Within the larger history of collecting, the collecting of drawings occupies a very particular place. In the beginning, drawings probably survived as part of the stock-in-trade of workshops, as records of ideas as well as potentially reusable templates. And from an early date legal documents make reference to drawings being deposited with notaries to make sure artists did not deviate from their contractual obligations.
However, neither of these modes of preservation represents a genuine expression of the urge to collect; that came slightly later. Given their inevitable curiosity about the activities of their peers, it need come as no surprise that it was artists who were among the first collectors.
The principal subject of the present study – which includes contributions from Peter Windows and Alessandra Zamperini, and explores all sorts of wider questions – is an album that was created by a pioneering artist-collector of precisely this type. The album was acquired in the mid-1950s by the dealer Francis Matthiesen (whose son Patrick has followed in his footsteps). Fortunately before disassembling it for the purposes of sale, he had the foresight to make a photographic record not just of its contents but also of its layout and sequence. This means that Evelyn Karet is able both to discuss all the drawings that the album contained (they numbered nearly 100, some of which are currently untraced) and also to examine the logic of its organisation.
The text on the title page of the volume credits Antonio II Badile (around 1424 to before 1512), who was a member of a known dynasty of Veronese artists, with having assembled the collection – it reads “Desegni de varie persone racolti per Ant[oni]o Badile II…”. However, the inclusion of various sheets dating from significantly after his death makes it clear that this must have been an ongoing and collaborative family enterprise. What is crucial is that by no means all the drawings are by members of the Badile clan; the inscriptions denoting authorship on many of them are in the same hand and are therefore what we would think of as attributions, reliable or not, as opposed to signatures.
It may come as something of a surprise, especially to Vasari-brainwashed Tuscanophiles, that this album was put together in Verona. Nevertheless, as Karet compellingly explains, Verona was an exceptionally early centre of collecting, and the humanist scholar Felice Feliciano (1433-79) has an excellent claim not only to be the first true drawings collector of whose holdings we have any detailed knowledge (amazingly, Oliviero Forzetta of Treviso was collecting drawings a century earlier, by the 1330s), but also the first to inscribe the sheets in his possession with a collector’s mark.
More generally, it was arguably in northern Italy that the collecting of drawings really took off, and Karet examines its existence among artists and “pure” collectors in the 16th century in such centres as Mantua, Padua and Venice as well as Verona. In this context, it might also have been useful to look sideways to Parma and add the collection of the Cavaliere Francesco Baiardi (d. 1561), almost all of which gives every indication of having previously been the workshop property of Parmigianino (1503-40), not least since the post mortem inventory of Baiardi’s various works of art, above all, drawings, is unprecedentedly full both in terms of its recording of dimensions and of techniques.
It would be quite wrong, however, to conclude this short review by drawing attention to an arguable sin of omission, because this is an exceptionally interesting and meticulous book, whose supreme merit is to cast light on a hitherto distinctly overlooked but utterly absorbing corner of the admittedly seemingly endless artistic landscape of the Italian Renaissance.
The Antonio II Badile Album of Drawings: the Origins of Collecting Drawings in Early Modern Northern Italy Evelyn Karet Ashgate, 360pp, £75 (hb)
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'An Italian Renaissance drawing collector and his family'