‘To really understand and appreciate drawings you need to have physical contact,’ explains Furio Rinaldi, Associate Specialist in Old Master drawings at Christie’s in New York. ‘You need to hold it in your hands. [A drawing] has a front, it has a back, the paper has a texture.’ Then there’s ‘the ink, the flowing lines, the chalk; it’s unvarnished, unedited,’ the specialist enthuses.
The drawings selected by Rinaldi are all offered in the Old Masters & British Drawings sale in New York on 30 January, and were executed by Italian artists ‘highly representative’ of the eras in which they lived. ‘Giorgio Vasari epitomises the theory and practice of disegno — the physical act of drawing on paper and the intellectual concept of the design — in the 16th century,’ explains the specialist. ‘Guercino [Giovanni Francesco Barbieri] is undeniably the most prolific and inventive draughtsman of 17th-century Italy; Tiepolo pushed the boundaries of drawing for the 18th century; and Giuseppe Bezzuoli’s monumental cartoon exemplifies the art of drawing at the dawn of modernity in the 19th century.’
Giorgio Vasari was an essential figure in the definition of the modern concept of drawing. ‘An incredible draughtsman, he is also a very reliable source on drawing and design practices in the Renaissance,’ says Rinaldi, admiring a pen-and-ink drawing by the artist that depicts The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and the Infant Saint John the Baptist.
The notion of drawing as we know it today was born in the Italian Renaissance and, as Rinaldi explains, this example is all about the elegance and ornamental complexity of the figure. ‘It’s something that only Vasari could do,’ he says.
The red chalk work by Guercino pictured above is an example of a drawing that is at once both a work of art and a vital historical document. ‘This Holy Family is in fact an important visual record of a painting now lost, possibly the artist’s last work, which he executed at the very end of his career,’ reveals the specialist.
Among the many highlights in the sale is a large drawing, above, by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), whom Rinaldi considers ‘the most important draughtsman of the 18th century’. This drawing, which depicts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and arrival at the gates of Memphis, is not, however, a preparatory work for a commission; Tiepolo executed the piece entirely for himself.
‘All the figures are seen from the back, which is an incredibly modern choice — it is an almost cinematic depiction of this moment,’ the specialist notes.
And there’s another important detail. ‘[Old Master] drawings are not usually signed, because they were not considered finished works,’ Rinaldi explains. By the time Tiepolo completed this drawing, however, works such as this were becoming increasingly valuable, and the artist clearly felt compelled to sign and take ownership of it.
This is also the case with another masterwork by Tiepolo, The Nursing of Punchinello, which, like The Holy Family Entering Memphis, was part of a series the artist developed without a specific patron. ‘In Punchinello, Tiepolo fully expresses his outstanding narrative abilities and sense of humour,’ Rinaldi continues. ‘This drawing is an homage to Venice, the land of the Commedia dell’arte, clearly channelled through the drawing’s watery and luminous wash technique, recalling the effects of light on the lagoon.’
A cartoon by Giuseppe Bezzuoli (1784-1855), below, is described by Rinaldi as ‘an incredible new discovery’. The cartoon was drawn in 1848 for a ceiling fresco in Palazzo Gerini in Florence, and is a full-scale design for the final work.
‘It’s the largest drawing I have ever seen in my life,’ Rinaldi says of the representation of Folly Driving the Chariot of Love, which takes up an entire wall of a gallery at Rockefeller Center.
‘[A cartoon is] an essential tool, especially for a fresco painter,’ he continues. ‘Because of their very functional nature, most were destroyed right after their use. But Bezzuoli’s cartoon luckily survived, and is a welcome new addition to the artist’s body of work.
‘I feel very privileged in this job because I am exposed to hundreds of drawings every day,’ Rinaldi concludes. ‘That means hundreds of lives and hundreds of different artists and techniques. And each of them is really a window onto another world.’