Inscribed on verso of mount, upper right and lower left, in graphite, "5".
Perino del Vaga was born Perino Buonaccorsi in Florence but, after a brief apprenticeship with Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, was taken to Rome in 1516 by a painter of modest abilities named Vaga. In Rome, Perino quickly joined Raphael’s workshop, becoming, with Giulio Romano, arguably the most important artist to emerge from the master’s circle. With the exception of the years 1528 to 1538, when he worked mainly for Andrea Doria in Genoa, Perino was active principally in Rome.
In a passage of the Vite, Vasari related that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese saw fresco decorations by Perino del Vaga in the Massimi chapel of Santissima Trinità dei Monti in Rome, whereupon he took Perino into his service.1 Cardinal Farnese commissioned Perino to design a series of six circular plaques reproducing stories from the Life of Christ, corresponding with the artist’s Massimi chapel frescoes. Perino’s designs were to be engraved in rock crystal by the gemcutter and medalist Giovanni Bernardi from Castelbolognese; the resulting plaques were intended as decoration for two silver candelabra.2 Both Christ Healing the Lame at the Pool of Bethesda and the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, often also called the Feeding of the Multitude, were created by Perino in preparation for two of these plaques.
Perino decorated the side walls of Massimi chapel in about 1538–39, not long after his return to Rome from Genoa and Pisa.3 With the exception of a fresco fragment of the Raising of Lazarus in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, all of Perino’s work in the chapel was destroyed in the 1850s. Vasari, however, included an elaborate description of Perino’s frescoes in his Vite, which John Gere artfully connected to surviving drawings by Perino, thus recreating the iconographic program of the decorations.4 Vasari singles out the Pool of Bethesda, one of two large upright rectangular frescoes that occupied the center of each side wall, for special praise: “In one scene was the Pool of Bethesda, with all the cripples and sick persons, and the Angel who comes to move the waters, the porticoes seen most beautifully foreshortened in perspective and the movements and vestments of the priests, all painted with great grace and vivacity, although the figures are not very large.”5
The recto of the Morgan drawing (IV, 47) and the tracing on its verso, which allowed the artist to visualize the composition in reverse, show Christ encouraging a lame man to rise and consider himself healed, as told in the Gospel (John 5:1–47). The angel who was said to stir up the water in the pool, allowing the first to enter it to be healed, appears above in a flourish of fluttering garments. It is the only study for Bernardi’s rock crystal of this subject, from which it differs in several details. In particular, the angel was removed, the number of figures was reduced, and Christ was moved closer to the center of the composition. As the sheet was cut horizontally and extended on a separate piece of paper at bottom, one might wonder whether the drawing was originally for the Massimi chapel fresco. Comparison with a detailed chiaroscuro woodcut after the fresco, however, confirms that the design of the scene was skillfully adapted for the round, with, for example, the angel brought down from a greater height and placed more horizontally.6 The rectangular woodcut neatly fits the large central space visible in a pen-and-ink drawing in the British Museum executed by Perino or a member of his workshop for the related Massimi chapel wall; the cartouche above the central rectangular panel is there inscribed probatica piscina.7
In his life of Perino, Vasari identifies the subjects of five of the six frescoes but does not mention the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, ending his list with “the Transfiguration, and in the last a similar scene.”8 Either the Feeding of the Multitude was the sixth, unrecorded subject or it was added specifically for Cardinal Farnese in order to link the series more closely with the liturgical Eucharistic function of the final objects. The episode, in which Jesus broke bread, gave thanks, and passed it to the disciples to distribute among their followers, is often seen as a prefiguration of the Last Supper and Mass. An earlier, strictly linear pen-and-ink design of the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes by Perino is recorded in a private collection in London.9
Numerous drawings by Perino relating to five of the six crystal plaques have been identified over the years, the great majority published by Gere in 1960. It is noteworthy that most of the drawings are quite linear and lack shading, making the lines for the incisions clearer. A notable exception is the Morgan Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, possibly because Perino had to create the scene from scratch and therefore needed to conceive it more fully. It also happens to be one of the compositions best adapted to the circular format, with the figures arranged in a ring with Christ at the upper center. More painterly than nearly all the other designs for the crystals, it demonstrates how Perino deployed a crowd in a variety of animated poses and interacting groups.
A letter by Giovanni Bernardi indicates that the rock crystals had been readied for engraving by July 1539, which thus helps to date the drawings.10 It seems as if the round plaques were not used for some time; Vasari only writes that “for two candelabra of silver he engraved six round crystals.”11 If such candelabra indeed ever existed, they must have been dismantled, because three of Bernardi’s plaques, including the one showing the Pool at Bethesda, were used by the goldsmith Antonio Gentili in combination with a series of later oval crystal plaques, also by Bernardi, in the decoration of a pair of gilded silver candlesticks for the main altar of St. Peter’s in Rome that were donated to the church in 1582 by Cardinal Farnese.12 The candlesticks are now in the Treasury of the Basilica. Two further crystals, the Expulsion from the Temple and the Transfiguration of Christ, are mounted on a silver casket of ca. 1600 now in the collection of the National Museum in Copenhagen.13 The sixth crystal, the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, for which the Morgan drawing would have been a late study, has been lost.
The elaborate hand-painted mount of Christ Healing the Lame at the Pool of Bethesda is typical for the collection of drawings assembled by the antiquary and art collector John Talman. Unlike the similarly lavish gold mounts used on drawings belonging to Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth—for which the gold is stamped, as on a book binding—Talman’s mounts have been painted by hand or stenciled with powdered gold mixed with gum arabic and water and applied with a fine brush.14
- Vasari 1996, 2:179; Vasari 1878–85, 5:622.
- Vasari 1996, 2:64–65, 177–79; Vasari 1878–85, 5:373–75, 620–23. Perino is not explicitly named as the designer of the plaques. Ernst Kris first recognized the connection. See Kris 1928–29, passim.
- Gere 1960, 9–10.
- Gere 1960, passim; Gere in New York 1987, passim.
- Vasari 1996, 2:178; Vasari 1878–85, 5:621.
- Bartsch 12: no. 14.
- British Museum, London, inv. 1961,1014.1 (verso). See Pouncey and Gere 1962, no. 169 (as autograph, but possibly by a studio assistant).
- Vasari 1996, 2:178; Vasari 1878–85, 5:621.
- Gere in New York 1987, 247–48.
- 29 July 1539, “ho fatto far tutti li cristalli de li candalieri,” suggesting that Bernardi had had the crystals smoothed and shaped in anticipation of engraving them; Ronchini 1868, 11, doc. IV; and Slomann 1926, 19 (cited by Gere in New York 1987, 249).
- “E per due candellieri d’argento fece in cristallo sei tondi. . . .” See Vasari 1996, 2:64; Vasari 1878–85, 5:373.
- Kris 1928–29, passim. Riebesell in Rome and Paris 1998, no. 100.
- National Museum, Copenhagen, inv. D201. See Riebesell in Rome and Paris 1998, no. 103. Riebesell, however, erroneously lists also the Carrying of the Cross as from this series.
- Sicca 2008, 13.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 44.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 4:47; Gere 1960, no. 12; New York 1965-66, no. 85; Florence 1966, 44; Rome 1981-82, 2: under no. 77; Parma Armani 1986, no. C.VII.1; New York 1987, no. 76; Mantua 2001, no. 140.
Stampfle, Felice, and Jacob Bean. Drawings from New York collections. I: The Italian Renaissance. New York : Metropolitan Museum of Art : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1965, no. 85, repr.
Formerly attributed to Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, called Il Parmigianino, Parma 1503-1540 Casalmaggiore.
Vasari relates that Cardinal Alessandro Farnese commissioned from Perino designs for a series of six circular plaques, which were to be engraved in rock crystal by the lapidary and medallist Giovanni Bernardi. Five circular drawings presumed to be from this series can be traced, two are in the collection of the Morgan Library.
Parmigianino, 1503-1540, Formerly attributed to.
Lely, Peter, Sir, 1618-1680, former owner.
Marchetti, Giovanni Matteo, Bishop, -1704, former owner.
Talman, John, 1677-1726, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.