Disegno. The English translation is "drawing" or "design," but neither word quite captures it. For Italian artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, disegno was far more than simply sketching. It was the intellectual ability to conceive and create a work of art: a power that lifted the artist to a near godly status.
On view now at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, "500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum" tracks the development of disegno in Italy from the 16th to the early 20th century. Encompassing almost 100 works, most of which are figurative, the exhibition explores such themes as the growing interest in anatomical accuracy, the development of caricature, the role of disegno in other art forms such as sculpture and architecture, and the sheer variety of drawing styles exemplified by the masters. Curated by Princeton art historian Laura M. Giles, who drew entirely from Princeton University Art Museum's world-renowned collection of Italian drawings, the show is designed specifically to illuminate the role of disegno in the development of Italian art.
Every drawing in the exhibition has entered the Princeton collection since 1977 and few are widely known, though their style is instantly recognizable. For scholars of art history, the exhibition and its accompanying catalog offer a trove of thorough academic research and exquisite examples of Italian disegno. Yet the collection appeals just as much to the general public in its breadth of offerings, fresh perspectives and inclusion of works by well-known artists such as Michelangelo, Carracci, Tiepolo and Modigliani.
Jennifer Carty, curatorial assistant at the Cantor, described the exhibition as "breathing new life into older collections."
"One of my favorite pieces is a small drawing by Michelangelo," explained Carty, who worked closely with Cantor's Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs Elizabeth Mitchell to install the works at Stanford. "On the reverse, they found his ground plan for a chapel. To me, that was about freedom of invention. It was exciting to see the artist's thoughts on paper."
"Thoughts on paper" is perhaps a better translation of "disegno" than either "drawing" or "design," for it captures the generative quality of these works. Whether intended as plans for other artistic products or pieces of art in their own right, the works included in "500 Years of Italian Master Drawings" attest to the creative powers of their makers.
Among the works that exemplify the fascination with the human body is Gian Lorenzo Bernini's "Seated Male Nude," circa 1618-1624. Composed primarily in red chalk with occasional white highlights, the drawing features a young man sitting crossed-legged, head turned away from the viewer, hands clasped around a staff. From the play of light across the muscles of his twisted torso to the detailed shading around the thighs, knees and calves, Bernini's treatment evidences an intense focus on anatomy and musculature. In art of the Medieval period (up until about the 15th century), the human form tended to be concealed beneath clothing. Not so by the Renaissance, when an interest in classical art, science and visual realism blossomed, and direct study of the human figure became possible in artists' studios thanks to human skeletons and anatomical dissection. In fact, the exhibition points out, it was said of 16th century Italian artist Bartolomeo Torri that "he kept so many limbs and pieces of men under his bed, and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house."
Though artists would have used the deceased primarily as models for living figures, the dead themselves sometimes made an appearance in art.
Gaetano Previati's "The Monatti," circa 1895-1899, belongs to a collection of illustrations made for a historical novel centered on the plague of 1630 in Milan. The monatti -- literally, corpse carriers -- were those assigned to carry to the dead to mass graves. In Previati's watercolor, two hooded figures stoop under the weight of the pale, naked body slung over their shoulders. Together they descend a flight of steps, their mask-like faces half-hidden, the strange trio casting a grotesque shadow against the wall beside them.
If "The Monatti" is haunting, certain works by Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (better known as Il Guercino) provide a contrasting levity. In a series of caricatures from the 1630s and '40s, Il Guercino demonstrates his acute observational skills and sense of humor. Among the most memorable of these works exhibited here are "Woman with Deformed Lips" and "Scowling Elderly Man with Full Beard." In the former, loose, almost hasty lines of ink capture the woman's dress, cleavage and headscarf, while her face is realized with much finer hash marks. Her physiognomy is both startling and comical, no less so than her scowling colleague who stares directly at the viewer, an expression of humorless confrontation eliciting a mixture of amusement and fear. Like his female counterpart, "Scowling Elderly Man" is remarkable for the distinction between body and head, his roughly outlined waistcoat and shirt little more than suggestions above which his face looms, utterly specific and vivid.
As Carty noted of these works, "You can see this transition from looking at the masters and art historical traditions to more of a focus on nature and the daily experience."
That transition becomes apparent in a study of the three "masters of disegno": Il Guercino, Luca Cambiaso and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. In this exhibition, Giles presents their works in close proximity, inviting viewers to compare their stylistic approaches.
The earliest of the three chronologically, Cambiaso, has a kinetic style that suggests a sculptural interest in the human body and its weight. In "Sybil Attended by a Genius Seated on a Cloud," dated to the mid-1550s, Cambiaso draws the female prophet in elegant, energetic lines, making her appear buoyant in spite of her muscular build. His emphasis seems to be on placing the body in space and giving a sense of physical dynamism, as if he intends to bring this classical figure to life.
In contrast, Il Guercino's "Study for Mucius Scaevola," circa 1641-1642, the emphasis appears to be far more on the model's facial characteristics and personality. As in Il Guercino's caricatures, the helmeted soldier's body is far less emphasized than his head and face; the viewer's eye goes immediately to his gaze, the set of his mouth.
The most modern of the three masters is Tiepolo, whose "Roman Soldier," circa 1720-1722, evidences a new approach again. Executed with brush and red and black chalk, the drawing is expressive and painterly, seeming to set its subject in motion.
Though the exhibition from Princeton only occupies one room of the Cantor, it's worth setting aside ample time to revel in these works and reflect on the thoughtful connections that have been drawn between them. Those interested have until Aug. 24 to do so.
Fans of Italian drawing will be glad to know that come Aug. 19, a new collection of architectural drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi will arrive at the Cantor. "Piranesi's Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered" examines 15 drawings of the temples of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Paestum located in southern Italy. Made in the late 18th century by Piranesi and published after his death by his son, these works come to the West Coast from Sir John Soane's Museum in London and have never been shown outside of that venue until this tour. Together, they represent an unusually extensive study of a single architectural site, an opportunity to compare the drawings to the completed prints, and a chance to reflect on the development of Western architecture.
In the meantime, "500 Years of Italian Master Drawings" serves as the perfect precursor, offering scholars and novices alike a new way of looking at deeply familiar images.
What is disegno, after all, unless a way of seeing -- and conceiving -- the world anew?
IF YOU GO
What: "500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum" and "Piranesi's Paestum: Master Drawings Uncovered"
Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford
When: Master drawings: through Aug. 24. Piranesi: Aug. 19-Jan. 4. Museum hours: Wednesday-Monday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Docent-led tours: Thursday, 12:15 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.
Info: Go to museum.stanford.edu or call 650-723-4177.