Watermark: Ladder inscribed in a circle, surmounted by a 5-pointed star. See Beta print. (cf. Briquet II, 5923. Florence, 1513-14; 5922. Augsburg, 1506-10/ Sienna, 1495-1524; 5924. Vienna, 1538/ Fabriano, 1532; 5920. Venice, 1491/ Florence, 1492) [Check also Jane Roberts, A Dictionary of Michelangelo's watermarks, Milan, 1988].
This magnificent drawing represents Michelangelo's design for an altarpiece commissioned around 1547 for the Cesi family chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, Rome. Roused from her reading by the sudden appearance of a large angel, who announces that she is to conceive and bear a son, the Virgin turns to look over her shoulder and raises a protective hand. The figures are evoked by a dense layering of delicate, black chalk strokes whereas the accoutrements of the domestic setting -- a cabinet supporting a statue of Moses and containing a basket, book and pitcher, are only lightly outlined. The painting was removed from its original location in the mid-seventeenth century and has since been lost (1). It is, however, recorded in three smaller replicas, now in the Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Corsini, Rome (2); the Pinacoteca Manfrediniana, Venice (3); and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (4), of which the Corsini version slightly extends the composition on all four sides (5).
From Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, we learn that as a favour to his young friend Tommaso dei Cavalieri, Michelangelo agreed to provide Cardinal Federico Cesi (1500-65) with a drawing for an altarpiece depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin. The painting, which was destined for the Cardinal's chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, was to be executed by the master's protégé Marcello Venusti (ca. 1512-79) (6). In fact, one may infer a more direct request than Vasari implies, for Michelangelo himself certainly knew the Cardinal: he had received a gift, apparently of food, from Federico Cesi as early as 1543, and also was acquainted the Cardinal's brother (7).
The Morgan drawing served as a small cartoon, a "cartonetto", for Venusti to use as a model while painting the altarpiece. The two artists probably first met around 1542, when both commenced work on the decoration of the Cappella Paolina in the Vatican. During the last decades of his life, the celebrated Michelangelo was besieged with numerous commissions and demands on his time, which may help explain why he collaborated with Marcello Venusti, a competent painter and meticulous copyist. The Cesi Annunciation was only one of several paintings by Venusti after Michelangelo, the most notable being the Last Judgement now in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples (8).
The Morgan drawing was likely created during the summer of 1547 or soon thereafter. An undisputed study by Michelangelo, in pen and ink, for the Virgin's right hand holding a prayer book that exists in a manuscript in the Vatican Library (9), carries on its verso the draft of a letter by Michelangelo written at some point during the period April to July 1547, thereby implying a similar date for the Cesi commission.
Besides the outstanding quality of the drawing, the faint indication of an arched top at upper left is further evidence that the Morgan sheet is Michelangelo's original preparatory study for the altarpiece rather than a copy by Venusti. (The extant painted replicas, all thought to be by Venusti, are rectangular). Due to a late nineteenth-century taste for the rapid sketch, many of Michelangelo's more deliberate and highly finished drawings, including the present one, were nevertheless rejected on the grounds that they were inconsistent with the artist's supposed spontaneous handling and "terribilita". Thus, although the collector and dealer Charles Fairfax Murray bought the drawing at auction as by Michelangelo, it was classified as by Venusti by the time it appeared in the catalogue of his collection only ten years later. In 1959 Johannes Wilde rehabilitated the drawing as an autograph work by Michelangelo, a reappraisal that has been generally accepted.
Curatorial remarks by Rhoda Eitel-Porter, 2010, in preparation for the catalogue Early Italian Drawings in the Collegection of the Morgan Library & Museum: Artists Born Before 1550, forthcoming.
(1) The Michelangelo/Venusti original altarpiece was replaced by Carlo Cesi's (ca. 1622-ca. 1682) Holy Family with Saint Anne; oil on canvas, 216 x 138 cm; see A. Vannugli in Pietro da Cortona 1597-1669, exh. cat., Palazzo Venezia, Rome, 1997-1998, pp. 432-33, no. 93, repr.
(2) Inv. 255; Photo: GFN C 6044
(3) Oil on wood; 400 x 300 mm; repr. Simona Capelli, "Marcello Venusti: Un Valtellinese pittore a Roma", Studi di Storia dell'arte, 12, 2001 [actual publication date: 2002], p. 40, fig. 6.
(4) Inv. A 3443.
(5) 450 x 300 mm; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo, 5 vols, Princeton, 1943-1960, vol. 5, p. 208, figs. 212, 213; Alexander Perrig, "Michelangelo und Marcello Venusti: Das Problem der Verkündigungs- und Ölberg-Konzeptionen Michelangelos", Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 24, 1962, p. 264, fig. 159.
(6) Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de' piu ecccelenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori, 1568, ed. Gaetano Milanesi, 9 vols, Florence, 1878-85, vol. 7, p. 272: "Ha fatto poi fare messer Tommaso a Michelagnolo molti disegni per amici; come per il cardinale di Cesis la tavola la dov'e la Nostra Donna annunziata dall'Angelo; cosa nuova, che poi fu da Marcello Mantovano colorita, e posta nella cappella di marmo che ha fatto fare quel cardinale nella chiesa della Pace di Roma".
(7) William E. Wallace, "Michelangelo and Marcello Venusti: a case of multiple authorship", in: Reactions to the Master. Michelangelo's Effect on Art and Artists in the Sixteenth Century, ed. Francis Ames-Lewis and Paul Joannides, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003, p. 139, which is the authoritative discussion of the relationship between Michelangelo and Venusti.
(8) Giovanni Baglione, Le vite de' pittori, scultori et architetti. Dal Pontificato di Gregorio XIII del 1572. In fino a' tempi di Papa Urbano Ottavo nel 1642, Rome, 1642, p. 20, writes of Venusti's Last Judgement "lo condusse tanto eccellentemente, che il Buonarotti gli pose grand'affezione, e imposegli molte altre copie."
(9) Cod. Vat. 3211, fol. 74r; Charles de Tolnay, Michelangelo, 5 vols., Princeton, 1943-1960, vol. 5, , fig. 205.