In the 16th century, artists, patrons, and cultural agents working through vast interconnected networks exported the art of modern and ancient Italy to cities and courts throughout Europe and its emerging maritime empires. This process of cultural translation and brokerage has largely been considered as an aspect of the histories of collecting and/or diplomacy. My project provides both a broad history of these artistic intermediaries and a close examination of the impact of their activities as well as the objects involved. Although this study considers several types of agents, from the career diplomat and court secretary to the broker of antiquities, it focuses primarily on the role of professional artists and women in the translation of an artistic canon.
Two artistic media were central to such translation and visual canon-making: drawings and prints. My fellowship at the Center enabled me to complete my research for a book chapter devoted to artists’ drawing collections. In particular, I examined the now dispersed Libro de’ disegni of Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) and the way in which the development of such collections positioned artists to expand their professional opportunities and build their cultural authority within the competitive courts in which they worked. Most scholarship on the Libro, which probably comprised several volumes, has attempted to identify individual drawings and the few surviving pages with Vasarian mounts and frames, as seen in the example held by the National Gallery of Art. Licia Ragghianti Collobi’s reconstruction in 1974 followed several important studies by Otto Kurz, Bernhard Degenhart and Annegrit Schmitt, and Catherine Monbeig Goguel. This scholarship, in turn, depended upon reconciling early modern collectors’ records of hundreds of drawings that originated in Vasari’s albums. Much remains to be said about Vasari’s use and conception of his collection of drawings, long associated with the second edition of his Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architettori (1568). By aligning a close reading of his language about the Libro in this edition with a study of the surviving drawings and their frames, my study highlights the development of a cultural resource, available to Vasari’s fellow courtiers and academicians.
Vasari’s description of the collecting practice of his friend and collaborator Vincenzo Borghini (1515–1580) suggests the epistemological possibilities afforded by the acquisition, arrangement, and study of drawings. Borghini, according to Vasari, mounted on facing pages a drawing by Donatello and one by Michelangelo, adding to them an epigram that he had written celebrating the analogous skill of the artists. As Patricia Rubin has noted, Vasari’s anecdote makes explicit a relationship already implied in the 1550 version of Donatello’s vita, reinforcing Vasari’s overarching argument of artistic progress. The description of Borghini’s pairing, however, also provides us with precious evidence of a contemporary’s learned engagement with his collection and an intellectual framework for Vasari’s own arrangements in the Libro. Beyond documenting the hands of artists, Vasari’s pages served as compositions able to make visual arguments about artists’ styles, schools, or subjects. Like Borghini’s epigram, they were inventions demonstrating the depth of Vasari’s aesthetic understanding, historical knowledge, and his skills as a connoisseur.
The intellectual and performative aspects of the collection and arrangement of drawings evidenced by Vasari’s Libro find counterparts in the collections of two other artists: Francisco de Holanda (1517–1584), the Portuguese miniaturist and theorist, and the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio (1498–1578). Both used drawings that they made after canonical works, whether monuments in Rome or Michelangelo’s figures, to assert, like Vasari, their professional judgment and value to their patrons. The composition of Holanda’s Desenhos das Antigualhas (Ms. 28-I-20, Real Biblioteca del Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial) and Clovio’s inventoried (1578), now dispersed, collection of drawings paralleled their theoretical and critical positions and substantially advanced Holanda’s and Clovio’s roles as cultural authorities at their respective courts. Again like Vasari, each set Michelangelo’s disegno above that of all other artists, while contributing to the establishment and translation of a broader visual canon from Italy to the Iberian Peninsula and its colonies. The research that I completed at the Center significantly advanced my argument about the way in which collections of drawings form and promulgate this canonical body. As a whole, my book project considers how the artistic judgments made by 16th-century cultural agents contributed to the production of a global bank of sacred images for areas subjected to European colonialization and evangelism. Such an examination reveals the reception and valuation of an artistic figure within and outside of its culture of origin. The objects that artists and other influencers collected, transmitted, and adapted to suit new cultures indicate which aspects of art were understood to be desirable and effective. That their ideas about what constitutes art still operate today makes a history of these agents essential to an understanding of the Western canon’s development and impact.
University of Richmond
Samuel H. Kress Senior Fellow, fall 2020
Elena M. Calvillo will return to the University of Richmond and will assume the position of chair of the Department of Art & Art History in the 2021–2022 academic year.