Drawn in connection with Cortona's design for an engraving by Claude Mellan, in the opposite direction, celebrating the Collegium Romanum and the Borghese family, kinsmen of the College's founder Pope Gregory XIII Buoncompagni (fig. 1; M. Préaud, Bibliothèque nationale, Département des Estampes: Inventaire du fonds français, Graveurs du XVIIe siècle tome 17. Claude Mellan, Paris, 1988, no. 253). Three other preparatory drawings are known, a black and white chalk study for the central figure (sold Sotheby's, London, 19 May 1977, lot 123, incorrectly catalogued as Circle of Cortona), a fully worked compositional drawing in the Albertina (J. Schönbrunner and J. Meder, Handzeichnungen alter Meister aus der Albertina und aus anderen Sammlungen, IX, Vienna, 1922, no. 1023), and a quick study of the full composition formerly in the Petit-Hory Collection which, unlike the other three drawings is in the same direction as the print (Dessins Français et Italiens du XVIe et du XVIIe siècle dans les collections privées françaises, exhib. cat., Paris, Galerie Claude Aubry, 1971, no. 38). Dr Jörg Merz dates the group to 1627/28 (J.M. Merz, op. cit., p. 222).
The present drawing is a beautiful and finished study in its own right, but it also illustrates an important step in Cortona's design process. He would have started with a series of rough studies of each figure, probably in black chalk on blue paper, of which the drawing sold at Sotheby's in 1977 appears to be the sole survivor. The present drawing then explores the relationship between the central figures, and lays them into a faintly drawn architectural framework that will become the entrance to the Villa Borghese in the final composition. Having satisfied himself with the arrangement, he rubbed the verso of the sheet with soft black chalk. Then, with a stylus, he carefully pressed through the contours of each element to transfer it to a second sheet of paper, perhaps the drawing in Vienna which after further reworking was to become the finished compositional study. The Petit-Hory drawing is a study to show him how the composition would look when it is reversed in the print.
The subject of the allegory is obscure, made more complicated in the present drawing as the figures do not yet have their attributes. In the final composition the central figure, Science, is showing her three companions Piety, Virtue and Study a bed of young plants growing in rich soil, representing the students at the Collegium Romanum, while to the left (right in the present drawing) two figures representing good governance stand behind a balustrade decorated with the Buoncompagni arms and the motto 'pomis sua nomina servant' derived from Virgil's Georgics, II, 240.