First recognized by Berenson in 1933 and never seen in public since it last appeared on the market in 1964, this early drawing by the Renaissance master Luca Signorelli is a rare preparatory study for one of his best-known works, The Circumcision in the National Gallery, London (fig.). Highly praised by Giorgio Vasari as ‘marvelously beautiful’ (‘bella a meraviglia’), the colorful Circumcision was painted by Signorelli between 1489 and 1491 for the Oratory of the Compagnia del Santissimo Nome di Gesù in Volterra: proudly signed, it is the first work Signorelli executed for the Medicean town. The two studies gathered on the sheet display Signorelli’s forceful draftsmanship and radical use of black chalk, here adopted with surprising freedom for a drawing still executed within the 1490’s.
The main study depicts a standing, heavily draped figure seen from the back, a pose that occurs often in Signorelli’s paintings of this decade, appearing in the nude men of The Court of Pan (formerly in Berlin, destroyed in 1945) and on one of the Toledo fragments, as noted by Henry (op. cit., 2012, figs. 69, 78). This figure, however, relates precisely to a clothed female onlooker at right in The Circumcision, as argued by the characteristic pose of the long foot and the lighting which strikes the figure from the right, in the same sense as the painting. Signorelli used a curly-haired workshop assistant to study the figure’s pose and drapery, and made him in the painting into a woman. Equally studied from life and delicately outlined in black chalk at the bottom of the sheet is a striking study of a sleeping woman, resting her head on her right hand. As correctly argued by both Henry and van Cleave (op. cit.), the figure could relate either to the sibyl, painted in the fictive pietra serena roundel at the right hand corner of the Circumcision, or to the woman sitting in the left foreground of the Pan, a possibility that might corroborate the general idea that the lost Pan and The Circumcision were designed and painted by Signorelli at closely similar dates, about 1489-1491. Further evidence of Signorelli’s careful preparation of this ambitious design is provided by a double-sided sheet in Rotterdam (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, inv. I 199), also executed in black chalk, which features on the recto a head study for the bearded Saint Simon, seen at the center of the painting, and a on the verso a compositional study of the principal figure group (Henry, op. cit., fig. 89). The more finished drawing presented here followed the verso of the Rotterdam sheet in the design process of the painting.
The provenance of the sheet goes back to the early 16th Century, as shown by the inscription at lower right which links the work to Timoteo Viti, the Renaissance artist from Urbino. As an associate of Raphael and Girolamo Genga, Viti came to possess a large number of their drawings and a handful of sheets and cartoons by Luca Signorelli, who was Genga’s first teacher (Rinaldi, op. cit., 2014 and 2019). The sheets from the collection passed to Viti’s descendants, the Marquis Antaldi of Pesaro, and were marked with initials referring to their supposed attribution: the present drawing was initially attributed to Girolamo Genga (as indicated by the faint letters ‘G.G.’) later corrected to Timoteo Viti (‘T.V.’). The sheet was probably one of those bought in Urbino in 1824 by the English dealer Samuel Woodburn on behalf of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), although it is not immediately recognizable in the inventory of the Viti-Antaldi collection that he acquired with his purchase (ibid.).
Fig. Luca Signorelli, The Circumcision of Christ, The National Gallery, London.