Cesare da Sesto

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Cesare da Sesto
Cesare da Sesto Album [contains the binding only; Drawings are mounted separately]
ca. 1508-1512
Pen and brown ink, with some red and black chalk, on paper.
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) in 1909.
II, 25a-II, 67
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.

Cesare da Sesto was a native of Sesto Calende in Lombardy, near Milan, and is generally thought to have received his initial training there in the circle of Leonardo da Vinci, although little documentary evidence exists with which to reconstruct his career, especially for his early years.1 By around 1508, moreover, he was in Rome, where he became part of the team of artists working under work at Sant’Onofrio, Rome, and in the Episcopal Palace at Ostia.2 After four or five years, Cesare moved on to Naples and Messina, bringing the High Renaissance style to the south even before Polidoro da Caravaggio’s long residence there (see 1979.55), but he eventually returned to Milan. He occupies a unique place among his contemporaries for having been closely associated both with the leonardeschi in Milan and with Raphael and his workshop in Rome.3

The twenty-six drawings by Cesare in the Morgan’s collection were formerly collected together in an album that was disbound sometime after it came to the Morgan. The drawings were matted individually between 1950 and 1969. Fairfax Murray noted that they had been mounted in an album around 1825, and the binding of the album in which they were formerly kept does seem to be English and from the early nineteenth century, but there is evidence that the drawings had already been reordered at least once before that time. The pages of the nineteenth-century album used window mounts to show both the recto and verso of the sheets, and the glue used around the edges of the sheets to hold them in the mounts is clearly visible today, but areas of skinned paper at the corners of many sheets suggest that they had previously been attached to an album by the more common means of gluing the corners alone. There are, moreover, eight drawings in the group that are not by Cesare da Sesto himself. They can be distinguished not only by their style but also because they are on different paper.4 Conversely, there are a handful of sheets by Cesare in other collections that may have originally been part of the set.

Although commonly described as Cesare’s “sketchbook,” the drawings bear no definitive evidence to confirm that they were drawn in a bound volume. There are no watermarks, stitch holes, lines running from the verso of one sheet onto the recto of another, or other such codicological clues.5 Nonetheless, research carried out on the drawings by Elizabeth Bernick and Reba Fishman Snyder has demonstrated that the paper for all of Cesare’s drawings is of the same type: while there are no watermarks, the chain lines are consistent across all the sheets. Additionally, they note that if a standard royal sheet of paper from the early sixteenth century were folded into octavos, it would yield pages around 200–20 x 140–50 millimeters, remarkably close to the roughly 190 x 140–millimeter size of the Morgan’s Cesare drawings, which have all been slightly trimmed.6 Most of the drawings by Cesare also bear evidence of water damage along their left edge, although that damage is not present in the eight additional drawings not by Cesare that were formerly bound in the album.7

As further evidence that the Morgan drawings were probably the contents of a single sketchbook, Bernick also notes that they are consistent in type, all of them being study sheets rather than preparatory drawings for paintings, in contrast to the many other drawings by Cesare that survive. The drawings offer a fascinating glimpse of the creative processes at work in the High Renaissance. Some of the pages (inv. II, 45–46, for example) are covered with the all’antica ornament known as grotteschi. Rather than examples copied from the Domus Aurea or other ancient or Renaissance examples, they seem instead to be Cesare’s free invention of this type of decoration, which came to be used extensively in projects such as the palaces at the Vatican and in Ostia where he worked. This same sense of inventive, associational fantasy pervades the figure drawings and compositional sketches in the album. On inv. II, 48, a drawing of Judith with the decapitated head of Holofernes is paired with a drawing of David with the head of Goliath; the decapitated heads probably then led Cesare to invent the fantastic masks that fill in the space between the studies.8 Similarly, inv. II, 26 joins a study of St. George conquering the dragon with a drawing of St. Michael conquering a dragonlike Satan. In this case, both studies relate to works by Raphael, but to paintings done before Raphael arrived in Rome, so Cesare must have been inspired by drawings still available in Raphael’s workshop. Other drawings, however, probably reflect paintings that Cesare could have seen as they were being painted, for example the several drawings (inv. II, 61 and II, 62) that are closely related to Raphael’s Mackintosh Madonna (National Gallery, London).9

Cesare also studied Michelangelo, but to a lesser extent than might be expected unless one takes into account that much of the Sistine ceiling was still behind scaffolding during Cesare’s time in Rome. A couple of drawings evoke the ignudi,10 and another (inv. II, 47) is based on the scene at right in Michelangelo’s Punishment of Haman pendentive. The latter would seem an odd detail on which to focus, but it could be used to argue that Cesare had at least brief access to Michelangelo’s ceiling from the scaffolding (perhaps through the agency of Bramante), where a minor figure group might have been more readily visible. What is more, as in the cases described above, Cesare then used that model to imagine a related subject: the king in the Haman becomes King Solomon in a Judgment of Solomon. This and the above-mentioned examples hint at Cesare’s process of emulation and invention, but far more remains to be said about the sketchbook, and one looks forward to the eventual publication of Bernick’s work.



  1. As Nova 1997, 483–84, notes, the first work in Carminati’s 1994 monograph on Cesare is a fresco cycle in San Donato at Sesto Calende— which formerly bore the date 1503, when the artist would already have been twenty-six years old—and even the attribution of this to Cesare might be debated.
  2. See Henry 2000.
  3. Much of the scholarship on Cesare focuses on the question of whether he spent one long, uninterrupted period in southern Italy or whether he traveled to Milan in the middle of that time and then returned south. The near total lack of documentary evidence makes this difficult to determine. Having been made in a specific place and time, the Roman sketchbook thus provides an important touchstone.
  4. Those probably not by Cesare are inv. II, 25a; II, 25b; II, 25c; II, 26a; II, 27a; II, 28a; II, 29a; II, 32a.
  5. Watermarks are mentioned by Elen and others, but the watermarks are only on the drawings not by Cesare, which must have been added to the group at some later moment.
  6. One sheet, inv. II, 26, is at 284 x 186 mm roughly the same height, but twice as wide, as all the other pages. It might have served as a wrapper or flyleaf of the sketchbook or group of drawings, but there is no evidence with which to draw that conclusion. Alternately, it could have been paper from the same source or a sheet that was folded and kept with the sketchbook.
  7. Elizabeth Bernick, the Kress Predoctoral Fellow at the Morgan Drawing Institute in 2017–18, carried out this work with Reba Fishman Snyder in the Morgan’s Thaw Conservation Center. Their findings will be included in Bernick’s dissertation, which is dedicated to Cesare’s sketchbook. This entry relies heavily on Bernick’s work, the eventual publication of which will be a major contribution to our understanding of Cesare and his sketchbook.
  8. There is another drawing of Judith on inv. II, 27.
  9. The cartoon for the Mackintosh Madonna survives (British Museum, London, inv. 1894,0721.1) and apparently remained in Raphael’s workshop for at least a decade, so it is also possible that it rather than the painting was Cesare’s inspiration. The Adam and Eve on inv. II, 38 seems inspired by, but not deliberately a copy of, the fresco of that subject on the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura, painted around 1509
  10. See inv. II, 59.

Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 36.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 2:26-67; Frizzoni 1915, 187-94; Meller 1960, 123n18; Stockholm 1970, no. 33; Hackenbroch 1979, 42; Bora 1980, under nos. 9, 10-11; Cogliati Arano 1980, under nos. 35, 41, 78-79, and 87-88; Pedretti 1982-87, 1:165; Perissa Torrini 1983, 80-91, 94-95; Washington and elsewhere 1984-85, under no. 22, 60; Giusti and De Castris 1985, 123; Bober and Rubinstein 1986, under no. 22, 65; Lawrence 1986, no. 4; Oberhuber 1986, passim; Marani 1987, 49-51; Pedretti and Trutty-Coohill 1993, 62-65, nos. 24-27; Carminati 1994, 242-86; Elen 1995, 289-91, no. 49; Bayer 1996, 355-56; Nova 1997, 483-84; Giannattasio 1999, passim; New York 2003, 177; New York 2004, 85.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, II, 26-67.


This early nineteenth-century album housed thirty-four sixteenth-century Italian drawings - twenty-six by Cesare da Sesto, one attributed to Camillo Boccaccino and seven anonymous sixteenth-century Italian school. The album was dismantled in 1961 and the drawings are mounted separately.

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