Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 28, 2016
Laura M. Giles, Lia Markey, and Claire Van Cleave Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum Exh. cat. Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 2014. 364 pp.; 370 color ills.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300149326)
500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum
Exhibition schedule: Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, January 25–May 11, 2014; Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Stanford, May 22–August 24, 2015

The tradition of university art museums forming excellent collections, which began in Europe with the Ashmolean and Fitzwilliam in England and Erlangen University in Germany, has flourished in the United States. Second only to the Harvard Art Museums, the Princeton collection of Italian drawings is of great importance, and in many respects is better than the majority of important civic museums. It includes some outstanding Renaissance drawings by Carpaccio, Michelangelo, Parmigianino, and Schiavone, as well as perhaps the finest representation of Guercino drawings in America.

It is now nearly four decades since Felton Gibbons wrote his comprehensive yet problematic catalogue of the collection (Felton Gibbons, Catalogue of the Italian Drawings in the Art Museum, Princeton University, 2 vols., exh. cat., Princeton: Princeton University Art Museum, 1977). With many fine additions and much new information since then, one hoped for a revised and expanded version of this publication. Instead what has been produced with Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum is a hybrid publication, composed of ninety-five full entries on what seem to be the curator’s choice of the best and most interesting, followed by an appendix with all the Italian drawings acquired since Gibbons’s 1977 catalogue.

These additions provide abundant evidence of the good judgment of those who have been building the collection. Among the purchases, there are excellent examples by Polidoro, Perino, Annibale Carracci, Bernini, Passeri, Giani, and Pinelli. These demonstrate that even in a highly competitive market, it is possible to accomplish a great deal with knowledge and intelligence. There is also a strong group of gifts, including drawings by Bandinelli, Parmigianino, Palma, and Passarotti.

The catalogue is preceded by a well-written and informative essay by Laura M. Giles on the history of the collection. This includes engaging material interweaving the stories of Dan Fellows Platt and Frank Jewett Mather Jr., the two great benefactors of the collection. Giles uses letters and other documents effectively in making their personalities as collectors come to life.

This is followed by the main catalogue of ninety-five highlights, beautifully illustrated, written by a large team of authors, which has become the current fashion in the United States. The advantage of this method is to be able to choose experts in each sub-category or artist, an approach preferred in an era in which scholars specialize and seem to take possession of “their” artist.

The disadvantage is that attribution is often a matter of probability rather than certainty, and scholars vary greatly in how they interpret the scale of likelihood. For example, the beautiful sheet by Cesare Nebbia is called “Attributed to” the artist, notwithstanding the very precise connection between both recto and verso and a well-documented drawing by him in the Louvre (cat. 28). By contrast, the fine early Bernini drawing is fully attributed to the artist by another cataloguer based entirely on stylistic comparison (cat. 52). Both attributions are correct, but the second is hardly more conclusive than the first.

On the other hand, there are entries in which the specific expertise and authority of the author clearly comes to bear. Nowhere is this more evident than in the convincing entry on the drawing by Michelangelo. One of a tiny handful of sheets by him in U.S. museums (the others at the Metropolitan, Detroit Institute of Arts, the National Gallery, the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and the Getty) and only recently attributed to the artist, it deserves the expert hand and full exposition of its cataloguer. One may wonder, however, about the need for long, discursive entries on drawings of secondary importance with indisputable attributions.

Overall, the entries are insightful in their attributions and happily accompanied by a wealth of comparative illustrations. Only the attribution of the sheet called “School of Mantegna” (cat. 2) seems clearly wrong, as nothing about its motif or execution places it near Mantegna, and the comparisons adduced argue against rather than in favor of this connection.

The appendix of drawings acquired since 1977 is in many ways a disappointment, as the works in it are given short shrift. The images are too small and the entries too condensed. One cannot judge the quality and condition of a drawing like the one “Attributed to Piazzetta” from the illustration (cat. 92), making the appendix of little usefulness to readers. Equally, the brief entries give precious little information. In the case of the sheet “Attributed to Piazzetta,” readers are only told that George Knox accepted it, that Denis Ton has doubts, and that it may have reinforced white highlights. Surely drawings like this deserve a fuller and better analysis.

Equally, in both sections one might have wished for more and better technical information about media and condition. In the instance of the aforementioned drawing erroneously catalogued as “School of Mantegna,” one would never know from the entry that the sheet has suffered a great deal and that the background has substantially darkened. The same is true of the pair of oil studies by Beccafumi (cats. 10 and 11).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, this is a worthwhile publication that brings the best of Princeton’s Italian drawings to a wider audience with mostly well-illustrated and strongly argued entries for the highlights. In the future, one hopes that the rest of the collection will be given similar treatment.

George R. Goldner
Curator Emeritus, Metropolitan Museum of Art