The drawing on the recto of this sheet is a rare example of an early-fifteenth-century compositional study related to a monumental fresco painting. It is also the only known work on paper that can be attributed with some certainty to the hand of Spinello di Luca, the Arezzo-born artist also known as Spinello Aretino.1 From the time it was first published in 1910 by Charles Fairfax Murray, the attribution of the drawing to Spinello has been generally accepted by scholars on the basis of its stylistic and typological affinities with his painted works. Yet the precise function and relation of the sheet to the finished fresco has been a matter of scholarly discussion over the years.
The inscription at the upper right, most likely by an early-fifteenth-century hand, alludes to the subject of the composition: “As Pope Alexander heard the miracles of St. Thomas of Canterbury, he canonized him.”2 The scene illustrates an episode from the life of Pope Alexander III (1159–1181), who canonized the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket (1118–1170), in 1173. The drawing thus relates to the last major fresco cycle completed by Spinello, the decoration of the Sala di Balia in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena. The frescoes were commissioned in 1407 and executed during the first half of 1408, when the artist was seventy five years old.3 The cycle includes sixteen episodes illustrating the story of the conflict between Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (1152–1190) and Sienese Pope Alexander III. While none of the painted scenes in Siena correspond exactly to the composition in the present work, the drawing is surely connected with the fresco representing the Reading of the Miracles of Thomas Becket for His Canonization by Pope Alexander III, as suggested by the inscription and as most recently clarified by Stefan Weppelmann.4
The Morgan drawing was most likely a preliminary sketch executed to explore the arrangement of the figures in the fresco, a composition that was probably submitted to the Sienese city council for approval.5 In the final fresco, Spinello retained only some of the elements sketched in the drawing, changing and rearranging many of the figure and details. The inclusion in the fresco of the chest containing the relics of St. Thomas Becket, for example, supposedly inserted to clarify the subject of the representation, forced the artist to eliminate the two seated cardinals seen from behind in the foreground.6 These figures together with several other motifs sketched in the drawing, were nonetheless reemployed by Spinello in other scenes of the same cycle.7
Spinello’s drawing is quite an exceptional document considering the very limited survival rate of preparatory studies for existing paintings from the early fifteenth century.8 Apparently the sheet remained for some time in Spinello’s workshop: years later, his son Guasparri, known as Parri Spinelli, used the verso of the paper to draw a full- length figure of a standing saint. Parri’s drawing was discovered only in 1968 when the nineteenth-century lining glued to the back of Spinello’s drawing was removed by the Morgan’s conservators.9
Parri Spinelli was a prolific draftsman, and a quite large group of his drawings survives.10 The artist’s drawing style is very distinctive, and the corpus of about twenty-eight drawings by him known today is quite homogeneous, usually pen-and-ink studies on unprepared paper with figures draped in extremely intricate, almost extravagant, garments. Although studies for whole compositions exist, many of the artist’s sheets are, like the one at the Morgan, studies for individual standing figures.
Giorgio Vasari, who admired and collected Parri Spinelli’s drawings, described the artist’s personal style in particularly eloquent terms:
Parri made his figures much longer and more slender than any painter who had lived before him, and whereas the others make them in the proportion of ten heads at most, he gave them eleven, and sometimes twelve; nor did this make them awkward, although they were slender and were ever bent in an arch either to the right or to the left, for the reason that this, as it appeared to him, and as he himself said, gave them more The flow of his draperies was very delicate, with an abundance of folds, which fell from the arms of his figures right down to the feet.11
According to Vasari, Parri had surpassed his own father in the practice of drawing.12
The presence of the two sketches by Spinello and by Parri on the same sheet of paper provides the opportunity to com- pare the drawing styles of father and son very closely and also to observe a broader generational shift in Tuscan art of the early fifteenth century as the Inter- national Style of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Lorenzo Monaco began to prevail in Florence. While Spinello created a clear and spatially convincing composition with simple pen strokes, Parri almost dissolved the volume of his figure in an intricate and highly complex pattern of lines about twenty years later. —GD
- For the most recent literature on the drawing, see Weppelmann 2003, Weppelmann 2003a, and Weppelmann 2011.
- “[Com]e papa alesandro udendo emiracoli di s[an]c[t]o tomaso di contorbio / se lo canonizzò.” According to Degenhart and Schmitt, the handwriting is by Spinello. See Degenhart and Schmitt 1968–2010, 1: no. 165.
- On the frescoes, see Tavenner Rajam 1977, and Brandi et al. 1983.
- Weppelmann 2003, 3–7, and Weppelmann 2011, 291–333.
- Brandi et al. 1983, 226.
- Weppelmann 2011, 324.
- For the relation of the drawing to other scenes in the Sala di Balia, see Tavenner Rajam 1977, 23 and 34–36. For comparisons with other paintings by Spinello, see Lloyd 1993, 225.
- It has been recently pointed out that Spinello’s drawing is one of the only two Italian drawings from the early 1400s that can be considered preparatory for still surviving paintings; see London and Florence 2010-11, 46.
- Zucker 1969, 400–404. Mark Zucker, who published the drawing for the first time, suggested that Parri’s drawing should be dated in the third decade of the fifteenth century.
- On Parri’s drawings, see Zucker 1973, Zucker 1981, and Zucker 1995.
- “Fece Parri le sue figure molto più svelte e lunghe che niun pittore che fusse stato inanzi a lui, e dove gli altri le fanno il più di dieci teste, egli le fece d’undici e talvolta di dodici: né perciò avevano disgrazia, comeché fossero sottili e facessero sempre arco o in sul lato destro o in sul; manco, perciò che, si come pareva a lui, avevano, e lo diceva egli stesso, più bravura. Il panneggiare de’ panni fu sottilissimo e copioso ne’ lembi, i quali alle sue figure cascavano di sopra le braccia insino attorno ai piedi.” Vasari 1878–85, 3:113; Vasari 1996, 1:310.
- See Zucker 1973, 204–10.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 5.
Selected references: Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 2:70; Weitenkampf 1917, 79; Berenson 1938, 2: no.2756D; New York 1939, no. 65; Oertel 1940, no. 44; Tolnay 1943, no. 15; Pouncey 1946, 168-72; Popham and Pouncey 1950, no. 271; Borsook 1960, 21; Berenson 1961, 2: no. 2756d; Miotti 1962, 92; Tintori and Meiss 1962, 29; Oertel 1966, 228n37; Degenhart and Schmitt 1968-2010, 1: no. 165; Zucker 1969, 400-404; Zucker 1973, 208-12; Boskovits 1975, 439; Tavenner Rajam 1977, 123, 134-36; Southard Carter 1979, 379; Borsook 1980, 38; Zucker 1981, 438n5; Brandi et al. 1983, 226; Tartuferi 1983, 14n20; Lloyd 1993, 225; Weppelmann 2003, 3-13; Weppelmann 2003a, 311-12; Weppelmann 2004, 148; Bresciani 2008, 209; London and Florence 2010-11, 46; Weppelmann 2011, 323-24.
Collection J. Pierpont Morgan : Drawings by the Old Masters Formed by C. Fairfax Murray. London : Privately printed, 1905-1912, II, intro. 3rd page; no. 70, repr.
The drawing on the recto is the only one that can be attributed to Spinello Aretino. It was most likely a study for his last major fresco cycle, the history of the Sienese Pope Alexander III, commisioned in 1407 and begun in early 1408, in the Sala di Balia of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. The fresco cycle, begun when the artist was 75 years of age, was produced in collaboration with his son Parri.