One Painting in Two Versions
March 1, 2013
Two versions of Gianfrancesco Penni’s painting entitled The Holy Family are on display at the Early Painting Gallery of the National Museum in Warsaw until the end of March. One of the paintings comes from a private collection in Boston and the other from the National Museum in Warsaw.
Gianfrancesco Penni was an associate of the outstanding Italian Renaissance painter Raphael, and The Holy Family is considered to be one of the most interesting paintings ever produced at Raphael’s studio. Raphael established a large and particularly efficient painting studio in Rome, accepting commissions from popes, senior church officials and private patrons. In order to complete the many diverse tasks, Raphael employed a number of assistants and helpers. Among his closest associates were Penni and Giulio Pippi, also known as Giulio Romano. Contemporary documents also mention anonymous garzoni (boys), who would have carried out some technical tasks.
Raphael was responsible for invenzione—the most vital aspect of the work according to Renaissance criteria, which was an original way of depicting a theme in a work of art. He made numerous drawings, from studies of individual details, such as heads or hands, to whole figures, to scenes involving several people and drawings of complete compositions. It was on the basis of those drawings that his assistants made templates of compositions on a 1:1 scale used to transfer the design onto the support: the wooden panel, canvas, or, in the case of frescoes, the wall.
Once primed by garzoni and with the underdrawing applied by Raphael’s collaborators based on his sketches, paintings could be crafted by the master himself, or by one or more of his assistants who worked in the master’s style. A painting which left Raphael’s painting studio, even if it was not made by him personally from beginning to end, was considered his work when in fact it was the creation of a large bottega (workshop) that guaranteed the requisite quality and stylistic consistency. Such works could be made even after Raphael’s death with the use of drawings collected over the years, many of which were inherited by the painter’s closest associates. Some of Raphael’s assistants, most notably Giulio and Penni, also operated on their own account, developing Raphael’s ideas but producing works that could not be mistaken for his.
The practice of painting two almost identical versions of the same composition was not rare in those days. The first version was usually made as a special commission, while the second remained in the studio, awaiting a potential buyer or serving as a model for other compositions.
The Warsaw and the Boston paintings differ in many respects, from composition to the manner of execution. The Warsaw work was painted on wood, which was the most common kind of support used by Raphael and his followers. It also boasts a wider array of painterly effects and hues. The Boston painting, on the other hand, was on canvas and involved a limited range of artistic effects. This suggests the Warsaw painting was the primary commission, while the Boston painting was a slightly simplified and perhaps more affordable version made at the same time.
A Meeting of Two Paintings. Gianfrancesco Penni: The Holy Family—The Boston and Warsaw Versions
Until March 31
National Museum in Warsaw; 3 Jerozolimskie Ave.
Open Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Thu. 10 a.m.-9 p.m., closed on Mondays. Free admission to permanent exhibitions on Tuesdays.
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