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Members' Research Report Archive

Pirro Ligorio as a Draftsman: The Catalogue Raisonné of his Drawings

Ginette Vagenheim, Université de Rouen-Normandie
Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow, November 1–December 28, 2017


Pirro Ligorio, Woman Standing at Left Looking at Three Women Standing on Platform, mid-sixteenth century, photoreproduction. David Robbin Coffin Papers, 1918–2003, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC

The initial step in preparing the publication of the first catalogue raisonné of the drawings of Pirro Ligorio (1512–1583) was to review thoroughly the collection of three hundred drawings published by David Coffin in his posthumous monograph of 2004 (Pirro Ligorio: The Renaissance Artist, Architect, and Antiquarian). That undertaking was made possible by an earlier fellowship at CASVA in the summer of 2015. At that time, I showed that the drawings were attributed to the artist on the basis of John Gere’s 1971 article on Ligorio’s early drawings. I also demonstrated the limitations of Gere’s thesis on Polidoro da Caravaggio’s influence on Ligorio’s first period of activity (1534–1550), finding that one of the key works he attributed to Ligorio, Diana and Apollo Killing the Children of Niobe (National Gallery of Art), should in fact be excluded from Ligorio’s oeuvre.

During my second residency at CASVA, I concluded that the only way to define Ligorio’s style was to begin by studying the drawings that are dated with certainty; I thus determined that, even if Ligorio’s style evolved over time, the fundamental characteristics of his early style are still present in the drawings of his maturity. I was able to show the evolution of Ligorio’s manner during the three essential moments of his life: the first Roman period (1534–1554), linked with his activity as a painter of facades after Polidoro and also marked by his only extant painting, The Dance of Salome, preserved in San Giovanni Decollato; the second Roman period (1555–1567), when he served as papal architect in Saint Peter’s and produced designs for the Casino of Pius IV and for the villa and gardens in Tivoli; and the Ferrarese period (1568–1583), when he was an antiquarian at the court of Duke Alfonso d’Este and his work included important iconographic programs for the Este Castello and the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua.


Pirro Ligorio, Three Women Standing, One Woman Sitting, mid-sixteenth century, verso of drawing on page 184, photoreproduction. Schrafl Collection, Zurich, n.1; David Robbin Coffin Papers, 1918–2003, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, DC

I had the opportunity to test my new methodology in an article on Ligorio drawings in the Morgan Library and Museum, to be published in Master Drawings. There, I showed how Ligorio elaborated upon the iconographical language of Roman antiquity. After carefully scrutinizing the meaning of each ancient work of art, he expressed that language in his particular graphic style and then created a new visual vocabulary in line with the need both for self-affirmation and for the glorification of his illustrious patrons (popes, cardinals, and princes). Through drawings, he also shaped the architectural and pictorial repertoire that would be used in the decoration of palaces and gardens of the late Renaissance (Vatican gardens, Villa d’Este, Caprarola, Villa Lante, Bomarzo). These works reflected the stylistic preferences he summarized in his Trattato . . . di alcvne cose appartenente alla nobiltà delle antiche arti, et massimamente dela pittvra, dela scoltvra, et dell’architettvra, where he wrote that “in painting Raphael must be followed and in style and drawing, Michelangelo and Polidoro.”

Another opportunity provided by my most recent fellowship at CASVA and the scholarly connections it offers was my first exploration of Coffin’s archives, preserved at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections. I discovered that they contain documents essential to completing my catalogue raisonné, including photographs of drawings from auction houses or private owners that are completely inaccessible today. That is the case, for example, for a drawing that was preserved in Coffin’s time in a private collection in Zurich, only the verso of which had been published in an auction catalog. Thanks to Coffin’s letter of request to the owner, a reproduction of the recto is now available in his archives, adding to the known corpus of Ligorio’s drawings.

Pirro Ligorio’s Early Drawings and the Influence of Polidoro da Caravaggio: A Focus on Landscapes

Ginette Vagenheim, Université de Rouen–Normandie, Paul Mellon Visiting Senior Fellow / Millon Architectural History Guest Scholar, June 15–August 15, 2015

Ligorio, Pirro
Italian, 1513 - 1583