Lelio Orsi

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Lelio Orsi
Flight into Egypt
ca. 1570-1575
Pen and brown ink and wash, over black chalk, on paper.
11 x 11 7/8 inches (279 x 303 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.
I, 51

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Inscribed at lower left, in pen and brown ink, "Novellara Lelio Orsi"; at lower right, in red chalk, "13"; on verso, at upper center, in pen and brown ink, shining through to recto, "N[superscript o]. 23 / XXXXII / Originale / Di Lelio Orsi detto Lelio da Novellara"; on verso of mount, at upper left, in graphite, "1446"; at upper center, in graphite, "From D[superscript r]. Chauncey's collection".

Nathaniel Hone, London (1718-1784, Lugt 2793); possibly Dr. Chauncey (1709-1777), London (according to inscription on lining and Fairfax Murray); Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), London and Florence; from whom purchased in London in 1910 by J. Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913; no mark; see Lugt 1509), New York; J. P. Morgan, Jr. (1867-1943), New York.

Relatively little is known about Lelio Orsi, who was born in Novellara and spent most of his career in the employ of the secondary Gonzaga court there. He may have been a pupil of Correggio. Orsi is recorded in 1535 in Reggio Emilia but was banished in 1546, taking refuge in Novellara, where he became a noted painter of facades. Only fragments of his murals survive, in addition to a small corpus of easel paintings and drawings. His unique idiosyncratic vision is perhaps best expressed in his masterful drawings, of which the Flight into Egypt is an exceptional example.1

Several motifs, including the small bridge and the Virgin’s wimple, are borrowed from Albrecht Dürer’s famous woodcut of the same subject (Victoria and Albert Museum, London, inv. 24910:14) or from Marcantonio Raimondi’s 1506 copy of the latter. Indeed, the dominance of the landscape background reveals the artist’s contact with Northern art, with the heavy, drooping vegetation reminiscent of the work of Albrecht Altdorfer and other draftsmen of the Danube school of the first two decades of the sixteenth century. Orsi’s rocky backdrop, precipitous ravine, and dense primeval forest, however, underscore the dangers of the Holy Family’s undertaking and make Dürer’s scene look like a stroll in the countryside by comparison.

Orsi’s interpretation of the Flight is unusual in that both the Virgin and Joseph are shown mounted. Orsi may have been familiar with an earlier example of this iconographic variant thought to date from the 1520s or 1530s and known in three versions, one in Miami, another formerly in Schloss Seusslitz near Dresden, and a third on the art market.2 The composition is usually attributed jointly to Battista Dossi and Dosso Dossi, although most recently Peter Humfrey has proposed that it is the work of Battista alone.

The late 1560s and early 1570s saw Orsi express his very personal vision of redemption in a series of extraordinarily expressive drawings such as Christ Among the Crosses (private collection), often nocturnal scenes of a transcendent, visionary quality with which the Morgan Flight into Egypt has been associated.3 The drawing shows a strong Correggesque influence and is generally thought to have been made in the early 1570s for an as-yet-unidentified purpose. Sketches on the recto and verso of a sheet in Frankfurt, formerly given to Correggio but now attributed to Orsi, were probably made early on in the design process as studies for the group of the Virgin and Child on the donkey portrayed in the Morgan sheet.4 In them the Virgin may be seen riding across uneven terrain holding the Child close under her mantle. —REP


  1. Venturi 1901–40, 9:639.
  2. Gibbons 1968, no. 120; Humfrey 1998, 212; with Fondantico di Tiziana Sassoli, in Bologna, in 2017.
  3. Pirondini 2012, 32–35.
  4. Städel Museum, Frankfurt, inv. 4109. See Washington and Parma 1984, figs. 87b and 87c; Frankfurt and Paris 2014–15, no. 84.

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 88.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 1: no. 51; New York 1965-66, no. 105; Rome 1972-73, no. 50; Cleveland and New Haven 1978, no. 88; Notre Dame 1983, no. 29; Romani 1984, 72, 75-76; Washington and Parma 1984, no. 87; Reggio Emilia 1987-88, no. 174; Pirondini 2012, 32; Frankfurt and Paris 2014-15, under no. 84.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, I, 51, repr.
Stampfle, Felice, and Jacob Bean. Drawings from New York collections. I: The Italian Renaissance. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1965, p. 64, no. 105, repr.


Watermark: none visible through lining.

Associated names: 

Hone, Nathaniel, 1718-1784, former owner.
Chauncy, Charles, 1709-1777, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.
Morgan, J. P. (John Pierpont), 1867-1943, former owner.

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