L.34 “Una Bellissima Notomia” Done in Borgo Sansepolcro while Executing the Christ in Glory

Late 1529 and early 1530

After writing of the execution in Borgo Sansepolcro of the Christ in Glory for Città di Castello (P.20), Vasari (1550, 802-803) went on to say: “In quel medesimo tempo che tal cosa faceva, disotterrò de’morti nel vescovado, ove stava, & fece una bellissima notomia” (the same in Vasari, 1568, II, 109; Vasari-Milanesi, V, 166).  This period was between September 1529, when he fled Arezzo, and April 1530, when he departed for Venice.  The bishop’s palace was then still occupied by Rosso’s friend Bishop Leonardo Tournabuoni, who had earlier received the artist when he arrived in Sansepolcro from Perugia after the Sack of Rome and painted the Pietà in San Lorenzo (P.19).

Kusenberg, 1931, 38, noted Vasari’s comment that Rosso studied from dead bodies.  Kellett (1957, 329-330, and 1958, 6) translated Vasari’s passage as indicating that Rosso made “fine anatomical studies,” which, again according to Kellett, formed a “book of anatomical designs,” which he took to France where they were to serve as the models for the plates of a book on anatomy that Rosso planned to have printed there (see L.60).  Mayor, 1984, 50, 94, accepted Kellett’s history.  But Kornell, 1989, 842, questioned this connection, which Vasari himself had not made, adding that the word “notomia” or “anotomia” in the sixteenth century need not have meant a book of anatomy.  She concluded that Vasari’s “una bellissima notomia” is probably a reference to a single finished drawing.  She pointed out (846, and ns. 26 and 31) that Rosso’s Disputation of the Angel of Death and the Devil (Fig.D.1a), engraved by Agostino Veneziano (Fig.E.109a), was referred to by Vasari as “una notomia” and that Rosso’s Fury engraved by Caraglio (Fig.E.18a) was described as a “notomia secca.”  Kornell thought that the Fury “may be a direct reflection of Rosso’s early anatomical experience, in parts seeming to be an écorché,” as had also been suggested by Franklin, 1988, 326, no. 8, and implied by Davis, 1988, 71.  Franklin, 1988, 326, also thought Rosso’s study in the Albertina (Fig.D.26A) was made from a corpse.  Ciardi and Mugnaini, 1991, 19-20, 52, recognized Rosso’s study of anatomy in the Disputation of the Angel of Death and the Devil, and in the figure of St. Jerome in the S. Maria Nuova Altarpiece (Fig.P.5f).  Costamagna, 1994, 36, 95, ns. 21-24, discussed the modification of the human canon in Rosso’s S. Maria Nuova Altarpiece (and in his red chalk Disputation [D.1]) in the context of the hospital of S. Maria Nuova and its chiostro delle ossa and his study of cadavers and écorchés, suggesting that Buonafede, the director of the hospital who commissioned the altarpiece of 1518, encouraged Rosso to make dissections.

Kornell may well be right in recognizing that only one drawing is meant by Vasari’s “bellissima notomia.”  But Rosso’s study of the bodies he dug up at the bishop’s palace would probably have produced a number of drawings and these would then have provided the information for the supposed one “bellissima notomia.”  And “that entire experience,” to quote a letter from Kornell, “would have served him well for the later book of anatomy.”  One should probably leave open the possibility that the “bellissima notomia” done in Borgo Sansepolcro from Rosso’s study and drawings of cadavers came to be created within a framework of intentions for a book of anatomy, even if Vasari knew of only one finished drawing.  If there was only one it could, of course, have been made for or, in any case, used in that book.1


1 Mayor, 1984, 49-50, discussed a “book of bones and dissections” that Vasari owned around 1537 (not 1528, as Mayor thought; see Giorgio Vasari, 1981, 50) and had lent to Bartolommeo Rontini.  Mayor thought this was a book of drawings of dissections by Vasari or other Florentine artists.  Rosso could also have made such a book in his Italian years.