This drawing is a preparatory study for the third apostle from the right, possibly Simon the Zealot, in Perugino’s altarpiece of the Ascension of Christ, now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon (figs. 1, 3). Originally installed in the church of San Pietro in Perugia, the large painting is the central panel of a polyptych, Perugino’s most ambitious altarpiece for his city, begun in 1495 and completed between 1496 and January 1500, as confirmed by the stream of payments issued to the artist. The monumental work remained in situ until 1797, when it was dissembled and taken to the Louvre by Napoleonic troops and eventually donated to the city of Lyon by Pope Pius VII in 1815, after having been reassembled.
While Perugino followed precise instructions provided by the Benedictine monks of the church of San Pietro regarding the devotional message of the altarpiece, he independently developed the painting’s iconography based upon his most successful work to date, the lost Assumption of the Virgin frescoed in the Sistine Chapel in 1481 which was later concealed by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. The artist structured The Ascension over two parallel and symmetrical sections, the Resurrected Christ surrounded by angels above, mirrored below by a tight sequence of the twelve apostles flanking the Virgin Mary. The superb pictorial execution and delicate balance between the figures mark a peak in Perugino’s mature career, with the painting hailed by Vasari as 'the best of those [works] in oil by the hand of Pietro that are in Perugia' (Vite, Bettarini and Barocchi, ed., III, Florence, 1971, p. 610).
In order to achieve the painting’s remarkable rhythm and symmetry, Perugino prepared the composition on paper, as attested by at least three surviving autograph drawings directly related to the altarpiece, a considerable number for a work executed in the Quattrocento: two detailed head studies, one in the British Museum (fig. 2) and the present one, and a study for the four standing apostles to the left of the composition at the Harvard Art Museums (A.E. Popham, P. Pouncey, Italian Drawings in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, London, 1950, no. 189, ill; V. Garibaldi, Perugino, il divin pittore, Cinisello Balsamo, 2005, no. II.19, ill). Executed in a different technique from the rest of the group is a workshop drawing for an angel, formerly in the Loyd Collection at Lockinge and often associated with the same endeavor (sold at Sotheby’s, London, 4 July 2018, lot 13).
As indicated by the fragmentary sheet at Harvard, the artist established the composition for the entire group of watching figures at the bottom and then made individual, more characterized head studies for each one of them on separate sheets of paper. As seen in the example at the British Museum and the present one, the head studies are surrounded by the silhouetted parts of the overlapping figures. It is difficult to establish why Perugino adopted such way of working: perhaps it originates in his extensive practice as a fresco painter, where he had to think of giornate and cutting cartoons along contours to hide the joins. Certainly, this distinctive technique was copied by his most prominent pupil, Raphael, as can be seen in the early head studies for the Oddi Coronation of the Virgin at the Vatican (fig. 4). In discussing the British Museum drawing in his 1917 seminal work on Umbrian drawings, Oskar Fischel acknowledged the special character of such studies which he called ‘Hilfszeichnungen’, auxiliary drawings conveying certain details of modelling executed to guide the artist in the painting process, after the cartoon has been completed (‘Die Zeichnungen der Umbrer’, Jahrbuch der Preussichen Kunstsammlungen, XXXVIII, 1917, p. 129).
Sensitively drawn on prepared paper in metalpoint – possibly silver, given its brown hue –, the present drawing appeared with the correct attribution to Perugino in the 1910 sale of the Lanna collection in Stuttgart. It soon entered the Princely collections of Lichtenstein before being acquired by a private collector. Overlooked by scholars, the sheet was recognized and published for the first time by Peter Dreyer (op. cit.) who highlighted the quality of the drawing and Perugino’s masterful command of the metalpoint technique. With sure outlines, the artist defined the apostle’s head and carefully described the expressive features of the man, his eye-sockets and his beard with free, intertwining lines. As typical in the artist’s works, highlights are done in white bodycolor, spread delicately with the tip of the brush.
Belonging to the same type and stage in the preparatory process, the Bonna sheet compares closely to the drawing in the British Museum, a silverpoint study for the head of the younger apostle in the extreme right (fig. 2): from the thin paper, prepared the same way, with seemingly vertical movements of the brush, to the build-up of the heads, first outlined with faint lines in metalpoint and then worked up with crosshatching in order to achieve the roundness of the skulls. Furthermore, the outlines of both drawings were indented for transfer, a recurring practice found especially in Perugino’s metalpoint drawings, also evident on the four apostles at Harvard and in the standing Saint Jerome in the Teylers Museum, executed about the same time of the San Pietro polyptych, ca. 1500 (inv. A3; A. Baldinotti in Perugino, op. cit., no. II.18, ill.).
Perugino learned the demanding and challenging technique of metalpoint, here mastered with confidence, in the Florentine workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, which he joined with Leonardo da Vinci in the mid-1470s. The Umbrian artist employed this medium from then on and extensively through 1505, in preparing both panel paintings and frescoes, disseminating its use beyond Florence through the Central Italian regions of Umbria and the Marches. While it is generally acknowledged the essential role that Perugino played in the formation of the young Raphael, the rediscovery of the Bonna drawing brought new evidence of this legacy, attesting how Raphael’s adoption of metalpoint and use of auxiliary drawings might derive from the teachings of his master.
We thank Sylvia Ferino-Pagden for confirming the attribution to Perugino based on a digital photograph
Fig. 1. Perugino, The Ascension of Christ (detail), Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
Fig. 2. Perugino, Head of a bearded man, British Museum, London.
Fig. 3. Perugino, The Ascension of Christ, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.
Fig. 4. Raphael, Head of a bearded man, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille.