Born in Lombardy, Polidoro da Caravaggio moved to Rome around 1515 and became one of Raphael’s most influential and distinctive pupils. After Raphael's death in 1520, he worked primarily on a series of frescoes on the façades of Roman palazzi and by 1527 he left Rome for Naples. A year later he moved to Sicily and played an essential part in spreading the vocabulary of the High Renaissance in Southern Italy. Most of his painted works having been lost, his highly personal style and figural language is seen clearly in drawings, such as the present example, a rare surviving work from his late period in Sicily. Executed in the 1530s, possibly before 1535, during his stay in Messina, the drawing shows Saint Mark – accompanied by a lion, behind him – adored by two Franciscan or Dominican friars kneeled on an altar. Clustered within a richly decorated architectural setting, the composition is further framed by a frieze (only half finished) decorated with putti and antique motifs.
The sheet was initially drawn in black chalk, still visible in several pentimenti, as in the profile of the bearded man at right. Polidoro then emphasized the sculptural presence of the figural group at center with passages of brown wash and fine highlights of white gouache, spread on the figures and their draperies with the tip of the brush. Closely resembling the chiaroscuro effect of his frescoed façades, this detailed technique was similarly adopted by Polidoro on a number of drawings, including a design on blue paper, The Betrayal of Christ executed ca. 1525 for Valerio Belli's rock-crystal plaque in the Vatican (Royal Library, Windsor Castle, inv. RCIN 990050; see M. Clayton, Raphael and His Circle: Drawings from Windsor Castle, exhib. cat., The Queen's Gallery, London, and elsewhere, 1999, no. 61, ill.). While the statuesque pose of the bearded Saint Mark was tested in an earlier drawing in the Louvre, dating to his stay in Naples (inv. 6111; D. Cordellier, Polidoro da Caravaggio, Milan, 2007, no. 34, ill.), the dense handling of this sheet finds its closest comparison in his drawings for The Transfiguration, a panel once in Santa Maria del Carmine, Messina (P. L. de Castris, Polidoro da Caravaggio fra Napoli e Messina, Naples, 1988, pp. 103-14, ill.).
As first argued by de Castris (op. cit.), this drawing must have been intended as a near definitive design for a processional banner or a gonfalone for a confraternity in Messina. The bold decorative border framing the figural scene appears particularly apt for such an object, usually less expensive and faster to paint than a panel altarpiece. The devotional and charitable character of its iconography might connect the drawing to the Church of Saint Mark the Evangelist in Messina, which was originally connected to a hospital run by Dominican friars, as appointed by Pope Clement V in 1311.
We are grateful to Pierluigi Leone de Castris and David Franklin for confirming the attribution to Polidoro da Caravaggio based on direct inspection and digital photographs, respectively.