D.4 Study for an Altarpiece

D.4. Study for an Altarpiece

With an Enthroned Madonna and Child, St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph(?), St. Margaret, and St. Sebastian(?).

c. 1519

Florence, Uffizi, no. 479F.


Black chalk, 33 x 25.5; mat paper, irregularly torn along the right edge; somewhat rubbed, and soiled; laid down; wm.?.  Inscribed in the upper right corner: 479, and in the lower left corner: 614 and 52.


According to Weigel, 1865, 656, no. 7731, reproduced by Stefano Mulinari as a red chalk drawing by Rosso in Istoria pratica dell’incominciamento, e progressi delta pittura, o sia raccolta di cinquanta stampe, estratte da uqual numero di disegni originali esistenti nella Real Galleria di Firenze per la prima volta incise da Stefano Mulinari, Florence, 1778, fol. no. 34 (impressions of this print are in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Vol. Ba 12, 38.2 x 28.6 Sheet, including margins on all sides, and in Florence, Uffizi, stampe in volumni, no. 2800, in a volume entitled: Cominciamento e progresso della pittura dal secolo X. dell’era di Cristo Nostro Signore al secolo presente MDCCLXXXVII.; in the margin at the upper right: 48, in the margin at the lower right: SM. inci., and below: Di Rosso Fiorentino, nato nel 1496, visse anni 55.).

Ferri, 1890, 125, as Rosso, and as a study for the Dei Altarpiece.

Jacobsen, 1898, 274, no. 104, as by Rosso, and as very probably for the Dei Altarpiece.

Berenson, 1903, I, 330, II, no. 2397, as Rosso, and perhaps an early study for the Dei Altarpiece.

Kusenberg, 1931, 137, 139, no. 6, as Rosso around 1527-1530.

Berenson, 1938, I, 323, II, no. 2402A, III, Fig. 995, as in 1903.

Mostra del Cinquecento, 1940, 105, no. 3-C, as Rosso.

Trésors des Bibliothèques d’Italie, IVe – XVIe siècles, Paris, 1950, no. 426, as Rosso.

Barocchi, 1950, 130, 158, 210, 213, Fig. 188, as Rosso around 1527-1530.

Hartt, 1952, 65, as Rosso, and done before 1523.

Bologna and Causa, 1952, 60, as Rosso (and wrongly as Uffizi 469E).

Luisa Marcucci, in Mostra di disegni, 1954, 22, no. 30, as Rosso and a study for the Dei Altarpiece.

Sinibaldi, 1960, 17, no. 87, as Rosso and almost certainly a study for the Dei Altarpiece.

Berenson, 1961, I, 471, II, no. 2402A.

Carroll, 1964 (1976), I, Bk. I, 51-64, 70-72, 76-77, 80, 88, Bk. II, 205-212, D.8, III, Bk. III, Fig. 18, as Rosso, ca. 1519.

Petrioli Tofani, 1972, no. 48, and Color Pl.

Forlani Tempesti, in Primato del disegno, 1980, 193, no. 457, and Fig., as Rosso, c. 1520-1522.

Darragon, 1983, 37-38, Fig. 13, as influenced by Pontormo’s Pucci Altarpiece.

Wilmes, 1985, 126-127, 138, Fig. 21, as possibly a study for the Dei Altarpiece.

Carroll, 1987, 18, Fig. 1, 19, as Rosso, c. 1519.

Ciardi, 1987, agreed with my dating of the drawing.

Smith, in Petrioli Tofani and Smith, 1988, 53, 54, Color. Pl., 55, no. 23, as Rosso, as about 1521-1524, or 1522-23, if related to the plague in Florence at that time, or later, even as late as the post-Roman period.

Ciardi and Mugnaini, 1991, 62, 90, 92, as related to the Dei Altarpiece.

Florence, Figura, 1, 1991, 479F, with Fig. and bibliography, as Rosso.

Franklin, 1994, 72, Pl. 53, 73, 83, as influenced by Pontormo’s Visdomini Altarpiece of 1518, and roughly contemporary with the altarpieces in Volterra; also as showing the Baptist sharing the Virgin’s throne.


The traditional attribution of this drawing to Rosso has rightly never been questioned.  Compositionally and in detail, the drawing is clearly related to the S. Maria Nuova Altarpiece of 1518 (Fig.P.5a), to the Volterra Deposition (Fig.P.9a) and the Villamagna Altarpiece (Fig.P.10a) of 1521, and to the Dei Altarpiece of 1522 (Fig.P.12a). Graphically, it is very similar to the Virtù Vanquishing Fortune of 1521-1522 (Fig.D.6a), the Seated Woman in a Niche of 1524 (Fig.D.11), and the St. Roch Distributing His Inheritance to the Poor of the same year (Fig.D.13), to name only a few of the many comparable drawings.  The draughtsmanship of the Study for an Altarpiece differs from that of these drawings only by being somewhat more dense in the shadows and slightly less incisive in the delineation of details.  In spite of the fact that it is executed in gray chalk it also brings to mind Rosso’s Throne of Solomon of 1529 (Fig.D.34), executed in pen and ink and wash, although this drawing is clearly a later invention.

The frequent dating of the drawing between 1527 and 1530 is not acceptable because it shows no reflection of Rosso’s stay in Rome in the immediately preceding years or any significant stylistic correspondence with his post-Roman Italian works.  The figure of St. Margaret may show some knowledge of the Libyan Sibyl but the saint gives no impression of a direct confrontation with the Sistine Ceiling.  On iconographical grounds it can be shown that the drawing is not a study for the Dei Altarpiece.  Two of the saints in Rosso’s drawing are St. John the Baptist and St. Margaret.  The old bearded saint is probably St. Joseph, and the second young and almost nude saint would seem to be St. Sebastian although no arrows are shown.  We know from Vasari that Rosso’s altarpiece of 1522 was commissioned by the Dei family as a substitute for the painting that Raphael had begun and left unfinished when he departed for Rome in 1508.  As Riedl, 1959, 223-246, has shown, Raphael’s early design at Chatsworth for his Madonna del Baldacchino shows Sts. Peter, Bernard, Augustine, and probably Anthony.  In Raphael’s painting St. Anthony was replaced by St. James (or Jacob) the Elder.  For the selection of two of these saints sound iconographical reasons can be given.  The altarpiece, commissioned by the will of Rinieri di Bernardo Dei, was dedicated to St. Bernard.  The church in which the altarpiece was to be placed – Santo Spirito – is an Augustinian church.  Hence, Sts. Bernard and Augustine appear in Raphael’s picture.  Rosso’s picture was planned for the same location and both of these saints appear in his painting.  But neither appears in the Study for an Altarpiece.  Nor, if the two saints at the right in the drawing are correctly identified above, do any of the other saints in Raphael’s drawing and painting appear in Rosso’s study.  And yet all of them possibly appear in Rosso’s painting.  The female saint in the altarpiece does not have nor ever had the attributes of St. Margaret. It is, however, the absence of St. Bernard, who is dramatically as well as inconographically so important to Rosso’s painting, that makes it most unlikely that the drawing is a study for that altarpiece.

Given the high placement of the Virgin and the saints beside her, the appearance of St. Sebastian at the right, and the situation of a kneeling female saint in the foreground, it is easy to see why this drawing has been associated with the Dei Altarpiece.  But in spite of these similarities the Study for an Altarpiece is surely an earlier work.  The tall, slender, and tightly muscular figures of Sts. John and Sebastian are quite different from the broad and more fleshy nude St. Sebastian in the Dei Altarpiece.  But they are quite specifically like the figures in the S. Maria Nuova Altarpiece of 1518, in the Volterra Deposition of 1521, and in the Villamagna Altarpiece of the same year.  The Madonna, with her long, oval face, long, pointed fingers, and simply folded draperies, is extremely similar to the Virgin in the latter picture.  The hair of St. Sebastian is twisted almost exactly as is the beard of the man above the cross in the Deposition.  Even more specifically, the faceted draperies in the drawing are more similar to those in Rosso’s paintings of 1518 and 1521 than to those in any earlier or later works by this artist.

The very shallow space in the drawing also characterizes Rosso’s pictures of 1518 and 1521.  Furthermore, the manner in which the figures are arranged in the immediate foreground of this space and in broad, interrelated patterns across the surface of the drawing parallels the basic compositional principles of the S. Maria Nuova Altarpiece and even slightly more those in the Volterra Deposition.

At the same time, the absolute clarity with which these stylistic principles are realized in the Volterra Deposition and in the Villamagna Altarpiece is missing from the drawing.  The posture of St. Margaret, for example, is not thoroughly considered, especially the existence of the right leg under all the drapery that covers it.  Her drapery also lacks the crisp definition of that in the Volterra Deposition.  The whole composition of the drawing lacks the rhythmic continuity of the designs of the Volterra and Villamagna paintings.

Within the context of the development of Rosso’s art the Study for an Altarpiece can be seen as a step in the alteration of Rosso’s style from the altarpiece of 1518 to the more mature paintings of 1521, an alteration certainly stimulated and determined by the example of Pontormo’s art.  The changes that distinguish the style of the drawing from Rosso’s altarpiece of 1518 are probably accountable to the influence of Pontormo’s S. Michele Visdomini Altarpiece of 1518 (Fig.Pontormo, Visdomini).  As in this altarpiece, Rosso’s Madonna is placed high in the composition and so seated that her legs are seen turned to the right while her left arm moves across her body to the left.  The Christ Child in Rosso’s drawing is in type, proportion, and posture extremely similar to the winged putto in the upper right corner of Pontormo’s picture.  Also, as in Pontormo’s picture, the figures in Rosso’s drawing are extended across the surface of the composition in such a way that all the figures are almost fully visible.  Furthermore, the light in Rosso’s drawing brightly illuminates parts of the figures while it casts other parts suddenly into shadow.  Consequently, Rosso’s drawing would appear to have been done after Pontormo’s picture of 1518.

But the drawing is also related to Rosso’s own altarpiece of that year and is not yet as Pontormesque as his paintings of 1521.  Nor is it as Pontormesque as his Standing Nude Woman in the Uffizi (Fig.D.5) or his Portrait of a Young Man in Washington (Fig.P.8a), both of which seem to have been done around 1520.  The Study for an Altarpiece would seem to have been executed around 1519, shortly after the St. Paul the Hermit (Fig.D.3), and about the same time as the small painting of the Holy Family in Baltimore (Fig.P.7a). That some aspects of the drawing were utilized three years later when Rosso painted the Dei Altarpiece is not particularly unusual considering the frequent recurrence of motifs in Rosso’s art throughout his career.

Graham Smith had partly supported his dating of 1521-1524 on the basis of a possible relationship, suggested by Linda Wolk, of the appearance of St. Sebastaian in the drawing and an outbreak of the plague in Florence in 1522. Smith also pointed out that principal sites of the cult of this saint in Florence were the Pucci Chapel at SS. Annunziata and the ancient Compagnia di San Sebastiano behind the Annunziata.  This confraternity was reconsecrecated in 1516 (see Janet Cox-Rearick, “A St. Sebastian by Bronzino,” BM, CXXIX, 1987, 160-161, and p.162, n. 22, citing F. del Migliore, Firenze città nobilissima, Florence, 1684, 303-304).  As Rosso had earlier and several times worked for this church where one of his brothers was a cleric and Fra’ Jacopo was very much a mentor, it is possible that the artist was called upon to paint an altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Sebastiano, or thought he might, following its reconsecration.  This could account for the making of the drawing without the stimulus of an outbreak of the plague itself, especially as the saint is shown not pierced by arrows, not unlikely an essential detail to suggest the plague. Instead the implication may be in his rushing into the scene of a saintly protector of any threat to the members of this confraternity.

A connection to SS. Annunziata may also be indicated by the appearance of St. Margaret of Antioch who is also in Piero di Cosimo’s Incarnation with Six Saints painted around 1504 for the Tedaldi Chapel in this church. She is  paired with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a patron of the Domincan Order who was also revered by the Servites through their devotion to St. Peter Martyr who aided them. Why St. Margaret has been chosen for these compositions is not definitely known, but it is likely that her identity as an early virgin martyr, as was St. Catherine of Alexandria, finds its place in the worship of the Virgin Mary (see Geronimus, 2006, 2o7-211, including Fig.160 of a drawing for the altarpiece that shows the two Virgin Saints nearer to the Virgin. St. Margaret is also shown with St. Sebastian in Giovanni Cariani’s painting, Three Saints, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Marseilles (Fig.Cariani). With the third saint St. Roch the picture is surely related to the plague. But as the original site of Cariani’s picture is not known and it is thus also not possible to say that it was painted for a specific outbreak of the disease. See Ridolfo Palluchini, Giovanni Cariani, Bergamo, 1983, 48, 59, Fig. 69, 126, no. 48. Cariani’s St. Sebastiano is inflicted with only one arrow, just above his knee, not so serious a serious wound to threatened his life.