Inscribed on the verso on the lining, in pen and brown ink: "From Mr. Lawrence-Woodburn colln / sale catalogue No. 103 / J.C. Robinson"; on verso of mount, in graphite, "Guildhall Exhibition 1895 / 215. / chalk / M.angelo / The Annunciation - A study from / the Celebrated picture by Venusti painted / from designs by M.Angelo - Collection / Charles I".
Watermark: Ladder in a circle, possibly surmounted by a star. (cf. Briquet II, similar to 5919. Pistoioa, 1519; 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].
In his Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari recorded that, as a favor to his young friend Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, Michelangelo agreed to provide Cardinal Federico Cesi with a drawing for an altarpiece depicting the Annunciation to the Virgin. The painting, however, destined for the Cardinal’s chapel in Santa Maria della Pace, was to be executed not by Michelangelo himself but by his protégé Marcello Venusti.1 The present drawing, highly finished and executed in the dense layers of black chalk typical of Michelangelo’s late drawing style but also significantly damaged, has in recent generations generally been considered Michelangelo’s study for the Cesi altarpiece executed by Venusti. The painting itself was removed from its original location in the mid-seventeenth century and has since been lost.2 It is, however, recorded in three smaller replicas now in the Pinacoteca Manfrediniana, Venice,3 the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam,4 and the Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Corsini, Rome.5 The Corsini version, the best of the three and surely by Venusti himself, slightly extends the composition on all four sides.
Venusti is mainly remembered today as a painter of small-scale copies after Michelangelo, although he also completed both the Cesi chapel altarpiece and, a decade later, an altarpiece at San Giovanni in Laterano, also following a Michelangelo design, in addition to a number of altarpieces of his own invention. He was born near Como and was already a mature artist when he arrived in Rome in the early 1540s. He quickly found work under Farnese patronage, probably having been introduced into that circle by Giulio Clovio, whom he could have met in Mantua in the 1530s. Venusti was from the start recognized as a gifted colorist, and it was probably that quality that recommended him as a surrogate painter for Michelangelesque inventions when the master had in his late years more demands for work than he could himself satisfy. Their relationship would thus have been similar to Michelangelo’s loose partnership with another colorist, Sebastiano del Piombo, decades earlier.
When first recorded in the collections of Sir Thomas Lawrence, Samuel Woodburn, and Sir John Charles Robinson, the Annunciation was identified as Michelangelo’s own, but although Charles Fairfax Murray acquired it as such, he catalogued it as the work of Venusti. This was echoed by Berenson (who believed it “certainly not by Michelangelo himself, most probably by Venusti”)6 and by Charles de Tolnay,7 but Johannes Wilde returned it to the master.8 He was followed by Joannides and Hirst in accepting it as Michelangelo’s own.9 Most recently, Carmen Bambach again affirmed the attribution to Michelangelo, although qualifying it as only “attributed to Michelangelo” as a reflection of past critical opinion, but also arguing that doubts about the quality of the drawing are the result of mistaken assessment of its condition.10
Condition aside, the attribution is open to question. Although executed in the fine, intensely hatched black chalk typical of Michelangelo’s late graphic work, that style was imitated by many artists of the time who sought to emulate Michelangelo’s example. The master’s drawings were not merely outlines filled with shading but rather forms almost coaxed from the page with the caress of the chalk, a conception of drawing roughly akin to Michelangelo’s famous notion that carving marble sculpture was a matter of freeing a form from the surrounding stone. Yet here, the faces of the angel and the Virgin seem too crude to be Michelangelo’s own, and, what is more, the lines used to delineate the setting—the cabinet at left, the Moses sculpture atop it and the objects within, and the Virgin’s chair and bed—have the flat, uninflected quality of lines transferred from another drawing, something hardly to be expected in Michelangelo’s own study.
In 2015, moreover, Venusti’s Galleria Corsini painting underwent conservation and technical study. On that occasion, e-mail correspondence between the present author and Beatrice De Ruggieri, who studied the Venusti panel, prompted a new, closer look at the Morgan’s drawing.11 Examination with Lindsey Tyne of the Morgan’s Thaw Conservation Center revealed that the stylus incisions, traditionally believed to have been used to transfer the drawing to Venusti’s panel, instead lie beneath the chalk of the drawing: the stylus was used, that is, to transfer the composition to the sheet, and the drawing was then worked up atop the incisions.12 This rev- elation, especially when combined with other observations about the drawing, seems to indicate that the attribution must again be reconsidered.13 In other words, the Morgan drawing descends from a prototype, and it seems less likely that Michelangelo would have relied on such pedestrian means as a laborious stylus transfer to work up a composition but easily plausible that Venusti would have done so to preserve a copy of the drawing (see also IV, 7a regarding the then-common practice of copying Michelangelo’s drawings). Rather than Michelangelo’s original, that is, the case can once again be made, returning to the earlier opinions of Fairfax Murray, Berenson, and Tolnay, that this is Venusti’s copy. In support of this it can be noted that the recently revealed underdrawing of Venusti’s Corsini panel matches the stylus incisions and the apparently transferred lines delineating the setting in the Morgan drawing even in odd details such as the way that Moses’ hands seem to pierce the tablets that he holds. It would also make sense for Venusti to have executed a copy that he could use not only to enlarge the compositions for the Cesi altarpiece but also to create the small versions for which the drawing served as a small cartoon, a cartonetto. As has been noted above, however, the condition of the drawing—abraded and perhaps a bit retouched—leaves the attribution as an open question.
The Morgan drawing was likely made in the mid-1540s, probably not long after Cesi had been made a cardinal in December 1544.14 While there is no absolute reason why Venusti’s small-scale versions of the composition must date to the same moment, this seems on the whole the most likely period: when interest in Michelangelo’s designs was at its highest, and before Venusti began to focus more on independent commissions of his own during the 1560s and 1570s.
- Vasari 1878–85, 7:272: “Ha fatto poi fare messer Tommaso a Michelagnolo molti disegni per amici; come per il cardinale di Cesis la tavola là dov’è 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.”
- The original Michelangelo-Venusti altarpiece was replaced by Carlo Cesi’s Holy Family with St. Anne; see Vannugli in Rome 1997–98, 432– 33, no. 93.
- Pinacoteca Manfrediniana, Venice; see Capelli 2002, 40.
- Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; see Boschloo and van der Sman 1993, no. 103.
- Galleria Nazionale Palazzo Corsini, Rome; see De Ruggieri 2016.
- Berenson 1938, no. 1696.
- Tolnay 1943–60, 5:82–83.
- Wilde 1959, 377.
- Joannides 1975, 261; Hirst 1988, 54–56.
- New York 2017–18, 218–20.
- I am grateful to Beatrice De Ruggieri for sharing her work, which has since been published as De Ruggieri 2016.
- Bambach in New York 2017–18, 220, writes that the drawing’s “quality of draftsmanship seems beyond Venusti’s capabilities . . . given his usual reliance on tracing and mechanical means of transfer,” a statement that perhaps needs to be reconsidered if the drawing is in fact a tracing or transfer.
- Likewise, seeing the drawing in the context of contemporary works in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Michelangelo exhibition of 2017–18 engendered doubts about the attribution in the eyes of many.
- Documents published by Kappler 2014, 356–60, seemed initially to indicate that the altarpiece was completed by 13 June 1546, giving a terminus ante quem for Michelangelo’s drawing, but according to Andrea Donati (in an as-yet-unpublished paper delivered at a conference in June 2017 held at the National Gallery, London, in connection with the Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition), the documents have been misinterpreted and refer instead to Venusti’s Christ Among the Doctors, leaving the Cesi altarpiece as still undated.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 105.
Selected references: Lawrence Gallery 1853, no. 2; Fairfax Murray 1905-12, 4:7; Berenson 1938, no. 1696; Wilde 1959, 377; Tolnay 1975-80, 3: no. 399; Hirst 1988, 54-55; Washington 1988, no. 55; Perrig 1991, 20, 41, 100, 115-16; Joannides 1992, 250-51, 261n26; Vienna 1997, no. IV.53; Wallace 2003, 140-45, 153; Chapman 2005, no. 90; Acidini Luchinat 2007, no. 65; Zöllner, Thoenes, and Pöpper 2007, 574; Munich 2008-9, no. 9; Ottawa 2009, no. 54; Joannides 2011, 22-23; De Ruggieri 2016, 92-93; New York 2017-18, 218-20, no. 191.
Lawrence Gallery. A Series of fac-similes of Original Drawings by M. Angelo Buonarotti, selected from the matchless collection formed by Sir Thomas Lawrence ... published by S. and A. Woodburn, London, 1853, no. 2 (Michelangelo).
Charles Fairfax Murray, Collection of Drawings by the Old Masters formed by C. Fairfax Murray (J. Pierpont Morgan Collection), 4 vols, London 1905-1912, vol. 4, no. 7, repr. (Venusti after Michelangelo).
Johannes Wilde, "Cartonetti by Michelangelo", Burlington Magazine, vol. 101, no. 680, November 1959, p. 377, fig. 1 (Michelangelo).
Michael Hirst, Michelangelo Draftsman, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 1988, no. 55, repr.
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, 2003, pp. 140, 143, 145, 153, fig. 7.1.
David Franklin, ed., From Raphael to the Carracci : The Art of Papal Rome, exh. cat., National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 2009, pp. 216-217, no. 54, repr.
Venusti, Marcello, approximately 1512-1579, Possible attribution.
Lanier, Nicholas, 1588-1666, former owner.
Lawrence, Thomas, Sir, 1769-1830, former owner.
Woodburn, Samuel, 1785 or 1786-1853 former owner.
Robinson, J. C. (John Charles), Sir, 1824-1913, former owner.
Murray, Charles Fairfax, 1849-1919, former owner.
Morgan, J. Pierpont (John Pierpont), 1837-1913, former owner.
Morgan, J. P. (John Pierpont), 1867-1943, former owner.