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Princeton University Art Museum has produced a catalogue on its Italian Old Master drawings

A new publication highlighting Italian drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum is the work of Laura Giles, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings, in collaboration with Lia Markey and Claire Van Cleave, and a stellar array of guest contributors. The Princeton collection was largely developed from the bequests of two alumni, Dan Fellows Platt (1873-1938) and Frank Jewett Mather, Jr, (1868-1953), both keen amateur art historians with wide intellectual interests and idiosyncratic acquisition strategies. The present catalogue revises and expands the 1977 publication by Felton Gibbons. There are 95 full scholarly entries, and a substantial appendix with brief notices of more recent acquisitions.

The catalogue ranges chronologically from a Coronation of the Virgin in the style of Altichiero, around 1430, to early 20th-century Modernist works by Amedeo Modigliani. Highlights are mostly concentrated in the later Renaissance, the Seicento, and the 18th century. A suite of drawings by Luca Cambiaso charts his monopoly over Genoese palace decoration in the mid-16th century, and features his distinctive calligraphic strokes and geometric, almost abstract compositional style. A sketchbook by Guercino, once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds, reflects the artist’s shrewd comic eye and gift for rapid, economical observation.

The selection encompasses the diverse genres and functions of drawing. Some sheets were intended as virtuoso demonstrations, to be exchanged as gifts and pored over by connoisseurs. Bartolomeo Passarotti’s Christ Wearing the Crown of Thorns, 1576-80, is one such piece. Other drawings explore and develop individual visual motifs. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s energetic pen-and-wash study of Ruggero Mounted on a Hippogriff, around 1757, is a miniature tour de force. Baccio Bandinelli’s sketches of nudes and putti of the 1520s are boldly carved out with the pen. And the airy strokes of Donato Creti’s studies for Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, 1720s, billow with an unconfined energy lost in the finished painting.

Working drawings were often regarded as ephemeral, discarded once the design process was complete. It seems miraculous that so many of these fragile sheets have survived, providing generations of scholars, students and enthusiasts with what Laura Giles calls “teachable moments [and] transformative experiences”.

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Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum

Laura Giles, Lia Markey and Claire Van Cleave, eds

Princeton University Art Museum in association with Yale University Press, 364pp, £50 (hb)