A remarkable early drawing by Raphael, this sheet can be dated to circa 1503, at which time the young artist was collaborating with Pinturicchio on the fresco cycle in the Piccolomini Library, Siena. The composition later exerted a significant influence on two frescoes in the Benedictine cycle at the monastery of Monteoliveto Maggiore: that of Saint Benedict receiving Maurus and Placidus by Sodoma (circa 1505), and that of Saint Benedict sending Maurus to France and Placidus to Sicily by Bartolommeo Neroni (1534).
Raphael's modelli for the Piccolomini Library
In 1503 the twenty-year-old Raphael was an independent master, already recognized for his skill as a draftsman. According to Vasari, he was invited to Siena by Pinturicchio (circa 1454-1513), who had been commissioned in 1502, by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (1439-1503), to decorate a new library the cardinal had built beside the Duomo. The frescoes were to show events from the life of the cardinal's uncle, Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, Pope Pius II (1405-1464). It is likely that Raphael was only involved in the earlier stages of the commission, executing compositional drawings for Pinturicchio but not assisting with the actual execution of the frescoes. That would date his involvement in the project to 1502-1503. Two of his highly-finished drawings for the library are known: the modello for The Departure of Aeneas Silvius for the Council of Basel (Florence, Uffizi, inv. 520E; P. Joannides, The Drawings of Raphael, Oxford, 1983, no. 56) and that for The Presentation of Eleanora of Portugal to the Emperor Frederick III (New York, Pierpont Morgan Library; Joannides 59).
The Morgan drawing (fig. 1) is especially important in comparison to the present drawing, very close in style and technique, with its compact, weighty figures and delicate shading. In composition it also serves as an important prototype for the present Saint Benedict. Both drawings utilize a striking semi-circular arrangement of figures, in which the groups rising at the outer edges of the scene draw the eye inwards and down to focus on the serene encounter at the center. The present sheet also shares with the Morgan drawing the framing device of the horses' heads which terminate the composition on each side. The most significant link between the two drawings, however, is the figure of the Emperor at the lower center of the Morgan sheet, which was virtually replicated in the form of the man who presents his kneeling son on the left of the Saint Benedict. In both drawings, this figure serves the same compositional function: the strong diagonal acts as a bulwark between the jostling crowds of the entourage and the calm at the center of the composition.
The function and subject of the present drawing have been debated. When it was sold in 1988, it was identified as a preparatory design for the Piccolomini Library, showing The Anti-Pope Felix V blessing his Sons. Although this subject did not appear in the final decorative scheme, Raphael may have provided designs for a range of episodes taken from Aeneas Silvius's autobiographical Commentaries, allowing the patron to select those that he wished to be included in the fresco cycle. There is insufficient evidence to prove or disprove this theory: the size and type of the paper is the same as that used for the Piccolomini modelli, although the present sheet has been trimmed at the top. Yet this could simply indicate that Raphael used paper from the same source for various projects at this time. However, if the drawing had initially been conceived for the Piccolomini Library and then adapted for another purpose, this would explain the presence of some reworking and the highly unusual feature of an added piece of paper, obliterating the artist's first idea for the man in the left foreground of the drawing. The amended figure, on the added paper, is the one which makes such a striking visual link with the Emperor in the Presentation modello. Having recast the unused Felix V composition as a different subject, for a different patron, Raphael may have decided to introduce this imposing and familiar figure. He was evidently fond of the pose, because he would return to it again some ten years later in his Study for the Madonna of the Fish (circa 1513; Florence, Uffizi, inv. 524E; fig. 2; Clifford and Dick, loc. cit.). In this late drawing, which again shows the man supporting a young boy, the relationship between the figures is more complex, and reflects the greater experience of the artist, and yet suggests the enduring appeal that this pose held for Raphael.
The connection with Monteoliveto Maggiore
Whether or not the genesis of this drawing can be linked to a lost scene of Felix V in the Piccolomini Library, there is no doubt that it can be linked to the Benedictine monastic community at Monteoliveto Maggiore. The central group of the elderly bearded man and the kneeling young boys was used by Sodoma (1477-1549) in his fresco of Saint Benedict receiving Maurus and Placidus, executed for the monastery in about 1505 (fig. 3). There has been some debate over how Sodoma could have known Raphael's drawing, as there is no documentation that the two artists knew each other before their work in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican in 1508. It is of course possible that they could have met in Siena, but Tom Henry proposed another hypothesis in his 2004 Apollo article: he suggested that Raphael may have been invited to supply a drawing to the community at Monteoliveto, prior to Sodoma's commission, with a view to continuing Luca Signorelli's work on the fresco cycle representing the Life of Saint Benedict.
Signorelli had executed a number of frescoes for the monastery's cloister in 1498-1499, and by 1502-1503 it must have become clear to the community that he would not complete the entire cycle. It would therefore have become necessary to find another artist to finish the frescoes and Raphael, who had an established reputation and was known to be working on another fresco project in nearby Siena, would have been a natural choice. He might already have been known to the monks, as there is evidence that he had studied Signorelli's frescoes at the time he was preparing designs for the Piccolomini Library. Contemporary copies of Raphael's early drawings, in the Libretto in Venice, include a Standing Man and a Study of Heads which show his awareness of Signorelli's Monteoliveto frescoes (see Henry, 2004, op. cit., p. 53). Similarly, a drawing of Four standing Soldiers at the Ashmolean (inv. WA1846.154) appears to copy figures from Signorelli's frescoes of Benedict discovering Totila's Deceit and Benedict recognizes and receives Totila. The Oxford drawing helps to establish the date of Raphael's likely visit to Monteoliveto, because it is a preparatory study for the Piccolomini fresco of Aeneas Silvius crowned Poet Laureate by Frederick III. This supports the idea that the young artist visited the monastery on at least one occasion around 1503, and it may have been while he was copying Signorelli's frescoes for his own studies that he was approached by the monks to complete the work that Signorelli had left unfinished.
The present drawing, whether or not it was adapted from an earlier composition, could have been presented by Raphael to the community as a test-piece: a modello for one of the scenes not yet painted by Signorelli. Even though Raphael did not take on the Monteoliveto commission, returning instead to Perugia and a commission for The Oddi Altarpiece, his drawing would presumably have remained in the possession of the monastery archives among other documents relating to the cloister frescoes. This theory helps to explain how Sodoma could have been familiar with the composition without necessarily knowing Raphael in person. When he was contracted to paint the remaining frescoes in 1505, he would have been shown any pre-existing designs for the cycle and he may either have been required to follow Raphael's design for the Saint Benedict or have chosen to do so. More importantly, this would explain how, twenty years later, Bartolommeo Neroni (circa 1505-1571) could use Raphael's composition, far more extensively than had Sodoma, for his fresco in the same cloister of Saint Benedict sending Maurus to France and Placidus to Sicily (fig. 4). In this fresco Neroni borrows the central three figures used by Sodoma, transforming the kneeling boys into their adult selves in the process, and also copies the monks who are glimpsed directly behind Saint Benedict in the present drawing -- who do not appear in Sodoma's fresco. This must indicate that Neroni had independent access to Raphael's drawing of the composition, which in turn suggests that the sheet had remained at Monteoliveto.
Style and Attribution
The sheet shows Raphael's draftsmanship at a moment of transition, between the legacy he inherited from his Umbrian forebears and the increasing fluidity and confidence of his artistic maturity. As already noted, the formal arrangement of figures and the plasticity of forms can be linked stylistically to the Piccolomini Library modelli and to Raphael's earlier works. However, the use of the brown wash is already freer and more impressionistic than in the modello for The Presentation, foreshadowing drawings of the Florentine period such as the Studies for a Virgin and Child with Saint John (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, inv. WA1846.161; fig. 5; Joannides 112) or the Modello for the Washington D.C. Saint George and the Dragon (Washington, National Gallery of Art, B.33,667; fig. 6; Joannides 119).
Since its sale in 1988, the leading scholars of Raphael's drawings have unanimously accepted this sheet as an important addition to the young artist's oeuvre. John Shearman is recorded as having endorsed the attribution on 11 January 1989, while Konrad Oberhuber wrote to the present owner on 10 September 1990 that he was convinced it was from the hand of Raphael, later adding that he would include the drawing in the next edition of his book on the artist's drawings. Paul Joannides also confirmed his belief in the attribution in a letter to the present owner dated 24 August 1990 (letters in the Fogg Museum Archives; Andersen, op. cit., pp. 51-2). Tom Henry, in his recent papers, has also concurred with the attribution to Raphael and, in reassessing the evidence, explored how the drawing can be connected to the artist's activity at this date.
As Laurence Kanter was the first to recognize (Andersen, op. cit., p. 50), Raphael's drawing represents one of the key episodes in the history of the Benedictine Order: the moment when Saint Benedict receives his first disciples. The Roman youths Maurus and Placidus were given into Benedict's protection by their respective fathers, Equitius and Tertullus, who thereby showed their veneration and respect for the saint. Maurus and Placidus usually appear together in Benedictine legend and they share a feast day, 5 October. Entering Benedict's community at Subiaco as children, they feature in one of the earliest miracles of the order. Having been sent to draw water from the lake near the monastery, the young Placidus lost his footing and fell in. From within the monastery, Benedict became aware of the danger and sent Maurus to find him. Maurus saved his friend from drowning, but only afterwards realized that he had walked on the water in order to do so; this was explained as a miracle of Saint Benedict working through Maurus. Placidus' father, Tertullus, later gave Saint Benedict the lands on which the monastery of Monte Cassino was built and the two young monks accompanied their founder to the new mother-house. As grown men, they were significant for their role in spreading the Benedictine rule to other dominions. As shown in Neroni's fresco, Maurus was sent to France, while Placidus went to Sicily, where he is traditionally thought to have been martyred by corsairs. He is now co-patron of the city of Messina, while Saint Maurus is invoked for fever, rheumatism, epilepsy and gout.
Despite the significance of the scene represented in the present drawing, it is very rare in artistic representations and Raphael's work was instrumental in establishing a new iconography for these Benedictine saints, which later artists could follow. However, the drawing is important for far more than its subject. It provides an insight into artistic collaboration during the Italian Renaissance and, more specifically, into Raphael's role as a draftsman and designer at this early, formative stage of his career. Furthermore, it testifies to the respect and admiration which his contemporaries already felt for his work. They were not only the much older Pinturicchio, who recognized the young man's extraordinary talent and invited Raphael to provide designs for the Piccolomini Library in direct contravention of the terms of his contract, but also the artists of Raphael's own generation -- Sodoma and the younger Neroni -- who would acknowledge the continuing force and power of this modello, up to thirty years after it was executed.