Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Sodoma (Vercelli 1477 - 1549 Siena)
Portrait of a young man (Antonio Spannocchi?)
Black chalk with bodycolour, washed over (JBS 313)
This striking drawing is exemplary of how attributions and identifications of a work of art can change over time. Old master drawings - which we now admire as complete art objects - are often exercises, ideas and intermediate stages in the creative process that leads to a finished piece. They are also regarded as direct expressions of creativity, of unmediated artistic thought, manifestations of the uniqueness of an artist. Drawings constituted the creative property of the old masters and as such, they were highly guarded and usually remained with their creators - without a signature or inscription. However, because drawings were perceived to give an immediate and intimate insight into the creative mind and because they were not intended for the public and therefore more difficult to obtain, they soon became precious and coveted collectors’ items. This in turn made the questions of, “who drew it?” and “what/whom does it depict?” more important. Collectors and dealers started to make annotations on the drawings and as they changed hands and were passed from collector to collector, this knowledge could become less reliable and sometimes fraudulent.
An early owner of this drawing – probably the artist and art critic Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) – thought it to be by Leonardo da Vinci, as the prominent attribution on the sheet indicates. A later inscription, probably from the 17th century, adds that the drawing shows the portrait of Raphael (Ritraro di Raffael d’Urbino). The high quality and the elegance of this drawing make these inscriptions explicable - but both statements are now proven to be incorrect. Early in the 20th century (1904) the Italian art historian Gustavo Frizzoni made the suggestion, which has since been accepted, that the drawing is by the Sienese artist Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, called Sodoma. The identification of the sitter as Raphael has always been more doubtful and more recently two British art historians, Luke Syson and Xavier Salomon, proposed the portrait to be of Antonio Spannocchi, a Sienese nobleman.
The drawing - which was a preparatory work for a portrait - does indeed evoke Leonardo’s style. This kind of bust portrait, with the hands visible on the parapet, was fairly new to Italian art and it was Leonardo da Vinci who brought it to prominence. The psychological sentiments of the portrait, as well as the wild scribbles in the area where the sitter’s hands would be, are reminiscent of the great master. But in this drawing the lines do not follow the searching thoughts, which we find in Leonardo’s drawings, on the contrary, they seem to be fanciful and purposeless, used as an aesthetic device rather than as a creative study with an artistically investigative meaning. What at first glance seems a directed imaginative exploration of the position of the hands, is on closer examination a confusion of lines, almost as if the artist wanted to add a humanising imperfection to an otherwise highly polished drawing.
Sodoma was clearly influenced by Leonardo and his circle and the ‘leonardesque’ style which he brought to Siena was certainly an important reason in making him the foremost portrait painter in the city. However, his licentious lifestyle - hence his nickname Sodoma, which he adopted and used with pride - was often criticised. He was said to be ‘of preposterous and unstable state of mind’ and ‘insanely affected’. In a self-portrait he depicts himself with two pet badgers, which he indeed might have owned.
The drawing will be on show at the Picture Gallery in the exhibition Drawing in Siena – From Sodoma to Salimbeni: Ten drawings from the Christ Church Collection until 19th May.
Jacqueline Thalmann (Curator of the Picture Gallery)
Registered Charity Number: 1143423