‘This unique drawing,’ says Jonathan den Otter, a specialist in Christie’s Old Master Drawings department, ‘sheds light not only on the early working practice of two great Mannerist artists of the 16th century, but also on their close friendship.’
On one side of the sheet of paper are two graceful pen-and-wash studies of Diana, the ancient Roman goddess of the hunt, identifiable by a small crescent on top of her head and a pack of lively hounds. The larger one is by Taddeo Zuccaro (1529-1566), a painter and draughtsman from a small town near Urbino who became one of his generation’s leading artists in Rome.
Turn it over, and on the reverse is a bold sketch in pen and brown ink of a similarly draped woman, seen from behind, by Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592). Between 1575 and the early 1580s, he would be Bologna’s principal painter.
Den Otter explains that the drawing was most likely made around 1551, when the young artists were living together in Rome.
By then the High Renaissance was coming to an end, as new styles began to take hold. Michelangelo, who had taken it to its apex with his Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512), had more recently introduced Rome to the style that would become known as Mannerism through his elongated, writhing forms in The Last Judgement (1536-1541), painted above the altar in the same church.
Zuccaro, who was 22 years old, had been in the city since the age of 14 and already had commissions for the aristocracy, churches and even Pope Julius III under his belt. Passarotti, also 22, had just arrived in Rome, and was keen to establish his name.
Passarotti took lessons and lodgings with Zuccaro and, according to the contemporary chronicler Raffaello Borghini, the pair developed a close friendship. They bonded over a love of Michelangelo’s work (Zuccaro’s brother, Federico, made a commemorative drawing of him studying The Last Judgement), as well as the ancient buildings and statues that furnished the city. At one point Passarotti even produced a set of etchings and engravings based on Zuccaro’s designs, including images of Saint Bartholomew, Saint Peter and Christ.
‘Zuccaro’s drawing has his signature electric feel to it, with light, quick lines; Passarotti’s features his trademark crosshatching, with bold, strong penwork’ — Jonathan den Otter
‘It’s tempting to imagine the scenarios in which this sheet was made. Perhaps Passarotti was drawing one of Zuccaro’s Mannerist designs and it was intended to be engraved later,’ says den Otter, who adds that the small figure next to Diana is probably by Passarotti as well.
Although the figures are not identifiable in the artists’ surviving paintings, Zuccaro did paint Diana and her nymphs on the ceiling of the ground floor of Villa Giulia — the Pope’s suburban residence on the Pincio — between 1553 and 1555.
‘Zuccaro’s drawing has his signature electric feel to it, with light, quick lines,’ continues the specialist. ‘Passarotti’s, on the other hand, features his trademark crosshatching, with bold, strong penwork.’
But while Zuccaro was the more established of the pair at the time, influence did flow both ways: ‘The sheet also shows how Zuccaro was borrowing Passarotti’s fluidity.’
By 1560, Passarotti had left Rome, returning to Bologna and setting up his own successful studio. He always maintained a close link to the city though, painting papal portraits and receiving shipments of antiquities for the small museum he opened in his native city. His later, pioneering genre scenes, such as The Fishmonger’s Shop (above), also helped shape the Baroque period and inspired painters including Annibale Carracci.
Zuccaro stayed in Rome, becoming one of the city’s leading Mannerist fresco painters. According to the contemporary art historian Giorgio Vasari (who praised Zuccaro’s vigorous compositions), he went on to decorate parts of the Vatican for Pope Paul IV and Pope Pius IV. Tragically, he died in Rome while still in his thirties. In recognition of his contribution to the city, he was given the honour of a burial in the Pantheon, not far from the tomb of Raphael.
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‘It’s so rare to find a double-sided drawing from this period — with two artists working on the same sheet,’ says den Otter. ‘So when an example like this, from an early stage in the life of these two fascinating and influential artists comes along, it’s very exciting.’
The drawing will be on show at Christie’s in London, 3-7 December, ahead of the sale Italian Drawings from the Robert Landolt Collection on 8 December 2020.