A native of Friuli, Pordenone worked throughout northern Italy, notably in Cremona (see No. 76) and Piacenza. He was deeply influenced by the painting of Raphael and Michelangelo, which he saw on a visit to Rome sometime before 1520. From 1528, he worked in Venice, where he soon became Titian’s chief rival and developed an intensely dramatic style characterized by the depiction of impassioned movement and gesture as well as strong light effects that anticipate the art of Tintoretto.
The qualities of Pordenone’s Venetian style are clear in this sheet, which shows the Roman citizen and persecutor of Christians, Saul (who later assumed the name Paul), having fallen from his horse after being blinded by a sudden light from heaven on the road to Damascus. The high drama and cacophony of the moment is communicated by the storm-swept landscape that includes broken branches hanging limply from the tree in the foreground. Horses rear with opened mouths and flaring nostrils while the attendants flee and the prostrate figure of Saul writhes on the ground. In its original deep blue, the paper would have provided a striking contrast to the generous white heightening that illuminates the scene.
Charles Cohen dates the Morgan sheet, which is preparatory for one of Pordenone’s most famous compositions, ca. 1532–33 on the grounds of its stylistic similarity to Pordenone’s frescoes for San Stefano, Venice, and his design for a now destroyed Genoese mural. Caterina Furlan, however, prefers a slightly later date of ca. 1535. Regardless, the composition undoubtedly reflects contemporary artistic developments in Rome, which were increasingly imported into Venetian art in the 1530s and 1540s. In particular, Pordenone borrowed the group of Saul and the distressed soldier running to his aid from Raphael’s treatment of the subject in a tapestry. (Pordenone probably knew well the tapestry’s cartoon, which is recorded as being in the Grimani collection in 1521.)1
Not surprisingly, the bold foreshortening and other virtuoso motifs in the Morgan Conversion greatly impressed the cognoscenti, and Pordenone’s composition achieved great fame in Venice. Numerous painted replicas and related versions suggest that the Morgan drawing served as the modello for a painting of the same subject, now lost, that was well known in mid-cinquecento Venice.2 The Tietzes noted that two crude illustrations of what seem to be paintings or painting fragments in the catalogue of the seventeenth-century collection of Andrea Vendramin depict details of the Morgan composition.3 One almost exactly duplicates the horse and rider on the far right, and the second is close to the man and foreshortened, prancing horse on the left. Drawn copies and variations further attest to the fame of the composition: another study likely by Pordenone, formerly in the Victor Bloch collection and on the art market in the early years of the twenty-first century,4 echoes almost exactly the rearing horse at the left of the Morgan sheet, although the alarmed figure beside the horse has been transformed into a figure of Neptune.5
The artist himself adapted the compelling image for the 1535 facade of Palazzo d’Anna, in which a rearing horse was set within a fictive painted arch to create a similarly powerful effect of dynamically foreshortened action. The younger generation of artists also took note; Tintoretto, for instance, integrated passages of Pordenone’s Conversion of Saul into his own celebrated ca. 1540 painting of the subject, now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington.
- The cartoon has since been lost, but it is interesting to note that Pordenone’s composition and Raphael’s woven tapestry are in the same direction; presumably the cartoon would have been in reverse to both.
- Cohen 1996, 1:342–44. Ridolfi records two paintings by Pordenone of this subject (1914– 24, 1:129) and Boschini a third one (1966, 341).
- Tietze and Tietze-Conrat 1944, 239, no. 1341; Cohen 1996, figs. 520 and 521.
- Sotheby’s, London, 8 July 2004, lot 22.
- Cohen 1996, pl. 519. An almost identical copy, eliminating only details of the foliage and some background figures visible at center in the original, is also preserved in the Morgan’s collection (inv. 1975.25).
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 62.
John Marciari, Drawing in Tintoretto's Venice, New York, 2018, no. 3, fig. 10, repr.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 1: no. 70; Fröhlich-Bum 1925, 85-90; Tietze and Tietze-Conrat 1944, 1:239; Popham and Wilde 1949, under no. 749; New York 1965-66, no. 53; Fiocco 1969, 1:102, 107, 154; Cohen 1972, 128-29; Cohen 1973, 248; Cohen 1975, 25, 31, 34; Cohen 1980, 20, 102-4; New York 1981, no. 14; Furlan 1988, no. D61; Cohen 1996, 342-48, 350; Nichols 1999, 30; Rearick 2001, 104; Trent 2006, no. 77; Munich 2008-9, no. 11; New York and Washington 2018-19, 29-31, no. 3.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, I, 70, repr.
100 Master drawings from the Morgan Library & Museum. München : Hirmer, 2008, no. 11, repr. [Rhoda Eitel-Porter]
This drawing is related to a lost fresco painted by Pordenone on the facade of Palazzo d'Anna in Venice. That the prodigious energy of Pordenone's work impressed Tintoretto is clear, for the latter's own version of the Conversion of St. Paul (National Gallery of Art, Washington) was based on the composition. Pordenone's burly figures reappear throughout the work of the young Tintoretto, and if Tintoretto was the contrarian character painted by his early biographers, an overt reference or homage to Pordenone--who sought to position himself as the alternative to Titian in the Venetian art world of the 1530s--may have been a gesture with both stylistic and ideological significance. -- Exhibition Label, from "Drawing in Tintoretto's Venice"