Pope Adrian VI Dedel (1459-1523) was the only Dutch Pope, and the last non-Italian elected to the papacy before Pope John Paul II in 1978. A stern and unbending reformer and intellectual, he was sent by the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian to Spain as tutor to the future Emperor Charles V, and was created Cardinal in 1517. At the death of Pope Leo X Medici, French and Italian factions in the conclave reached an impasse and elected him as a temporary compromise, in his absence, on 9 January 1522. His reforming zeal was unpopular in Italy. As both the successor and predecessor to art-loving Medici Popes at the height of the Renaissance, Adrian VI distinguished himself by docking the stipends of the greatest artists in Rome, being indifferent to the beauties of classical antiquity and being responsible for a decline in musical standards at the Vatican.
Anselmi was from a Parmese family but seems to have been trained in Siena, and is not securely documented in Parma until 1520. After that date he grew to be one of the chief artists in the city, described as 'arguably the most imaginative artist in the city after Parmigianino and Correggio' (D. Ekserdjian, 'Michelangelo Anselmi', The Grove Dictionary of Art, London, 1996). He was commissioned to work on several major projects such as the frescoes in San Giovanni Evangelista, the Cathedral and Santa Maria della Steccata. He seems also to have been a specialist in designs for coats-of arms. This drawing has previously been dated to the years of Adrian VI's papacy (1522-23). However the extremely close similarity of the handling, the layout, the rather schematic architectural surround and even the use of a central stylus indication with a drawing of the arms of Pope Paul III formerly in the collection of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria-Este (A.E. Popham, Correggio's Drawings, London, 1957, fig. 51), must surely place it after that Pope's accession in 1534. Another study of the arms of Pope Paul III, much larger and more elaborate than the Archducal drawing and therefore perhaps the presentation drawing for approval by the patron, is in the Uffizi, Florence (D. de Grazia, op. cit., no. 64), while a drawing of Putti supporting the arms of Parma which may also be related is in Lille (B. Brejon de Lavergnée, Catalogue des Dessins Italiens, Collection du Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille, Lille, 1997, no. 10). The drawings for the arms of Pope Paul III may be connected with a series of payments to Anselmi from the city of Parma in 1535-36 to paint a fresco for the Palazzo Communale. However, the close relationship with the present drawing of the arms of Paul III's predecessor-but-one may indicate that both were designs for a temporary structure built for the triumphal entry of the pontiff into Parma in 1538.
This drawing was catalogued in Paul Oppé's collection as Florentine School, and it was only after his death that Philip Pouncey proposed the attribution to Michelangelo Anselmi. Pouncey also rescued the drawing of the arms of Pope Paul III in the Uffizi, which had been catalogued as Cherubino Alberti (J. Stock and D. Scrase, The Achievement of a Connoisseur, Philip Pouncey, exhib. cat., Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 1985, no. 5).