• • France, Private Collection for more than a generation
The extremely pictorial modeling, an overabundance of white body-color and the yellow tint of washed paper immediately distinguishes Biagio Pupini’s drawings midst the rich production of Cinquecento Bologna. The artist’s birthdate is unknown, but it is sure that he was a student of Francesco Francia (1450-1517) and that he was already established independently in 1511. Described as “magister,” in that year, he and Bartolomeo Ramenghi called Bagnacavallo (1484-1542) signed a contract to decorate a chapel in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Faenza with frescos which have not been conserved. A painter, but also a talented musician according to the poet Achillini (Viridario, Bologna, Girolamo di Plato, 1513, p. 188), he was rapidly solicited in his home town for frescos and religious paintings.
Starting in 1519, or even 1511, the artist made several trips to Rome where he copied Raphael and the antiquities which had inspired him so much. He also discovered the art of Parmagianino (1503-1540), who subsequently came to Bologna, and especially the drawings of Polidoro da Caravaggio (1495-1540) and his chiaroscuro frescos on the façades of Roman villas. The combined influence of Polidoro and Parmagianino can be seen in the Biblical scenes of the lunettes in the sacristy of San Michele in Bosco in Bologna painted monochromatically by Pupini in 1525-1526.
The 1530’s marked the height of his career. In 1535, he became Counsellor of the Campagnia delle Quattro Arti, then massaro (treasurer) in 1546. Numerous works survive from this period, produced by Pupini alone or in collaboration with artists such as Bagnacavallo, Girolamo da Carpi, Amico Aspertini, and Girolamo da Treviso. His style nonetheless remained unclassifiable and eclectic, ceaselessly oscillating between Bolognese Mannerism, Raphaelesque Classicism, and the anti-classicism of Polidor and Il Rosso. And it is in his drawings that his very personal style was forged and asserted, especially in his studies inspired from Antiquity which combined yellow brown wash and white body-color.
This is particularly evident in comparing our work with another drawing by Pupini which also has Venus and Mars as its subject. Conserved in the Louvre, the folio illustrates the first part of the story told by Homer and Ovid: the Sun discovers the two lovers enlaced after Alectryon, who was supposed to have warned them, falls asleep. One finds Pupini’s yellowish backgrounds and very relaxed pen work softened by wash and broadly covered in body-color which creates a highly charged surface. However one senses a certain awkwardness which can be explained by the almost literal use of a composition by Giulio Romano engraved in 1539 by Giovanni Battista Scultori.
Our drawing proves, in comparison, to be freer because emerging directly out of Pupini’s imagination itself. Our subject, rarer, is the end of the tale of Mars and Venus’ love affairs. Warned by the Sun/Apollo, Vulcan forged a fine invisible net which imprisoned the adulterous couple. The cuckolded husband profited from the situation to display the trapped lovers to the Olympian gods who had a good laugh. The draughtsman departed from the ancient texts by situating the scene in a grotto and replacing the bed with a sort of platform which enables him to play with the diagonal of the three figures: Venus and Mars, with Vulcan, who is ready to throw his net over them. This articulation of the composition around an off balance central figure is one of the characteristics of Pupini’s drawings, as is the construction of space by superposing planes in which the figures seem to be placed one on top of the other with respect neither to proportions nor to perspective. Another aspect of his art concerns the figures’ constrained body language and gestures presented in jolting succession which is paralleled by the irregularity of handling: sometimes with great precision –as in the leaves or the meshes of the netting in our drawing – and sometimes strangely blurred – as in the faces and hands of the gods.
Our drawing is part of a group of drawings inspired by Antiquity which represents about a third of Pupini’s known production. Some borrow figures from antique reliefs or are inspired by compositions by Polidoro, Primaticcio, or Il Rosso, whereas others, as in the work that we present, are original and very personal creations. Fairly similar from a technical point of view, these drawings are not all of the same dimensions and do not constitute a very homogenous stylistic group. Their realization spans the period from about 1520 to 1545, during and after Pupini’s Roman sojourns.
It remains to be known for what use the artist intended all of these drawings with profane subjects, because none served as preparatory sketches for his paintings or frescos. Notwithstanding, it would seem that the folios on a prepared yellow ochre support, generally of better workmanship than those for which the paper has been mass dyed, were produced within a particular context. The most probable is the construction site of the Delizia de Belriguardo, the summer residence of the Este. Sollicited by the person responsible for decorative work, Girolamo da Carpi (1501-1556), the artist worked there in 1537, but almost none of the villa’s frescos or other decorations subsist. Giuliana Gardelli considered nonetheless that a majolica plaque depicting The Abduction of the Sabines which was inspired by Polidoro’s frescos could have come from the Delizia and be by Pupini’s hand (Marcigny, Museum of the Tour du Moulin). In this plaque, the painting in yellow-brown grisaille and the unmatched brushed manner is reminiscent, in fact, of many of the artist’s drawings.
Anna Maria FIORAVANTI BARALDI, “Biagio Pupini detto dalle Lame (Bologna, doc. dal 1511 al 1551)”, in V. Fortunati Pietrantonio (dir.), Pittore bolognese del ‘500, Bologna, 1986, vol. I, pp. 185-208.
Yannick MARTIN, L’activité picturale et graphique de Biagio Pupini, DEA Thesis in Art History, University Paris I, 1992.
Marzia FAIETTI (dir.), Un siècle de dessin à Bologne. 1480-1580. De la Renaissance à la réforme tridentine, exhibition catatlogue, Paris, Louvre Museum, 2001.