Charged with drama, this compositional study for a Massacre of the Innocents attests to the radical innovations occurring in Renaissance drawing towards the end of the 15th-century in Italy. Drawn in pen and ink over a preliminary study in black chalk – still visible in several passages and pentimenti, the most remarkable one in the girl’s head at centre–, the scene depicts a group of women with their children escaping the carnage or reacting to the tragedy (Matthew 2: 16-18). The draughtsman omitted from the scene all the male figures, whose presence is implied only in the faint chalk sketch at right. As suggested by its size and near frieze-like arrangement, the drawing was probably intended as a full-scale preparatory study for a predella panel. A similar solution was adopted in 1470-72 by Fra’ Diamante (circa 1430-after 1492), who painted a Massacre of the Innocents (Prato, Museo di Palazzo Pretorio) as a predella for his Nativity in the Louvre.
The drawing thus displays many of the qualities introduced by the most significant Central Italian draughtsmen of the Renaissance, specifically Pietro Perugino, Pintoricchio, Signorelli and Raphael. The skilful pen-and-ink technique of Perugino is clearly referred to in the dense network of parallel- and cross-hatching that define the figures, as well as in the intricate folds of the drapery, the occhiellature, on the flowing dresses. The art of Signorelli also seems to inspire the scene’s sense of drama and nervous movement. The name of Raphael, to whom the drawing was given to in the past, as recorded in an early inscription at the bottom ('R.[aphael] Vrb[inas]'), appears as a tribute to the drawing’s high quality.
Previously considered the work of an anonymous Umbrian artist, the sheet is here presented as an early work of Timoteo Viti owing close similarities with his drawings in pen and ink datable towards the end of the 15th century. Comparisons include Viti’s sketch of a Standing monk, Kunsthalle, Hamburg (inv. 21492), as well as his Supper of Saint Benedict and Saint ScholasticaPalais de Beaux-Arts, Lille (inv. Pl. 364; see A. Forlani Tempesti, Viti disegnatore, in Timoteo Viti, atti del convegno, Urbino, 2008, pp. 181-83, figs. 8, 11). Attested in the present sheet by the lack of male characters, the practice of excluding certain figures from his compositions or leaving passages in reserve is a distinctive feature of Viti’s drawing process, seen in a second version of the Supper of Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica in the British Museum (inv. 1909,1020.1; P. Pouncey and J.A. Gere, Italian Drawings in the British Museum. Raphael and his Circle, London, 1962, no. 269), where Scholastica is left out. Viti adopted a similar method in The Finding of Moses (British Museum inv., 1946,0713.79; Pouncey and Gere, op. cit., no. 265), a slightly later and more mature work, circa 1505, which however resembles the Massacre of the Innocents in its frieze-like arrangement.
Trained in the late 1490s in the Bolognese workshop of Francesco Francia, Viti was much influenced by the stylized ornamental manner of Giovanni Santi, Urbino’s leading painter during his youth. Santi’s elegant drawing for the Muse Clio at Windsor (inv. RCIN 912798; A.E. Popham and J. Wilde, The Italian drawings of the XV and XVI centuries in the collection of His Majesty the King at Windsor Castle, London, 1949, no. 28, fig. 9) is reflected in the central girl pointing to the right in the Massacre. A preparatory study for one of the Muses in Federico da Montefeltro’s Studiolo, Santi’s drawing at Windsor was certainly known by Viti, who completed the Studiolo series when it was left unfinished at Santi’s death in 1494. Equally relevant to our understanding of the present drawing is the relationship between Viti and his fellow painter from Urbino, Raphael, son of Giovanni Santi. The two artists joined forces in 1508-10 over the decoration in fresco of the Chigi Chapel in S. Maria della Pace, Rome and the present sheet can be viewed as an important precedent to Raphael’s celebrated Massacre of the Innocents (engraved by Marcantonio Raimondi), in development at the time of his collaboration with Viti. He played a dominant role in the Urbino art scene for nearly three decades. A skilled draughtsman and painter, Viti was essential in spreading the artistic vocabulary of the manner Perugino and Francia throughout the Central Italian regions.