• Collection of Moritz Christian Johann, Count Von Friez (1777-1826), Vienna (Lugt 2903 lower left, as “Moriz Christian Johann…”).
• France, Private Collection.
Seated on a rock, the Virgin Mary, a beautiful young woman with a gentle smile, holds the Child Jesus on her lap. Energetically, Christ reaches out towards the young Saint John the Baptist in a gesture straight from Ascension iconography: the right hand raised towards heaven and the left lowered towards the earth. Saint John, who piously kneels with one leg on the ground, offers the Holy Child an apple, a symbol simultaneously of the original Fall and its redemption. Behind Jesus, Saint Joseph leaning on his staff is deep in meditation. He is depicted in the manner imagined by Isidoro Isolani, a Dominican theologian, in his Summa de donis de Sancti Joseph, published in 1522: chief protector of the militant Church, spouse and defender of Mary, foster father of Christ.
Absent from Scriptures, this highly symbolic theme of the Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist as a child appeared during the Renaissance and crystallized new religious feelings. Here it is marked by Mannerist aesthetics, as seen in the elongation and torsion of bodies, the indefinite narrow space, and the lightly twisting line. In fact, Parmigianino’s refinement, Titian’s fluidity, and Francesco Salviati’s inventiveness can all be detected. The only artist who managed such a synthesis, all the while preserving his own profoundly original personality, was Andrea Schiavone, a Venetian painter so celebrated for the flamboyant freedom of his handling that Tintoretto recommended that every artist have one of his pictures in his studio.
Born in Zadar in Dalmatia when it was under Venetian occupation, the artist was the son of Simone Meldolla, commander of the garrison who came from Romagna. His surname of “Schiavone” came either from the Riva degli Schiavone (Slavs/Slovenes) in Venice where he settled in the mid 1530’s, or else from the Slavonians who lived on the Adriatic coast. Probably an autodidact, he trained himself mainly through contact with Parmigianino’s works known through engravings, even if passage in Titian’s studio is not to be excluded. By copying Parmigianino’s works, he learned engraving and elaborated a very personal technique entirely in fine cross-hatching.
His first documented work goes back to 1540 and is evidence that he already was successful: Vasari commissioned a large canvas from him depicting The Battle of Tunis between Charles V and Barberossa intended for Ottaviano de’Medici (lost). Marked by Venetian colorito, Schiavone’s art was enriched by contact with Florentine disegno through contact with artists such as Salviati, who came into the Most Serene Republic in 1539-1540, and Vasari, invited in 1541 by Aretino. The painter was inspired by the elegant drawing style which he adapted to his own intense rapid manner with violent contrasts in light and shade, more committed – including in drawing – to the intensity of the result than to the minutia of observation;
Painter in oils and fresco, as well as engraver, Schiavone was also a remarkable draughtsman who tried every technique, a fact which sometimes complicates attribution of his folios. Most of his drawings do not correspond to any extant or recorded painting, but certain ones are related to his etchings and engravings which constitute an essential part of his oeuvre.
This is most certainly the case with our drawing which seems to have inspired the figure of the Virgin, a young woman gracefully draped in a diaphanous tunic, in two engravings by Schiavone, The Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist and Angels and The Holy Family with a Holy Bishop and a Holy Woman under the vines. In fact, the same fine line, spaced hatching, broken contours deviating frequently from the underlying black chalk line, and the irregular application of wash can be found in Christ Healing the Paralytic (Vienna, Albertina, inv. 2661, pen and brown ink, brown wash, gouache highlights, 22.6 x 16.1 cm.) retraced in stiletto on the verso in preparation for an engraving known through several editions.
This nervous calligraphic hand is, by the way, exactly the same as in Schiavone’s enigmatic drawing from Vasari’s personal collection , while the composition of our little sketch echoes the Holy Conversation in Dresden, the artist’s first masterpiece. All of these elements make it possible to situate our drawing in the mid 1540’s, a period when Schiavone’s audacious virtuosity powerfully asserted itself, even if Parmigianino’s and Salviati’s influence remain clearly perceptible in the layered placement of the figures, their serpentine poses, and the plasticity of the lines.
General Bibliography (Unpublished Work)
Francis Lee RICHARDSON, Andrea Schiavone, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1980.
Enrico Maria DAL POZZOLO (dir.), Splendori del Rinascimento a Venezia. Schiavone, tra Parmigianino, Tintoretto e Tiziano, exh. cat. Venice, Correr Museum, 2015.