Niccolò dell’Abate’s career can be neatly divided in two parts, one spent in his birth town Modena, as well as in Bologna, and one in France, at Fontainebleau, where King Henri II invited him to come in 1552. Influenced most clearly by Correggio and, later, by Parmigianino, in France he greatly contributed to the artistic flourishing of the court at Fontainebleau, led by Rosso Fiorentino and Francesco Primaticcio (see lot 20). Dell’Abate worked closely together with the latter on some of the château’s most important decorations, including the Galerie d’Ulysse and the Salle de bal.
The present drawing is a large and particularly impressive example of his fluid and elegant manner. Although hitherto unpublished, its composition is known from another drawing at the Louvre, identical in details, size and technique (inv. 11504; see S. Béguin in Nicolò dell’Abate. Storie dipinte nella pittura del Cinquecento tra Modena e Fontainebleau, exhib. cat., Modena, Foro Boario, 2005, p. 435, under no. 223, as a copy after dell’Abate). Sylvie Béguin, following a note by Philip Pouncey on the drawing’s mount, was certainly correct in considering it a workshop copy; and the now rediscovered drawing offered here must be the original which served as its direct model. An autograph preparatory sketch for the composition is also kept at the Louvre (Fig. 1) (inv. 5839; see ibid., no. 223, ill.). Despite the many differences, its relationship is evident from similar motifs such as the central rearing horse, as well as from the identical watermark – grapes – found in the paper of both sheets. A third drawing, again at the Louvre, is less closely related and is horizontal in format, but may be an alternative first idea for the composition (inv. 5840; see ibid., p. 435, under no. 223).
It is likely that all these drawings relate to a painted work, but none seems to survive or is recorded. Béguin suggested a possible relationship with documented drawings by Primaticcio, allowing her to date Niccolò’s work on the composition to around 1555, shortly after his move to France (ibid.). Other drawings among the outstanding collection of drawings by dell’Abate at the Louvre could have been made in connection with the composition, such as a sheet depicting God in the clouds with angels (inv. 5824). Landscape, often an important element in dell’Abate’s works, plays a minor role in the composition, which instead opposes the apparition of the Lord in the sky with the terror created by it among the army with which Saul was on the way to Damascus (Acts 9:3-9). Saul, his leg slung over his fallen horse, is assisted by a soldier but is transfixed by the heavenly vision, which summons him to fight with, rather than against, the followers of Christ. Changing his name to Paul, his conversion made him one of early Christianity’s fiercest advocates.
Like other drawings by the artist, the present sheet once belonged to the great Anglo-Dutch painter and collector Sir Peter Lely (see M. Jaffé, The Devonshire Collection of Italian Drawings, Bolognese and Emilian Schools, London, 1994, nos. 435, 437, ill.).
Fig. 1. Niccolò dell’Abate, The Conversion of Saul. Paris, Musée du Louvre.