Attributed to Pietro MARESCALCHI called Lo Spada, (Feltre, 1522 - 1584)

Saint John the Baptist and Saint Anthony the Great (Recto)

35.5 x 23.4 cm. (14 x 9 3/16 in.)
Allegory of Justice and Diana with her Nymphs (verso) c. 1570.Black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown and blue wash, white highlights on blue paper. On verso: an old inscription in brown ink: paolo vernonese

• Sale, Christie’s, London, July 7th, 1992, lot 127.
• France, Private Collection.

When this drawing, proudly bearing Paolo Vernonese’s name, appeared on the art market in 1992, it appeared as by Pietro Marescalchi, a painter from Feltre. In fact, the relation between this sheet and two signed paintings which had appeared slightly earlier in sales seems obvious. This attribution has been reinforced as a result of the two exhibitions on the artist that took place in 1993 and 1994 in Feltre.

Pietro Marescalchi was born in Feltre, in Veneto in about 1522, according to his own declaration of 1572 concerning his mother’s inheritance in which he claimed to be fifty years old. His nickname Lo Spada came from his family coat of arms which displayed an arm brandishing a sword. His training remains obscure, but even though he cites Titian in his first known works, he mainly appears to have been influenced by Lorenzo Luzzo and Jacopo dal Ponte, called Bassano. Produced between 1545 and 1547, the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with Saints Martin, Victor, Mark, and Corona (Farra di Feltre, Church of Saint Martin), is one of his first documented works. From then on, his main activity resided in the production of altarpieces for the churches and chapels in and around Feltre – some of which are signed and dated. His masterpiece, the Misericordia Altarpiece, adorns the city’s cathedral. The artist, incidentally, lived with his family in the Cathedral quarter and was registered in the Scuola San Vittore. Aside from religious paintings, Marescalchi also painted portraits of Feltre’s dignitaries, easel pictures such as The Feast of Herod (1576, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie) and carried out fresco decoration in the city’s wealthy residences and outlying villas.

The painter enjoyed a grand reputation in Feltre, aside from an incident which took place in 1572, when the Inquisition accused him of not having depicted Purgatory in one of his works. In reparation, Marelscalchi had to execute a painting for the Saint Stephen’s Church. In 1577, he was chosen by the chief magistrate Giulio Garzoni to create a “grand painting” in the courtroom of the Palazzo Pubblico of Feltre: the picture, lost and known from a number of contemporary descriptions, depicts the city fathers and members of prominent families. The artist remained active until death overtook him on May 11th, 1584. He was buried in the Feltre Cathedral.

Marescalchi’s art is ecclectic and sensitive to the influences of the great Venetian masters from the preceding generation, such as Titian and Lorenzo Lotto, as well to those who were his contemporaries, such as Jacopo Bassano, Veronese, and Tintoretto. This fact complicates the reconstitution of his graphic corpus, especially as none of his preparatory sketches has come down to us. Nonetheless, a few drawings are attributed to him, such as the Roman General, conserved in Christ Church, Oxford (inv. 758), and the Warrior in Brunswick , which are delicately and surely worked in brush and pen.

The prominent musculature of these figures, their balanced poses with a certain Mannerist elegance, their long fingers, the finesse in the details, the serpentine hair, and heavy draperies descending in vertical folds, their cloudy cast shadows recall, in fact, the saints which populate Marescalchi’s altarpieces and can find their counterparts in our drawing. In comparison to the Oxford and Brunswick sheets, this one is less enigmatic, because the two figures are easily identifiable by their attributes: Saint John the Baptist, and, behind him, with his knotty staff and little bell, Saint Anthony the Great or the Abbot. Evidently, the sketch concerns the right-hand side of an altar depicting the saints before an enthroned Virgin and Child in a composition similar to that of the Pala of San Bernardino in Pignolo painted by Lorenzo Lotto in 1521.

Stylistically and technically very close to two other sheets attributed to Marescalchi, our drawing is distinctive by the more systematic utilization of hatching, the special attention given to the placement of light reflections, and especially, by the presence on the verso of two studies hardly less worked and without any relationship to either of the Saints on the recto. This time, the draughtsman used the paper horizontally to depict, on the left, an allegory seated in front of a pedestal while holding in her right hand a strange instrument crowned with a sphere which could symbolize Justice or Temperance. On the right surges a slightly cropped group of women, among whom Diana can be identified, perhaps at the moment when the goddess discovers Callisto’s pregnancy. These profane themes are typical of the interior decoration painted in the Feltrin palaces which was one of Marescalchi’s specialties.

This is thus a sheet for work, thought, and experimentation which is nonetheless surprising in its finished details, although none of the compositions is complete. The line is precise, but some corrections remain visible, such as the knot on Saint John the Baptist’s shoulder. This fact confirms that these are indeed preparatory sketches and not repeated from existing works.

Nonetheless what poetry in these exquisite gestures, what emotion held back in the faces, what splendor in these draperies caressed by the light, and what vigor in these tense muscles: our sheet lauds the Mannerist art of the Veneto.

Maria Cristina BAGOLAN, Pietro Marescalchi (1522?-1589), Feltre, 1993.
Giuliana ERICANI (dir.), Pietro de Marascalchi. Restauri e studi per il Cinquecento feltrino, exhibition catalogue, Feltre, Museo Civico, Trévise, 1994.
Mauro LUCCO et Carlo PIROVANO (dir.), Pittura nel Veneto. Il Cinquecento, Milan, 1996-1999, vol. II, pp. 717-736, vol. III, p. 1305 sq.

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