The relative rarity of fifteenth-century Italian drawings is even more pronounced for those of the Roman school. To its leading artist, Antoniazzo Romano, by whom works are known dating between 1461 and 1505, only three drawings have been attributed before the recent and important rediscovery of the present study for a painting dated to the second half of the 1480s at the Palazzo Barberini, Rome, inv. 4219 (D. Ferrara in A. Cavallaro and S. Petrocchi, eds., Antoniazzo Romano, 1435/1440-1508. Pictor urbis, exhib. cat., Rome, Palazzo Barberini, 2013-2014, no. 34, ill.). For a pair of portrait studies in black chalk, heightened with white on blue paper, an attribution to Antoniazzo was suggested by Lorenza Melli despite the absence of a direct relationship with any work by the artist (Kupfertsich-Kabinett, Dresden, inv. C 356, C 357; see L. Melli, I disegni italiani del Quattrocento nel Kupferstich-Kabinett di Dresda, exhib. cat., Florence, Istituto Universitario Olandese di Storia dell’Arte, 2006, nos. 35, 36, ill.). A different case is presented by a sheet, now in a private collection and formerly at the sale Sotheby’s, New York, 26 January 2005, lot 64, corresponding to sections of the fresco depicting the Legend of the True Crossin the apse of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, largely executed by Antoniazzo’s assistants. Drawn in a rather perfunctory style and skipping over several important parts of the fresco, including the central depiction of Christ standing next to the Cross and the painting’s patron, it is difficult to understand it as a preparatory work, despite Christina Gardner von Teuffel’s argument in favor of this hypothesis (‘Light on the Cross: Cardinal Pedro González de Mendoza and Antoniazzo Romano in Sta. Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome’, in From Duccio’s Maestà to Raphael’s Transfiguration: Italian Altarpieces and Their Settings, London, 2005, pp. 570-585).
The relationship of the drawing under discussion here with the painting at Palazzo Barberini is more straightforward. Although stylistically the drawing cannot be related to any sheet by Antoniazzo or his circle, both the differences and similarities between painting and drawing appear as eloquent proof that the drawing is not a copy but a study for the finished work. Among the many matching details can be mentioned the construction of the stable, built against rocks; the shepherd looking into the stable, where the ox and ass are eating; the spire of the town in the far distance at right; and the poses of the different figures in the foreground, including the two angels above the stable’s thatched roof. Among the differences are the absence of the banderole carried by the left angel; the proportions of the stable’s roof; the construction of its walls at left; the absence of the shepherds in the right middle ground; and details in Saint Lawrence’s clothes, in particular his collar. At left, the drawing is obviously cut, but it would never have had the markedly horizontal format of the panel. The cut may have had to do with damage to the sheet (of which the loss at upper left could be another indication), but perhaps also because that part of the drawing was less finished, as evident from what can still be seen of the kneeling saint – Saint Andrew in the painting – at left.
Given the lack of comparable preparatory studies for works by Antoniazzo or other Roman artists, a surprising feature of the new drawing is its elegant, ‘Florentine’ style. Influence from artists belonging to other regional schools play an important role in Antoniazzo’s career, however, notably that of Melozzo da Forlì and other artists, including Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), who in the middle of the 1470s and then again in the early 1480s worked on important commissions at the Vatican. Antoniazzo himself was active there in 1480-1482 on a separate project at the Vatican library, and it is plausible, or indeed probable, that he had ample occasion to acquaint himself with the art of the great Florentine master – including, one can assume, with his drawings. The figures and the shorthand used to indicate their faces are particularly reminiscent of Ghirlandaio’s compositional sketches in pen, such as that for one of the scenes frescoed by him in the later 1480s in the Tornabuoni chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence (Albertina, Vienna, inv. 4860; see J.K. Cadogan, Domenico Ghirlandaio. Artist and Artisan, New Haven and London, 2000, p. 131, no. 112, fig. 135). Antoniazzo’s encounter with such drawings would help explain how the present work, like the paintings from his later years, manages to combine ‘the sacred solemnity of his figures, inherited from medieval tradition,’ with ‘more modern features borrowed from Florentine culture, such as the perspectival structure, the firmness of the contours, the costume and delicacy of the figures’ (A. Cavallaro in Cavallaro and Petrocchi, op. cit., pp. 25-26).