- Museum number
Pietà; the Virgin holding the body of Christ on her lap, a cross at r
Pen and brown ink, with brown wash, the left corner made up
Verso: Studies of five putti
Pen and brown ink, with brown wash
- Production date
Height: 129 millimetres
Width: 92 millimetres
- Curator's comments
Like all drawings associated with Giovanni Bellini's name, the attribution to him of this pen study is by no means certain. Karl Parker was the first to associate this with Bellini and he later linked it to a pen drawing of the same subject in Rennes (inv. 794.1.2503; Tietze's no. 321, p. 89; illustrated in colour in the 1990 Rennes catalogue, p. 35; both drawings illustrated actual size in Van Cleave 2007, pp. 54-5). Popham and Pouncey believed that the BM and Rennes drawing were by the same hand, and this is the view of most recent scholars (Rearick, Chapman and Goldner). However the Tietzes and Heinemann did not share this opinion because in their view the BM drawing was by a follower based on the autograph Rennes drawing. The inscription which seems to read 'Udine' at the top right of the recto was interpreted by Parker as an old attribution to the obscure Friulian painter Giovanni Martini da Udine (c.1453-1535). Parker likened the putti on the verso to those in a painting attributed to Giovanni Martini da Udine in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore (B. Berenson, 'Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, Venetian School', 2 vols, London, 1957, I, pl. 489). The Tietzes took up this idea and compared the infants with Martini's signed and dated 'Madonna' of 1498 in the Museo Correr, Venice (Berenson pl. 488). Robertson in his monograph on Bellini commented on this 'curious resemblance' adding: 'one would be unwilling to ascribe so free a drawing to this timid provincial painter, but the evidence demands consideration'. Popham and Pouncey passed over the drawing's supposed likeness to the Correr painting without comment. They were right do so as the resemblance between the two is only generic. The lively studies of the infants have little in common with the very stiffly posed child in the Correr painting.
The verso has, as George Goldner noted, a rare vitality and immediacy with the figures jotted quickly with the pen and then a lightly applied wash to model the form. Although some of the infants, such as the seated and reclining ones at the top of the sheet, could believably be drawn from life as Goldner suggests, the probability that the artist was inventing them in a quickfire manner without having a model in front of him is suggested by the entirely unnatural pose of the baby shown lying on his front and resting his head on his hands.
The way in which pen and wash are combined on the verso seems entirely in keeping with the handling of the two techniques in the study on the recto. Popham and Pouncey thought that the wash on both sides might be a later addition when the corner was skilfully made up (this must pre-date the drawing's entry into the BM as the Malcolm stamp on the verso straddles the repair). This view is contradicted by the integral nature of the wash in modelling the figures and setting of the 'Pietà' (the right-hand side of the tomb would, for example, almost disappear if it were not there), although it has to be said that abrupt break in the application of wash at the top of the sheet is disconcerting. Even so, it seems much more likely that the wash is by the same hand responsible for the penwork as Goldner and Rearick both assume.
There is agreement by those who agree that the Rennes and BM drawing are by the same hand that the present one is the later of the two. The Rennes drawing is much more exploratory with the artist trying out different poses, especially as regards to the placement of the Virgin's legs. In the BM drawing the position of the two figures has been resolved with the awkward frontal position of the Dead Christ abandoned. Christ's sideways position on his mother's lap is much more affecting as it allows the Virgin's feelings to be conveyed through the action of her cradling her son's body, her encircling arms drawing him closer to her. The suggested dating of the drawings have varied greatly, unsurprisingly in the absence of any Bellini drawing that can be connected to one of his paintings. Goldner in his recent study on Bellini's drawings dates it c. 1460-5 while for Rearick they are late works, c. 1510.
Vinco, in the 2014 Milan exhibition catalogue, considers the drawing to be by Giovanni Bellini and concurs with the opinions of Rearick and Goldner in judging the wash to be original rather than a later addition.
Lit.: J.C. Robinson, 'Descriptive Catalogue of Drawings by the Old Masters, forming the Collection of John Malcolm of Poltalloch, Esq.', London, 1876, no. 344 (as Uncertain North Italian); K.T. Parker, 'North Italian Drawings of the Quattrocento', London, 1927, no. 42, p. 30 (as Follower of Giovanni Bellini); K.T. Parker, "Old Master Drawings", I, 1926/7, p. 50; H. Tietze and E. Tietze-Conrat, 'The Drawings of the Venetian Painters in the 15th and 16th Centuries', New York, 1944, no. 343, p. 92 (as School of Giovanni Bellini); A.E. Popham and P. Pouncey, 'Italian drawings in the BM, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries', London, 1950, I, no. 13, II, pl. XII; F. Heinemann, 'Bellini e i belliani', Venice, 1963, p. 213, fig. 624 (as anonymous follower of Bellini); G. Robertson, 'Giovanni Bellini', New York, 1981 (reissue of 1968 ed.), p. 25, n. 3; E. Saccomani, in exhib. cat. (ed. by P. Ramade), Modena, Galleria Estense and Rennes, Musée de Rennes, 'Disegno: les dessins italiens du Musée de Rennes', 1990, under no. 11, p. 34; W.R. Rearick, in exhib. cat., Paris, Grand Palais, 'Le siècle de Titien : l'age d'or de la peinture à Venise', 1993, p. 276; H. Chapman, in exhib. cat., BM, 'Old Master Drawings from the Malcolm Collection', 1996, no. 5; H. Chapman, in exhib. cat., BM, 'Padua in the 1450s: Marco Zoppo and his contemporaries', 1998, no. 14; W.R. Rearick, in exhib. cat., Pordenone, San Francesco, 'Da Pordenone a Palma il Giovane', 2000, p. 6, fig. 1; V. Romani, in loc. cit., under no. 1; W.R. Rearick, 'Il disegno veneziano del cinquecento', Milan, 2001, p. 23; G. Goldner, 'Bellini's Drawings', in P. Humfrey (ed.), 'The Cambridge Companion to Giovanni Bellini', Cambridge, 2004, pp. 232, 236, figs 75-6; C. Van Cleave, 'Master Drawings of the Italian Renaissance', London, 2007, p. 50, illustrated p. 55; M. Vinco, in 'Giovanni Bellini: La nascita della pittura devozionale umanistica', Milan, 2014, no. 17.
Popham & Pouncey 1950
Literature: JCR 344; K. T. Parker, North Italian Drawings, London, 1927, pl. 42; the same, O.M.D., i (1926/7), p. 50; Tietzes, no. 343.
Catalogued by Robinson as uncertain North Italian. First ascribed by Parker to a follower of Giovanni Bellini and later connected by him with the drawing of a 'Pietà' at Rennes (O.M.D., i, pl. 58). We think there is little doubt that both drawings are by the same artist, and studies for the same composition, not otherwise known. Gamba, who refers to the Rennes drawing as being at Rheims, regards it as a study for a composition dating from about the time of the Pesaro altarpiece, which he places c. 1475. The bad impression which the British Museum drawing at first makes (it is not included in Hadeln's Corpus) is probably due to the wash, which we believe to be a later addition. It may have been added, both on the recto and on the verso, when the l.-hand bottom corner was made up. None of the putti on the back occurs in pictures by Bellini, but the action of the topmost one is somewhat similar (in reverse) to that of the Child in the Borghese 'Madonna' (K. der K. 156), though the types seem more nearly to resemble those in works of a much earlier date.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1998, BM, 'Padua in the 1450s', no. 14
2008/9 Sep-Jan, Paris, Musée du Louvre, Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506)
2014, Feb-Jun, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera, 'Giovanni Bellini', no
2018-2019 1 Oct-27 Jan, London, National Gallery, Mantegna and Bellini
2019, 1 Mar-30 Jun, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Mantegna and Bellini. 17
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Unidentified collector's mark.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number