Discovering global connections of a drawing from the University of Melbourne collection

There is more to the drawing which is described as ‘Adoration’, in the University of Melbourne’s print collection, than first meets the eye. This monochrome drawing on blue paper depicts a common theme in medieval and Renaissance art: Mary and infant Jesus. On the mat of the work, an artist’s name and date is neatly written, as well as the name of the collection that the drawing comes from (The John Lane Collection). I thought that my research would be simple because of the common iconography and as the name of the artist and collection appeared to be known but, I was pleasantly surprised. I will explain my reasoning for thinking that this work may fit into a rich collection of drawings all done by the same artist as preparation for a large oil painting.

Attributed to Pietro de Pietri, Adoration, pen and sepia ink with white bodycolor on prepared blue paper
Attributed to Pietro de Pietri, Adoration, pen and sepia ink with white bodycolor on prepared blue paper

My initial research goal was to figure out whether the name written in pen on the mat and on the drawing is the correct attribution. The name written, Pietro de Pietri (1633-1716), is a baroque artist whose work appears in museums all over the world. Looking at his other works, I not only found drawings that were similar to the University of Melbourne’s in style but also in iconography and composition.

Pietro de Pietri moved to Rome when he was 15 to be trained in painting. He studied in different workshops until painter Carlo Maratti discovered his talent and brought him under his wing. He trained in Maratti’s workshop and helped in the restoration of Raphael’s High Renaissance frescoes. De Peitri himself received commissions for religious Christian art, mainly altarpieces and paintings. Pope Clement Albani XI, for example, commissioned de Pietri to paint altarpieces and restore frescoes. Peitro de Pietri is not the most famous baroque artist but, he nevertheless played a role in the period.

De Pietri’s education originated from the highly accomplished Renaissance painter, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, who lived around 100 years before him. Raphael taught Carlo Maratti, who in turn taught de Pietri. Raphael is known for his large output of works, including many in the Vatican, and for his large workshop. Raphael and his workshop completed an immense amount of preparatory drawings before he completed his paintings: testing out compositions, doing studies from life of the human figure and draperies. For example, for his work in the Vatican, Disputa, it is estimated that he made 300 preparatory drawings. Maratti followed this practice of completing a vast amount of preparatory drawings before completing the finished painting, also instilling this practice  in his own students. When thinking of de Pietri and his education, he was influenced by this tradition of intense preparation before executing a painting. As for the drawing at University of Melbourne, is this drawing simply a drawing, or was it preparation for a painting?

It is hard to prove that a certain drawing was made in preparation for an oil painting. Firstly, most of the work by de Pietri that has survived are drawings. Most of his paintings have been lost. Also, many of the drawings that he produced have similar themes and/or compositions. With that in mind, I will hypothesize a possible trajectory that the University of Melbourne’s drawing fits into. In the works that I have been able to find in my research, there is at least: a simple ink drawing, a monochromatic chalk drawing, drawing with a base neutral tone with added white and darks, preparatory facial studies, a colored chalk rendition and finally the oil painting. With every step of the drawing process, more and more details are added, and the composition develops.

Starting with the roughest sketch, a drawing in the Lourve has a possible attribution to de Pietri: Holy Family Served by Angels. The figure of Mary and baby Jesus are in the center, flanked by three male figures and putti. This composition is similar to that of a chalk drawing at the British Museum. In this further drawing, Mary sits towards the top of the frame with infant Christ on her lap, while she is depicted with one male figure and more defined putti: The Virgin with Christ Child giving a habit(?) to a kneeling monk. This drawing is more detailed than the Lourve example. In comparison with the British Museum drawing, ‘Adoration’ seems compositionally similar. Mary and Jesus are in the same place in the frame, the settings are both in a nondescript, heaven-like place but, there is only one male figure depicted whereas there are two in ‘Adoration.’ The University of Melbourne example advances the finish of the drawing with increased line sharpness, and the added highlights and shadows, made possible by the neutral tone paper.

In addition to the preparatory drawings that finesse the composition, there are drawings that are in preparation for the figures’ faces. Previous art historians have connected a handful of facial drawings at the Royal Collection Trust to the final oil painting, Holy Family with St Anne, located in the Nazionali Barberini Corsini, Rome. When I looked at these drawings, however, they remind me of the faces in ‘Adoration.’ The drawings of a woman and an old man resemble Mary and the figure on the left in ‘Adoration.’ The downturn in the woman’s head is like the two preceding drawings, and the man’s face is similar, though at a completely different angle: A Study for the head of the Virgin and A Study for the head of an old man.

The final two steps within this trajectory are a colored chalk drawing, and the final oil painting: The Holy Family with St. Anne, Attended by Angels and Cherubim and The Holy Family with St. Anne. In these final works, there are some major compositional changes in comparison to ‘Adoration.’ The heavenly background of the preceding drawing has disappeared and is replaced by columns and stone. The compositions in the chalk and oil depict a man and a woman (St. Anne and Joachim), instead of  the two men in ‘Adoration.’ These differences may disqualify ‘Adoration’ from any connection to the final oil painting but, the figures are all part of the holy family. In ‘Adoration,’ Mary and Jesus are visited by two male figures. I hypothesize that these two figures are Joachim and Joseph based on the iconography. Joseph is said to commonly be depicted holding spikenard or lilies. The figure to the left of Mary is holding a plant that could be either spikenard or lilies. The other male figure is holding a staff. Joachim is often depicted holding a staff or a book. If my hypothesis were to be true, de Pietri was depicting the Holy family in his preparatory drawings but changed the characters from Joseph and Joachim to Joachim and St Anne for the final work.

In addition to all these works associated with de Pietri, are the works by de Pietri’s teacher, Maratti. A drawing from the Royal Collection Trust comes from the same collection as the two head studies attributed to de Pietri: The Virgin and Child adored by St Michael and other Saints. This drawing is attributed to both Maratti and Guillaume Courtois. The composition of this drawing is quite like that of ‘Adoration.’ One explanation could be that all of these artists are working together in the same workshop and may have been sharing ideas, or working on the same ‘assignment’. An oil painting by Maratti is also similar: The Virgin Appearing to St. Phillip. A common composition seems to be of Mary and infant Christ at the top of the canvas with figures kneeling underneath while surrounded by cherubs. I do not think I can draw any overarching conclusions about authorship from the similarities between these works that exist between student and teacher, but it is crucial to note the exchange of ideas within these workshops.

One of my favorite aspects of object research, is the different areas of discovery. I have just explained my research on the content of the drawing. However, there is more to the drawing than what is depicted. Another avenue of research that I pursued was trying to learn more about the provenance of the drawing. Where has it been since it left Pietro de Pietri’s hands in the 17th century? How did it end up in Melbourne? We know that the drawing was donated by Dr. Orde Poynton in 1959, and was once part of the John Lane Collection. Poynton donated thousands of prints and books to the University. Unfortunately, neither this drawing nor the John Lane Collection were ‘notable’ enough for there to be any mention of the provenance in the University archives. Therefore, I could not trace the provenance.

A further clue comes from the notes written in pen at the bottom of ‘Adoration.’ Most of the writing is illegible, but you can make out “Pietro di Pietri 107.” In other drawings made by Pietri in different collections around the world, there is also “Pietro di Pietri” written in pen and followed by a different number. This leads me to believe that a collector, at a certain point, possessed both drawings, and others, and labeled and numbered them. Unfortunately, there is no way to know who, what, when or where that that occurred.

There are always more research queries to follow. I did not note every way that I tried to learn more about this drawing, as mostly I was unsuccessful. I did not answer all the questions I had, but I can say that I believe that it was drawn by Pietro de Pietri and made in preparation for the oil painting, The Holy Family with St Anne.

Rachel Grand

Research Assistant Intern.

References and further reading

Dieter Graf  “New Drawings by Pietro Antonio De Pietri.” Master Drawings 31, no. 4 (1993): 441-48.

Leone Pascoli. Lives of Painters, Sculptors and Modern Architects (version Harvard University). Rome: Antionio de Rossi, 1730. 223-230. h

Pietro De’ Pietri (Biographical Details).” British Museum. Accessed September 2019.

John Shearman, “The Organization of Raphael’s Workshop.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 10 (1983): 44. doi:10.2307/4104329.

Jean Sorabella, “Painting the Life of Christ in Medieval and Renaissance Italy.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.


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