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Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Sebastian and Roch

Giulio Romano
Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Sebastian and Roch, c. 1530
Pen and brown ink with brown wash on laid paper
23.1 x 18.5 cm
Purchased 2001

Giulio Romano entered Raphael's workshop in Rome as a relative youth and soon became his most trusted and capable assistant. Following Raphael's death in 1520, he inherited the artist's workshop, including the master's drawings, and completed major commissions in the Vatican palace. By 1524 Giulio was tempted by the Gonzaga family through the agent of Baldassare Castiglione to transplant himself to Mantua, where he would work as court artist for the rest of his life. While in Mantua Giulio was primarily a designer of all forms of art and architecture with little time to see his own ideas to fruition.

This unpublished drawing, which recently resurfaced in a private collection in England, featuring the Virgin and Child enthroned with the flanking saints Sebastian and Roch is unquestionably by Giulio Romano, and likely executed during his time in Mantua. To judge by the nature of the image it was doubtless made as part of a plague altarpiece that is no longer extant and not recorded in any sources. The drawing may well be linked to a devastating plague that struck Mantua in 1527 and early 1528.

The frieze-like composition, with heavy-set figures arranged frontally in the manner of ancient sarcophagi, is typical of Giulio's approach to design. This sheet relates to two other drawings of the same composition, one now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly and the other currently untraced. In the absence of a painting, it is impossible to be certain which of the three drawings was nearest to Giulio's final intention, though it seems reasonable to assume from its relatively loose finish alone that the Ottawa drawing was executed first and represents the artist's earlier inspiration for this compositional problem, thus adding to its importance for the insight it provides into his creative process.

Even for Giulio, however, this sketch is distinguished by a particularly vivacious touch. In essence, it is a wash drawing exploring qualities of light and shade with broad areas of golden tone to create drama, only the thinnest and most rudimentary of lines indicating the contours. There are precedents among Raphael's surviving drawings for this vivid technique, including a celebrated study now in the Uffizi for the Release of Saint Peter fresco in the Vatican. The spirited handling is especially successful in realizing the artist's desire to suggest lively emotional states for his divine characters as he attempted to unify the conception in the manner of a narrative rather than simply depicting the traditional gathering of saints before the Virgin and Child. The quest for narrative impulses within the altarpiece format was an innovation characteristic of this period of the Renaissance, and Guilio's drawing provides a quintessential example.