Circle of Tomaso da Modena

Circle of Tomaso da Modena
1325 or 1326-
Model book
ca. 1370-1380
Pen and brown ink, green wash, on parchment
Leaves: 9 1/8 x 6 7/8 inches (232 x 176 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.
II, 2-25
Eugène Piot (1812-1890), Paris; Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), London and Florence; from whom purchased through Galerie Alexandre Imbert, Rome, in 1909 by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913), New York (no mark; see Lugt 1509); his son, J. P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), New York.

The drawings in this fourteenth-century model book have been the subject of extensive scholarly scrutiny since they were first published by Charles Fairfax Murray in 1910.1 Many crucial aspects of their origin and function, however, remain unknown.

The model book consists of eight parchment bifolios containing a total of more than seventy different illustrations. The outer bifolio functions as a cover; it bears some faint sketches and the letters SANCTVS on the outside, while on the inside of the verso of the first folio the drawing of a horse was added by a not particularly skilled hand.2 All the drawings in the model book are executed with thin contour lines in pen and brown ink, on top of which green-gray wash was applied with a brush to render the shadows and provide volume to the figures. Occasionally the drawings are enriched by touches of color, employed in a very restricted palette of purple, green, and red.3 The largely uniform style of the drawings suggests that they were all executed by one single hand or at least by artists working closely together in the same workshop.4

The place of origin of the model book has been a rather contested question, with Lombardy, central Italy, and Naples all having been suggested by scholars over the years. Despite these differences of opinion, a date of around 1370 for the work is now generally accepted based on analysis of the drawing style and the figures’ costumes.

Several pages of the model book contain multiple scenes organized in a neat, orderly manner on separate rows; other leaves are instead filled by one single large composition. The numerous illustrations in the model book are all of secular subject matter and include representations of the twelve months as well as images of games and daily occupations, amorous encounters, hunting and falconry, and heraldic devices alongside scenes relating to health matters.5 A world of courtly elegance and secular entertainment pervades the pages. The individual motifs in this rich repertoire of images have been variously connected to frescoes, manuscript illuminations, and sculptures, yet a specific context for their origin is hard to establish. Annette Dixon has extensively investigated the relationship between many of the model book’s drawings and the illuminations of Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscripts from northern Italy, suggesting that the Morgan model book relates to the quickly developing tradition of these late medieval guides to health during the last decade of the fourteenth century.6

Like other drawing books of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the one at the Morgan was clearly intended as a repertory of motifs to be preserved for study and reuse, but who recorded these images? Scholars are divided in maintaining that the drawings were executed by a manuscript illuminator or by a painter. In 1985, Luciano Bellosi, while commenting on the rarity and exceptional quality of the drawings, suggested that they bear strong stylistic affinities with the work of the Emilian painter Tomaso Barisini, known as Tomaso da Modena.7 Born in Modena, Tomaso moved north to Treviso in 1347, when he was about twenty-three years old, and stayed in the town until 1358, quickly establishing himself as one of its most prominent artists.8 In Treviso, Tomaso executed prestigious commissions— among them the frescoes in the chapter house of the convent of San Nicolò, in which he vividly portrayed forty illustrious members of the Dominican order, as well as the fresco cycle (now in the Museo Civico) with stories of St. Ursula for the Church of Santa Margherita. These commissions had an important and lasting influence on the development of painting in the area. Bellosi drew particular atten- tion to compelling comparisons between the figures in the Morgan model book and those in Tomaso’s frescoes of St. Ursula.9 The scholar highlighted, for example, the striking similarity between the profiles of the figures, characterized by distinctive drooping noses, and the analogous rendering of the necklines in female figures’ dresses. Even the tentative rendering of the perspective is similar in the drawings and the frescoes. Over time Bellosi’s attribution has found both supporters and detractors.10 While the lack of a corpus of drawings securely ascribed to Tomaso or to any other artist in his circle has made it impossible to confirm the attribution with certainty, the similarities between the figures in the drawings and those in the artist’s frescoes cannot be ignored. At the very least, however, we must imagine that the artist was active in northern Italy, where he was exposed to the art of Tomaso, in order to have gathered the images in the model book by copying them from a variety of sources, including paintings and book illustrations.

In recent years, new art-historical studies have added important discoveries to our knowledge of secular wall paintings in northern Italy, emphasizing the importance of these works in the development of Renaissance art.11 Recent restorations have brought to light several surviving wall decorations dating from the later thirteenth century to the mid-fifteenth century in palaces and homes in many northern Italian cities.12 It is perhaps in the context of such secular domestic decorations that the artist who assembled the Morgan model book would have brought to fruition his abundant and imaginative repertoire of drawn figures. —GD


  1. Fairfax Murray 1910, nos. 1–25. The literature on the model book is extensive. For a recent, brief account with references to the most rele- vant previous bibliography, see the entry by Anne Varick Lauder in New York 2006, no. 1.
  2. For a description and codicological remarks on the model book, see Elen 1995, no. 1, and Scheller 1995, no. 24.
  3. The manufacture of the model book and the technique of the drawings are similar to those of a slightly smaller model book in Paris that con- tains exclusively representations of real and fan- tastic animals. See Florence 2009, no. 23.
  4. Some scholars have instead suggested that the drawings were executed by different hands. See Gibbs 1989, 300.
  5. The only nonsecular figures are two friars depicted respectively on fol. 13v and fol. 15v.
  6. Dixon 1990, 9–20.
  7. Bellosi 1985, 15–21.
  8. On Tomaso, see Gibbs 1989.
  9. For this fresco cycle, see Orsola svelata 2009.
  10. See, for example, De Marchi 1999, 24, and Gibbs 1989, 300–302.
  11. On this topic, see Dunlop 2009.
  12. See, for example, Cozzi 2006 and Dunlop 2008, 77–91.

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 2.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1910, nos. 1-25; Malaguzzi Valeri 1913, 1:226, 256, 289, 537, 541, 550, 591- 92, 726, 741; van Marle 1923-38, 7:122; van Marle 1931, passim (72, 81, 145, 478); Cauman 1938, 7; Demonts 1938, 333; van Schendel 1938, 69-70; New York 1939, no. 98; Nissen 1950, 29; Pächt 1950, 18, 38; Grassi 1956, 86-88; Ames 1962, no. 14; Baltimore 1962, no. 13; Scheller 1963, no. 20; Loomis 1965, no. 169; Pressouyre 1965, 433, 437; Degenhart and Schmitt 1968-2010, 1: no. 86; Bologna 1969, 354; Fossi Todorow 1970, 14, 88; Watson and Kirkham 1975, 42; Jenni 1976, 13, 27, 61, 78, 80, 103; Ettlinger 1978, 33; Florence 1978, xxiii; Jenni 1978, 139, 141; Leymarie, Monnier, and Rose 1979, 8; Watson 1979, 40-42; New York 1981, no. 1; Bellosi 1985, 15-21; Pesaro 1987, 73, 116; Brown 1988, no. 685; Dixon 1988; Gibbs 1989, 300-302; Dixon 1990, 9-20; Sciolla 1992, 232; Elen 1995, no. 1; Scheller 1995, no. 24; Coerver 1997, 208-9; Milan 1997, 205, 208; Marinelli and Mazza 1999, 24; Goebel 2002, 188; Paris 2004, no. 77; Cozzi 2006, 55-56; Manson 2006-8, 233; New York 2006, no. 1; Ritz- Guilbert 2010, 210-13, 221; Casadio and Cozzi 2012, 24-25; Cozzi 2016, 165.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, II, 2-25.
Denison, Cara D., and Helen B. Mules, with the assistance of Jane V. Shoaf. European Drawings, 1375-1825. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1981, no. 1.
From Leonardo to Pollock: Master drawings from the Morgan Library. New York: Morgan Library, 2006, cat. no. 1, pp. 2-5.

Associated names: 

Piot, Eugène, 1812-1890, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.

Artist page: