Furio Rinaldi with Niccolò dellAbate (Modena 1509 or 1512-1571 Fontainebleau), The Conversion of Saul. 21 x 15¼  in (53.5 x 38.7 cm). Estimate $100,000-150,000. This lot is offered in

5 minutes with... Niccolò dell’Abate’s drawing, The Conversion of Saul

Old Master drawings specialist Furio Rinaldi admires this rediscovered work by the 16th-century Italian artist, long presumed lost, and now offered in New York on 31 January

Until recently, the existence of this drawing by the Italian painter Niccolò dell’Abate (1512-1571) was only presumed through a surviving copy housed in the Louvre, which is attributed to the artist’s workshop. Dell’Abate’s original, explains Christie’s Old Master Drawings specialist Furio Rinaldi, was long presumed lost.

In 2018 a collector asked Christie’s to examine this unknown version of the scene, which had remained unpublished and hidden from the scholarly community. The bottom of the drawing’s mount revealed a historical attribution to the workshop’s master — dell'Abate.

The artists attribution on the drawings mount

The artist's attribution on the drawing's mount

Christie's took the work to Paris where Old Master Drawings specialist Stijn Alsteens compared it to the studio copy in the Louvre. ‘Although the compositions were identical,’ says Rinaldi, ‘the quality of this vibrantly executed version next to the more inert copy made it clear it was the missing original.’

Both drawings also exhibited a watermark in the shape of a bunch of grapes, confirming the paper used for both as contemporary. An autograph preparatory sketch for the composition is also kept at the Louvre.

‘It’s a fantastic example of dell’Abate’s dramatic style, and is so full of energy,’ says Rinaldi. The circa 1555 picture, which is a rare survival of the largest paper sheet size manufactured at the time (the so-called ‘Royal’ size), depicts the conversion of Saul, later the apostle St. Paul, after being blinded by a heavenly light while travelling to Damascus, and was probably a design for a now lost or unrealised painting.

Niccolò dell’Abate (Modena 1509 or 1512-1571 Fontainebleau), The Conversion of Saul. 21 x 15¼  in (53.5 x 38.7 cm).
Niccolò dell’Abate (Modena 1509 or 1512-1571 Fontainebleau), The Conversion of Saul. 21 x 15¼ in (53.5 x 38.7 cm).

‘Your eye doesn’t know where to look as everything happens at once. Above you have the resurrected Christ supported by angels, while in the centre of the picture Saul is dragged from under his hysterical horse in a motif that pays homage to the 1542-45 fresco of the same scene in the Vatican by Michelangelo.’

The work was drawn around the same time that Dell’Abate moved from Italy to France, where he decorated Henry II’s residence at Fontainebleau.

‘Because dell’Abate was first and foremost a fresco painter, little evidence of his legacy survives,’ the specialist explains. ‘As tastes changed and buildings were remodelled, the majority of his wall-painted works were destroyed. That makes this drawing particularly important.’

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A small stamp with the initials ‘P.L.’ on the bottom right corner of the work’s sheet indicates that in the mid-17th century the quality of the work caught the eye of the English court portraitist, Sir Peter Lely.

‘Lely amassed one of Britain’s greatest ever collections of Old Master prints and drawings, the auction of which after his death lasted for 40 days,’ Rinaldi explains. ‘Knowing that he recognised the importance of this work adds some very prestigious provenance to this fantastic picture.’