agostino Carracci are often considered the first artists to create caricatures. An example of “ritrattini carichi” or small loaded portraits is just below. Annibale Carracci covered the sheet with little heads, some might be exaggerated likeness of real people, while others look like invented comic heads, the product of nervous doodling. As with much caricature,  heads are in profile allowing for the nose to be exploited to the fullest. With profile caricature, chins also get important treatment, whether exaggeratedly big or small; while with frontal caricature, the ears and eyes come into their own.

Annibale Carracci (1560 -1609) – A Series of Caricature Heads in Profile – Pen and gray-brown ink – 194 x 135 mm – British Museum

This drawing of Agostino is of mascheroni, or grotesque masks. The Carracci enjoyed crossing human and animal heads, like the ancient artists with their fauns  and satyrs. It is both amusing and disquieting. It seems like a particularly good example of grotesque heads since they are studies for gesso sculptures, the descendants of antique stucco work which came to be known as grotesque, from the subterranean grottoes where they were discovered.

Agostino Carracci (1557 – 1602) – Mascherone Studies – Red chalk – 258 x 197 mm – Albertina

The word caricature was first used in print in 1646 and ever since the 17th century, there has been a lot of discussion about what a caricature is, when the practice began, if Leonardo’s testine mostruose are caricatures or grotesques. It’s well worth reading this essay by Gombrich (link to pdf here), which discusses why caricature should be considered an invention of the late 16th century because of the growing self awareness of artists and their place in society. That may be true, but it is certainly easy to find exaggerated and comic representations of people–even real people–earlier in time. Just because we don’t know their names, does not mean they didn’t exist. The twisted, and often funny, damned in representations of the Last Judgement, Romanesque capitals with their leering heads, medieval manuscript margin drawings, and then the graffiti of hated emperors in Roman times. One can only imagine all the caricatures done on wax tablets in antiquity.

It seems logical that prehistoric man would also have found amusement in the warping of features. The sun can play atmospheric tricks making our shadow impossibly long or crushingly squat. A fire or candle’s light is usually flattering, but at the wrong angle it can grotesquely amplify features.


Jake Spencer and the Mayflower

August 17th, 2012 § 4 comments § permalink

Provincetown’s Mayflower Cafe is the sort of place you could order a plate of spaghetti and a cup of coffee, or a shot of rye, without the waiter questioning you with words or looks. The name comes from the Pilgrims’ ship that anchored in Provincetown’s harbor for several weeks in November and December of 1620.

The Mayflower opened in 1929, when prohibition had all but ended in Massachusetts (1930 was the official year of repeal for the state, or more properly commonwealth, and 1933 for the entire country). The restaurant now calls itself a “family restaurant.” The caricature portraits along the walls speak of an earlier clientele, of a hard drinking group that made it their home in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s.

Mayflower’s Bar Area with Jake Spencer Self-Portrait, Caricature Portrait of an Unidentified Man, and Memorial Plaque | Drawings done in charcoal on wove paper

The drawings are by Jake Spencer. Over the bar there’s a memorial plaque to the artist, reading:


1899 – 1965



The artist’s real name was Jacob Kaplun, but he used Spencer for his professional work–portraits, caricatures, illustrations, and writing. He was a summer visitor to Provincetown, spending most of the year in Greenwich Village. Minetta Tavern on MacDougal Street has caricatures by Spencer, and evidently many other bars did too. In the 12 January 1965 New York Times notice of his death, it says “He painted portraits and did caricatures of so many celebrities for ‘Village’ establishments that he would refer to one as having been “wall-papered.”

Interior of the Mayflower, with booths and Jake Spencer Caricatures

The drawings at the Mayflower are signed, Provincetown is given as the location, they’re dated, but the names of the people are missing. For Spencer’s audience it was probably so obvious who the people were, that names were unnecessary. The words “FELLOW MAN” on the plaque might be indicating that they’re just regulars, and not the celebrities of the Times notice. Or, they may be celebrities that I’m unable to recognize.

Jake Spencer | Three Caricatures | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

There’s a big “NO SMOKING” sign inserted in the long wall of caricatures. That too looks dated. Contradicting the sign are the caricatured, puffing away on cigarettes and cigars, contributing with age, light, and leaky air conditioners to the character of the drawings.

Jake Spencer | Profile Caricature of a Man | Charcoal on wove paper | Mayflower Cafe, Provincetown

Note of 15 September 2013

L. Drapin, a relative of Jake Spencer’s, wrote pointing out a Village Voice obituary on the artist. In her email, Drapin said that he grew up on Staten Island, a fact that is missed in pieces about him. The Voice obituary lists some of Spencer’s fascinating friends. It makes one think that an exhibition should be mounted on Spencer and such colorful people as his friend Romany Marie. She owned a Greenwich Village restaurant (it relocated a number of times, but always in the Village), frequented by artists and writers, including Eugene O’Neill and Arshile Gorky.

Dust-Up at Caravaggio Drawings Press Conference

July 22nd, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

A reader sent along this link from the Corriere della Sera (Brescia edition). The article covers a press conference at Leno in the province of Bresica, where Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli discussed the newly identified Caravaggio drawings. The author of the article mentions that it’s hot in the room (it’s the hottest summer in 50 years) and tempers flare. Here’s the video:

If you can stand watching to the end, you’ll hear Curuz bring up Mina Gregori. He makes fun of Gregori for saying that Caravaggio didn’t draw.

This is where it’s easy to agree with him. Caravaggio at least drew with the stick end of the brush, pulling it through wet paint on canvas. It’s hard to imagine that a picture like the Martyrdom of St. Matthew could have been done without quite a number of drawings.



Early Caravaggio Drawings Reported Discovered at the Castello Sforzesco

July 5th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

Ansa, the Italian Press Agency, and the Italian daily La Repubblica are reporting that 100 drawings by the young Caravaggio have been identified in the archives of Milan’s Castello Sforzesco. The drawings were culled from a group of close to 1,400 drawings done by Simone Peterzano and his students. Caravaggio was a student of the now almost forgotten Peterzano.

Caravaggio attr. | David | Chalk | Castello Sforzesco, Milan

La Repubblica has an online gallery of a few of the drawings. LINK HERE. Not to go immediately negative, the story reminds me of the Michelangelo at Fort Worth LINK HERE. To whip up interest, the drawings are being valued at 700,000,000 euros (that’s very near a billion!). Tomorrow, unsurprisingly, Amazon publishes the 600 page ebook. It’s written by Maurizio Bernardelli Curuz, from the Brera and Adriana Conconi Fedrigolli.

Cupid and Psyche

April 26th, 2012 § Comments Off on Cupid and Psyche § permalink

Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo is hosting the exhibition La favola di Amore e Psiche. Il mito nell’arte dall’antichità a Canova. It makes sense that the exhibition should be held there because of the building’s Perino del Vaga frescoes figuring Cupid and Pysche. The frescoes decorate the apartment, specifically the bedroom, of Pope Paul III (Alessandro Farnese). The show has objects of all types: sculpture, ceramics, paintings, prints, and drawings.

There’s a magnificent Raphael drawing from Lille for a pendentive at the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche at the Farnesina, and another drawing from Turin for the same project. The exhibition was a bit disappointing because there were so few drawings. One of the exhibitions I’ve only known from the catalogue, and always regretted not seeing, was the 1981 show Gli Affreschi di Paolo III a Castel Sant’Angelo. Progetto ed esecuzione 1543-1548, curated by Filippa Aliberti Gaudioso and Eraldo Gaudioso. The catalogue has close to 150 drawings and to have seen them in the rooms next to the frescoes for which they were made, must have been a thrill. Knowing of this earlier exhibition sharpened the disappointment.

Still, there were two Raphael drawings. And then there was a very surprising black ink on papyrus drawing of Cupid and Pysche. She’s on the left and has butterfly wings, and Cupid with bird wings, is on the right. There’s no text on the papyrus and it may be that it was made as an independent work of art. If the dating of the papyrus drawing is right, it would mean that it’s contemporary with Apuleius’s Golden Ass, which narrates the story of the lovers. The papyrus was found in Egypt, but looks more Roman or Greek in style. The drawing is also amazing for its size–250 mm or about 10 inches across.

The exhibition opened on 16 March and closes 10 June 2012.



Amor and Psyche | AD 100-199 | Black ink on papyrus | 150 x 250 mm | Inv. PSI 8 919 | Museo Egizio | Florence


March 13th, 2012 § Comments Off on Constellations § permalink

Ursa Major, Detail from a 1490 English MS copying Alfonsine Astronomical Tables | Pen and ink, brush and pigment on vellum | British Library - Arundel MS 66

From dot to dot to dot. Each dot has a letter or number by it, and the child is asked to draw lines from 1 to 2 to 3 and so on, until an object, character, or scene emerges on the paper placemat or in the puzzle book. It works in that it keeps children engaged and quiet. It’s not an imaginative exercise, but it does teach numbers and letters and there is something satisfying about seeing a subject appear.

The constellations are drawn with imaginary lines connecting the stars into animals and characters. The kind of imagination necessary to come up with these framework lines was of the collective kind, spanning a great arc of time. There’s a German  natural scientist who believes he’s recognized a 32,000+ year old mammoth ivory, unearthed in Germany, and incised with the constellation and figure of Orion. This January there was news of an incised ivory board with signs of the zodiac, used for the divination of horoscopes. It had been found in the 1990s in a Croatian (Illyrian) cave, and is said to date from the 4th century BCE, the earliest object of it’s type. (Reading about the cave find led to an entertaining article about the earth’s wobble and its throwing off astrological “profiles” by a month.)

I can’t pretend to know even one entire constellation. The best I can do is draw an imaginary line through the three stars of Orion’s belt, and the seven stars of the big dipper part of Ursa Major. The Greek vision of the constellations was widely adopted, becoming the standard, but the bright and distinct stars of the big dipper are seen in different ways depending on culture. In Italy it’s called the cart, in England it’s known as a plough, the Maya saw it as a parrot. Looking at the stars is like looking at the hearth–something quaint to remember as one sits by a backlit screen.





From Drawing to Bow

February 10th, 2012 § Comments Off on From Drawing to Bow § permalink

Since musical instruments are so beautiful, it’s easy to see why they’re so often included in works of visual art. It’s also easy to understand why there are so many musical iconography pages on the internet. Innumerable times I’ve hit upon these sites, probably the Recorder Home Page most frequently. The Répertoire International d’Iconographie Musicale (RIdIM) has a useful page of links pointing to flute, bagpipe and other specialized instrument sites, as well as more general music iconography sites.

Antonino Airenti, a professional bowmaker working in Liguria, has a page on his website, where he describes how he was asked to create a bow for a period bass viol, and how he went about producing it.

There’s something wonderful about Orazio Samacchini’s drawing being used in the 16th century to produce a painting, and then it being used again in the 21st century to produce a bow.


Antonino Airenti | Samacchini Bow | Cherry wood


Orazio Samacchini (1532-1577) | A Young Man Playing the Bass Viol | Red and black chalks | 265 x 195 mm | Fondation Custodia | Paris


Orazio Samacchini | Detail of Music-Making Angel from the Madonna and Child with SS Magdalen and Petronius, and Music-Making Angels | Oil on Canvas | 239 x 233.5 cm | Saltram House, Plympton, Devon

Orazio Samacchini | Madonna and Child with SS Magdalen and Petronius, and Music-Making Angels | Oil on Canvas | 239 x 233.5 cm | Saltram House, Plympton, Devon



15th c. Portrait Attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo

February 1st, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

The leading lot at Sotheby’s, in their 25 January 2012 sale, was a drawing attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo. California’s Getty Museum bought the drawing. The beautiful portrait drawing of a young man has been variously given to the Paduan school, Marco Zoppo, and to the Mantegna circle. The Sotheby’s entry on the drawing is very detailed and can be found here.

Attributed to Piero del Pollaiuolo | Portrait of a Young Man | Black chalk, pen and brown ink on paper | 360 x 228 mm | Sotheby’s Sale 25 Jan. 2012, lot 27

One of the works they compare lot 27 to is a drawing here in Rome at the Istituto Nazionale della Grafica. The Rome drawing is now assigned by the Istituto to Maso Finiguerra (a collaborator of the Pollaiuolo’s) although in the past it has been attributed to Francesco Pesellino, Antonio Pollaiuolo, and just simply 15th century Florentine school.  The Sotheby’s cataloguers refer to the Rome drawing as by the Circle of Pollaiuolo. Just below is the Rome drawing and, at least to me, it looks as though it could be the very same sitter. Here is a link to the Istituto’s  search form, where a better image of the Maso FIniguerra drawing may be found.

Maso Finiguerra | Profile of a Young Man | Pen and bistre ink, brush and brown watercolor, on ivory paper | 225 x 193 mm | Istituto Nazionale della Grafica, Rome