Passion and Strategy – Nothing Changes

Posted by: on Oct 27, 2016 | No Comments


“It’s impossible to find early drawings or anything good by recent artists . . .The situation here is truly awful . . .It’s not like the old days!”

Sound familiar? Similar messages could have been texted yesterday between collectors or dealers. However, these were Giorgio Vasari’s words in letters of the 1560s to his great friend, Vincenzo Borghini. They relate to their insatiable hunt – or Caccia – for drawings.

Borghini shared Vasari’s passion for drawings and assembled his own collection in a volume similar to Vasari’s famous Libro de’ Disegni. As a monk, Borghini obviously lacked the financial resources to buy on a grand scale, but Vasari, his best friend, helped him in many ways. First, by giving him works by artists already well represented in his collection; second, by presenting Borghini with highly impressive sheets as tokens of their friendship. All this and more is documented in their correspondence which makes for amusing reading, as when Borghini accused Vasari of behaving like the proverbial Tuscan Nonno, or grandfather, who promises presents to his grandchildren, but never delivers the goods.

Vasari and Borghini were relentless in their hunt for drawings, but by the mid 1560s, Vasari reported that the ‘prey’ was becoming ever scarcer. The chase needed to be more systematic, so together they began targeting the friends, families and older studio members of dead artists. Not even the widows of recently deceased artists were spared, as Vasari and Borghini cunningly sought to cut out the middle-men. Nothing excited them more than a potential stash of previously unseen works. Their letters are written as they spoke, and the dialogue between them would definitely have impressed and amused the Sicilian novelist, Pirandello.

Vasari and Borghini clearly fuelled eachother’s passion, and by 1568 Borghini had assembled a superb collection. It included Verrocchio’s design for the Tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin, along with a female head of great beauty, of the type that inspired Leonardo da Vinci. Also an Adoration by Rosso Fiorentino, and works by Donatello, Michelangelo, and the Zuccari. Federico Zuccari himself gave Borghini “a beautiful coloured drawing”, carefully finished in brown, grey, green, yellow and red washes. This was a study for the Plague of Flies, preparatory for his frescoes of the life of Moses in the Vatican Belvedere.

So as we buzz and swarm around the wares presented by dealers and auction houses, it is perhaps consoling to learn that little has changed in the five centuries since Vasari wrote to Borghini. The ‘strategies’ are much the same, and maybe we should make a mental note of how often we hear the lament that there is nothing to be found – and then laugh – because 500 years later, there are still great drawings waiting to be discovered.

Published in the annual Master Drawings Week brochure, New York, January 2013