D.72 Allegory on the Birth of Christ

D.72 Allegory on the Birth of Christ

c. 1537

Formerly London, Sotheby’s (1969).


Black chalk, gray wash, heightened with white, partially oxidized, 29.7 x 24.9 (from the sale’s catalogue, but see below), with a line in black chalk around the edge of the composition at the left, top, and bottom setting off a margin around the sheet on these sides, indicating, it would seem, that the sheet is cut at the right, probably on the line that was there; severely damaged along the right side, especially toward the center, the tip of the upper left corner missing, a horizontal crease just below the center and another lighter crease near the bottom.  Inscribed in ink at the lower left: I:V.R (on which, see below).

PROVENANCE: John Talman? (see below).


Sale’s catalogue, Sotheby’s, London, 12 April 1969, lot 81, as by Nicolò dell’Abate.1

Carroll, 1987, 310, 315, n. 3, under no. 100, as almost certainly by Rosso.

Franklin, 1994, 266, Pl. 209, as a copy? of a French drawing by Rosso showing the Bathing of Christ.

This drawing is known to me from a photograph.  As a drawing by Rosso, which I believe it is, its media and technique are unusual in the use of a gray wash with black chalk.  Insofar as the wash is legible in a photograph, its intention would be to achieve, in conjunction with the chalk and the white highlights, another and darker level of shadow. But there are dark accents in ink applied with a brush, but some possibly with a pen, at the corners of the mouths, at the nostrils, in the eyes, in the navel of the figure at the left, and where the shadows are darkest, which seem to be additions.  This leads one to suspect that the gray wash has also been added to a drawing that originally was executed only in black chalk heightened with white, like the Roman Standing Nude Youth (Fig.D.19a).  The inscription on the drawing, derived from the etching of this composition by Master I..V. (see below), appears to be in the same hand as the inscriptions on Rosso’s Ideal Bust of a Woman in New York (Fig.D.25a) and its mount; this writing is by John Talman.  That drawing is also executed in black chalk, but its background was covered with a brown wash and details of the figure accented with pen and ink and wash by a later hand, perhaps John Talman’s.  Thus it is possible that the same is true of the Allegory on the Birth of Christ and that originally it was executed in black chalk heightened with white, and then retouched by Talman.  Comparing photographs of the two drawings, the accenting and what might be seen as the “prettifying” of the images by these additions seem very much the same in both drawings.  (See below on the possibility that the drapery covering Christ’s genitals is also an addition, and that the drapery and strap on the angel at the far left were added as well from what appears in the print by Master I..V.)  I would assume that the damage to the drawing at the right took place after it had been touched up.

The drawing was brought to my attention by Sylvie Béguin, who attributed it to Rosso.  The image is also known from three prints, Fantuzzi’s etching in the opposite direction (Fig.E.81), the etching by Master I..V. in the same direction (Fig.E.100), and a reversed anonymous etching of poorer quality (Fig.E.150).  Herbet, writing of the first two prints, attributed the composition to Rosso, but even earlier, Bartsch, cataloguing the etching given to Master I..V., thought it recalled the same artist.  Since these attributions were made, Rosso’s authorship of the scene has never been questioned.

There are many stylistic and thematic elements of the drawing that support this attribution.  The angel carrying an urn is related to the nude youths carrying wine vessels in the Scene of Sacrifice in the Gallery of Francis I (Fig.P.22, VII N a), and is posed very much like the youth to the right.  The head of the man in the very center of the drawing resembles that in the Empedocles-St. Roch drawing (Fig.D.80a).  Christ’s head is similar to his head in Rosso’s painting in Los Angeles (Fig.P.24a).  The heads of the women find their counterparts in such works as the Marriage of the Virgin (Fig.P.13a) and the Allegory of the Immaculate Conception (Fig.D.32).  Compositionally, the drawing also has a precedent in the symmetry of the Marriage of the Virgin, but the compactness of the scene and the movements of its figures bring more to mind the Martyrdom of Sts. Marcus and Marcellinus (Fig.D.70a).

In judging the draughtsmanship of the drawing, one has to look beyond the washes and the added accents, and, of course, see what best one can in the photograph.  What seems visible is a handling that very much resembles the draughtsmanship of the Madonna della Misericordia (Fig.D.35a) – see especially the upper right of the Allegory – and of the Martyrdom drawing.  This is not simply a matter of the kind of drawing that might be reflected in a good copy, but in the specific quality of drawing, in the sensitivity of its touch.  The wing of the angel at the upper left and the head and hair of the angel to the right of this wing show the sensibility of Rosso’s own hand.  Insofar as a judgment can be made from a photograph, this drawing seems to be autograph, although re-touched here and there by a later hand.

The drawing must have been done in France, for it was there that the scene was etched and no French prints were made from drawings that can be shown to have been done in Italy.2  Thematically, the scene is associated with the second version of the Scene of Sacrifice that was designed for the Gallery of Francis I late in 1536 and which is also concerned with birth, as indicated by the youths carrying the wine vessels and the several mothers and children in the painting.  It is, however, probable that the fresco was designed first, for it is related to a major project.  The Allegory also has the compositional complexity and energy of that fresco, and of the Martyrdom of Sts. Marcus and Marcellinus that seems to have been done about the same time, around 1537.  The Allegory is not especially similar to works that would appear to have been done in the last two or three years of Rosso’s life and that show a somewhat grander and less dramatically active style.

PRINTS: Fantuzzi, E.81 (Fig.E.81).  Etching in reverse of the drawing.

Master I..V., E.100 (Fig.E.100).  Etching in the same direction as the drawing.

Anonymous, E.150 (Fig.E.150).  Etching in reverse of the drawing.

These three prints differ from the drawing in a variety of ways, most significantly in the enlargement of the scene in the case of the first two etchings, and in the appearance of the backgrounds.  In two of the prints, but not Fantuzzi’s, St. John wears a wreath of leaves that may have been seen by two of the etchers in what look like leaves at the back of John’s head in the drawing, but which Fantuzzi saw as locks of hair.  The lion’s head on the urn held by St. John appears only in the anonymous print, where, however, it is slightly enlarged.  The slender cross wound around by a banderole is not found in the anonymous etching, but is found in the other two etchings, but on a diagonal in Fantuzzi’s etching and reversed in the print by Master I..V., which is otherwise in the direction of the drawing.  These differences make it difficult to determine the relation of the three prints to the drawing and of all four images to each other.3  The situation is complicated by the possibility that the drapery covering Christ’s genitals is added by a later hand to the drawing and that the drapery and strap across the torso of the angel at the left are also additions derived from Master I..V.’s print.  If this is the case, then Fantuzzi’s print comes closest to the drawing.  This print is, however, enlarged on all sides, and it may be necessary, contrary to what I had thought (Carroll, 1987, 308-315, nos. 99 and 100), to attribute this enlargement to the etcher, who added the canopy above the bed and the windowed alcove in the background as well as more figures at the left and the right.  He omitted the lion’s head on the urn in the foreground and laid St. John’s cross on a diagonal.  The supposition that Fantuzzi enlarged the scene is suggested by one strange detail, the broken handle of the vessel held by the angel at the far right.  The break takes place just where the top of the drawing ends and where only the same amount of handle is visible.  It might well be asked why Fantuzzi did not complete the handle as he did those other parts of the extended scene.  This cannot really be answered, but it now seems to me unlikely that he worked from a larger version of the scene by Rosso where the handle was left incomplete.  The anonymous version seems also to be dependent on the drawing or on a copy of it.  Here a full wreath appears on St. John’s head.  Master I..V.’s print may be derived from Fantuzzi’s, bringing the image back to its original direction and completing the handle of the vessel.  Here again the wreath appears, meaning either that the etcher had access also to the original drawing or a copy of it, or access to the anonymous print.  But as the cross and banderole appear again parallel to the picture plane, but reversed from its appearance in the drawing, Master I..V. must have had access to the original drawing, which in all other respects is in the same direction as the print.  It would seem that it was Master I..V. who added the drapery and strap to the angel carrying the urn, doing so to cover his genitals and/or because he interpreted the drapery flying to his side as belonging to him rather than, as is actually the case, to the bundle of drapery that is carried by the next angel.  As supposed above, it would then have been a later hand that added this drapery and strap to the drawing on the basis of their appearance in the print.  The retouching went even further by also covering Christ partially with drapery.


1 I wish to thank Elizabeth Llewellyn of Sotheby’s for the photograph of the drawing; the drawing was bought by “Bonalium.”
2 Davis, 1988, 201, discussing the etching of this scene by Master I..V., related the composition to Rosso’s painting in Los Angeles (Fig.P.24a), which he dated around 1521.  Thus he believed that Rosso’s Allegory on the Birth of Christ, although etched in France, is not necessarily “from Rosso’s tenure at the royal palace” at Fontainebleau.  Finding several figures similar to some of Rosso’s Gods in Niches of 1526 (D.17A; D.17B; D.17C; D.18 and E.26-45) and to a figure in the altarpiece of 1528-1531 in Città di Castello (Fig.P.20a), Davis thought Rosso’s composition dated 1525-1530.  I know of no other case of an Italian composition by Rosso having been etched or engraved in France, and the argument that Davis offered does not compel an exceptional case.  Although the style that appears in the Allegory – and in the Los Angeles painting as well – began to evolve in the Roman and post-Roman years of Rosso’s career, its appearance here relates the Allegory most closely with works that Rosso created in France, including, in my opinion, the painting in Los Angeles.

3 In Carroll, 1987, 352, I expressed the opinion that the evidence strongly suggests that there were several versions of the composition by Rosso himself, but I am not so sure now that this would have been the situation; the complexity of the relationship of the printmakers to the images they used – Rosso’s drawing, copies of it, and the prints themselves – may more likely account for the variety of differences.