Lost Art

Fine Arts' von Henneberg tracks origins of forgotten 16th century drawings she found in Vatican Library

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When Prof. Josephine von Henneberg (Fine Arts) discovered a cache of 150 unsigned Renaissance architectural drawings in the Vatican Library in 1988, she found more than an art historian's gold mine. She uncovered a mystery.

No one, von Henneberg explains, knew who had drawn these exquisite late 16th century drawings, mainly of church arches and altars and other fittings of grand public edifices, or what cathedrals had inspired them.

So von Henneberg set out to trace the origins of the drawings, embarking on what she called a "treasure hunt" that took her to museum archives in Florence, London and Paris over the next several years. The results of her detective work are outlined in her recently published book, Architectural Drawings of the Late Italian Renaissance: The Collection of Pier Leone Ghezzi in the Vatican Library .

Prof. Josephine von Henneberg (Fine Arts)-"It is really a striking collection of drawings. It allows us to understand even better the tremendous problems for the Medici dukes as they were trying to construct a modern state through a tremendous program of public works." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)

Von Henneberg identified many of the drawings as the works of artists - some well known, some less so - who were active in the cities of Pisa and Florence in the Tuscany region of Italy under the reign of the Medici dukes in the latter years of the 16th century. Besides their artistic and architectural value, von Henneberg says, the works also provide other kinds of historical insights.

"It is really a striking collection of drawings," she said. "It adds to what we know of the work of many important artists. It allows us to understand even better the tremendous problems for the Medici dukes as they were trying to construct a modern state through a tremendous program of public works."

Identifying the architectural drawings presented "a very complicated problem," von Henneberg said. "Some of the structures may never have been built. Some of the structures were built, but over the centuries, were changed and modified."

In the case of Pisa's cathedral, the Primaziale, the drawings present rare visual evidence of its interior in Medicean times, before Romanesque alterations made in the 19th century irreversibly changed its appearance, von Henneberg said. The structure of the church's celebrated organ, destroyed during the later alterations, is revealed in one remarkable drawing that should be of interest to musicologists, she said.

The drawings also present a wealth of visual information on specific architectural projects. Sixteen drawings for the ceiling of Santo Stefano dei Cavalieri in Pisa, the church of Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici's Order of the Knights of Santo Stefano, plot the whole planning process the knights followed, from early preparations to final design.

Von Henneberg's intensive research was aided by a little luck. On a visit to the Primaziale, she noticed a carving of the angel-flanked Medici coat of arms on an arch in the church's central nave, and realized the decoration corresponded with a drawing she hadn't been able to place.

"I thought, 'I've seen this,'" she recalled. "I said, 'Oh, my - there is my drawing.'"

On another occasion, touring the National Gallery in London, she happened upon two ornate Renaissance chests - or cassoni - decorated with mythological creatures that clearly corresponded to unsigned drawings in the portfolio in the Vatican Library. Von Henneberg determined the chests had been designed in the late 1500s for Grand Duke Cosimo de Medici by a noted artist from Sienna, Bartolomeo Neroni.

Although her quest has been largely successful, von Henneberg said she has yet to establish the identity of the other artists, as well as an explanation for the collection's presence in Rome. The drawings were included among several hundred volumes of art that Pier Leone Ghezzi, an 18th century Roman painter and caricaturist, left at his death to the pope. How they came to be in Ghezzi's possession remains "very much a mystery," said von Henneberg, who intends to keep digging to find the answer.

Still, von Henneberg believes her findings are a significant contribution to the Renaissance art history field.

"It is unpublished primary material from artists of the first caliber of the Renaissance and nothing was known about them until now," she said.

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