The names are here: Leonardo, Raphael, Mantegna, Titian, Tintoretto, Bronzino, Pontormo and a dozen more artists of the Italian Renaissance. Artistic excellence is plentiful, too. You can see inspired draftsmanship in the sinewy back of a male nude drawn by Andrea del Sarto, in the formal and technical perfection of Raphael’s “St. Paul Rending His Garments” and in an expressively detailed cluster of figures in Andrea Mantegna’s “Four Saints: Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and Zuno.”
But even with all these assets--or perhaps because of them--"Italian Renaissance Drawings,” is a business-as-usual exhibition for the J. Paul Getty Museum. The exhibition, which opened earlier this week and continues through Nov. 11, is part of a continuing series of changing shows from the museum’s fine collection of Old Master drawings. About every 11 weeks or so, the museum quietly installs a fresh sampling from its collection and retires the last batch to storage--thus protecting the fragile works from damaging light. Faithful visitors eventually will be able to see the entire collection of sheets, most of which curator George Goldner and his associates have selected over a few years.
Drawings don’t yet bear multimillion-dollar price tags, so they tend to slip into the Getty’s collection unnoted by the press. The current exhibition contains three new additions among the 24 sheets on display. Two of them make an interesting Mannerist pair. Jacopo Pontormo drew a chalk “Reclining Figure” to help his assistant, Agnolo Bronzino, plan a fresco of “The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence” for a gallery in Florence. Bronzino’s wide-eyed, cameolike “Head of a Man” reveals the younger artist as an independent creator, planning a portrait that is now in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo.
The third new acquisition, a red chalk depiction of St. John the Baptist by Giovanni Agostino da Lodi, is a drawing to die for. This beautifully modeled, exquisitely detailed portrait frames the face’s sharp features with billowing curls and soft tendrils of frayed fabric. Simultaneously tender and tough, the moody drawing compares favorably with its neighbor, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Caricature of a Man With Bushy Hair,” which packs a humorously explosive face into a 2-by-3-inch sheet.
In addition to scholarly revelations, such exhibitions deliver two messages to viewers. One is that studies executed several centuries ago as working tools for better-known paintings have themselves become revered artworks. Exhibitions such as “Italian Renaissance Drawings” also emphasize that an astonishing amount of work and sensitivity went into mere studies, often executed with multiple images on a single sketchbook page.
It seems that no effort was too great to assure that a figure to be used in a major painting or fresco would appear in anatomical detail and expressive arrangement. Such figures as Raphael’s “Christ in Glory,” for example, were drawn from nude models before drapery was added.
While most drawings in the show focus on a single figure or face, a few encompass complex compositions or architectural projects. Luca Penni’s drawing, “The Entombment,” includes about 20 figures in various states of emotional stress. Baldassare Peruzzi’s “Design for an Altar” details a 20-foot construction with an elaborately carved pediment supported by Corinthian columns.
Themes of the drawings are nearly always religious, but approaches vary widely. Pordenone’s “Study of the Martyrdom of St. Peter Martyr” stands out, nonetheless, as an unusual depiction of hand-to-hand combat. As an exhibition label notes, this graphic portrayal of impending death was probably too unequivocal to win a competition for a Venetian altarpiece. Pordenone lost the competition to Titian, whose vision of the violent theme was more restrained.
J. Paul Getty Museum, 17985 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, Tues.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m., to Nov. 11. Parking reservations required: (213) 458-2003.