The Venusti of Campion Hall

Editor's Note: We're grateful to the Campion Hall Archival Associate Altair Brandon-Salmon for the following essay telling the story of one of the Hall's most famous pieces of art. 

The Venusti of Campion Hall

 Marcello Venusti's Crucifixion (1540, shown left), bought by Father Martin D'Arcy S.J. for Campion Hall at the Ashburnham Hall sale in June, 1953, has excited a great deal of controversy since 2011, when Antonio Forcellino claimed in his book The Lost Michelangelos, that it was a work by Michelangelo. The Daily Mail, The Independent and BBC News all reported that the Hall had a 'Michelangelo', omitting even Forcellino's doubts on the matter. Recent technical examinations led by Jevon Thistlewood at the Ashmolean Museum, point to what was already thought at the time D'Arcy bought the painting: it is a work by Marcello Venusti, albeit with a complex relationship with Michelangelo.

 Around 1538-41, Michelangelo made a presentation to Vittoria Colonna, his close spiritual confidant, of a drawing of Christ on the Cross.[1] One of his finest late works, the highly detailed drawing has almost the appearance of an engraving, meant to stand up to Colonna's magnifying glass, as recorded in the letters between them. An unusual, original composition, Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists (1568) claims that it depicts the moment Jesus cries out 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' (Matthew 27:46). The highly finished nature of the drawing, combined with its unique subject matter, suggests it was intended to stand as an independent artwork in its own right. When it was made, Michelangelo was between sixty-three and sixty-six years of age and would not paint any further portable paintings, either on canvas or panel. Michael Hirst has identified the skull at the base of the Cross and the ground of Mount Golgotha as changes requested by Colonna, all further pointing to the idea that the drawing was a complete work in and of itself, and not intended as a preparatory work for a future painting.  

Copies of the drawing were subsequently made, of which seven have survived, showing that a drawing of such importance was valued by collectors. Alexander Perrig considers the Campion Hall Crucifixion, in oils on panel, to be a Marcello Venusti version of the drawing, once held by the Cavalieri family, as attested by the seals on the rear of the painting.[2]

 

 

Vasari records that Venusti made renderings of Michelangelo’s drawings: 'from the designs of Michelagnolo and from his works he has executed a vast number of things likewise small,'[3] which helps make the contextual case for the Campion Hall Crucifixion to be not just a copy but a version by Marcello Venusti. However, this argument is further strengthened by the infrared and ultraviolet scans of the painting undertaken by the Ashmolean in 2016.

The infrared reflectography, which reveals the underdrawing of the painting, shows strong outlines to the figures, with no artistic second thoughts. The only freehand drawing appears in Christ's body; otherwise, the outlines reveal the presence of spolvero, a Renaissance technique employed to transfer drawings to panels. A cartoon of the original drawing was pricked with small holes and graphite blown through; small marks were then made on the panel which were then linked by charcoal outlines. One can see the initial marks in the drawing of the hands on the Mary to the right of Jesus, as well as graphite which has been brushed away but been subsequently trapped by the oil paint.

 

 

 If the British Museum Michelangelo drawing was laid over the Campion Hall Crucifixion, it would exactly match the composition, except for the right hand side of the cross. In the drawing, Christ's body is twisted to the left, yet his arms stretch equally across the cross, meaning [that] his left arm is longer than his right. For the painting, the artist has corrected this by lengthening the left hand side of the cross, as can be seen by the infrared reflectography, which shows the original endpoint to the cross. The Casa Buonarroti version of the painting, also by Venusti, does not show the extension under infrared, indicating that this painting is the earlier of the two and closer to the Michelangelo drawing.

 

 

 The Campion Hall Crucifixion is undoubtedly a very fine painting; when D'Arcy bought the work, Sir Kenneth Clark wrote to him saying how 'delighted' he was that the Hall had acquired a Venusti.[4] Even Antonio Forcellino, who made the original claim, noted that there was 'still insufficient evidence to support [my] hypothesis.'[5] The mechanical tracing and spolveratura show the painting to be the product of related studios and workshops in sixteenth-century Rome. The interrelated workshop approach the painting demonstrates, where paintings had a variety of artists and made use of existing sources, is very typical of Venusti's studio, but unlike Michelangelo's artistic practices. The weight of circumstantial and infrared evidence points to it being a Marcello Venusti version of a Michelangelo presentation drawing. The Campion Hall Crucifixion is part of the larger Renaissance and Baroque collection at the Hall which includes works by Guido Reni and S√©bastien Bourdon, a testament to the keen eye of the former Master, Father Martin D'Arcy S.J. The Venusti Crucifixion remains a significant work now on loan to the Ashmolean Museum, and on public display there.

-- Altair Brandon-Salmon

 

Bibliography:

Phyllis Borland, 'A Copy by Venusti' in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 103, No. 703 (Oct. 1961), pp. 432-435.

British Museum website, Christ on the Cross, http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=716064&partId=1&people=114829&peoA=114829-2-9&page=1, accessed: 30/10/16.

Hugo Chapman, Michelangelo Drawings: Closer to the Master (London: the British Museum Press, 2005).

Sir Kenneth Clark letter to Father Martin D'Arcy S.J., dated 24th January 1953, held in the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain.

Drawings by Michelangelo in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, the Ashmolean Museum, the British Museum and other English collections: an exhibition held in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, 6th February to 27th April 1975 (London: British Museum Publications, 1975).

Antonio Forcellino, The Lost Michelangelos, trans. Lucinda Byatt (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

Michael Hirst, Michelangelo and His Drawings (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1988), pp. 117-8.

Alexander Perrig, Michelangelo's Drawings: The Science of Attribution, trans. Michael Joyce (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1991).

Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere (London: Everyman's Library, 1996).

 

[1] www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=716064&partId=1&searchText=Michelangelo&object=22909&subject=16865&page=1

[2] In the Galleria Doria-Pamphili in Rome, there is another oil on panel Crucifixion by Venusti which is clearly based on the Colonna drawing, which was commissioned by Francesco Amadori, Michelangelo's servant.

[3] Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 2, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere (London: Everyman's Library, 1996), p. 859.

[4] Letter from Sir Kenneth Clark to Father Martin D'Arcy S.J., dated 24th January 1953, held in the Archives of the Jesuits in Britain (ABSI, Mount Street, London).

[5] Antonio Forcellino, The Lost Michelangelos, trans. Lucinda Byatt (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), p. 143.