Reuniting a drawing by Giovanni Battista Foggini

Separation and Reunion

Blades clash and scrape. Bodies thud to the ground. Limbs become entangled and mouths gape in terror. Above the fray, ancient trophies are held on high and flags proudly billow. Such is the tumultuous battle scene that Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652–1725) lays out for us in his drawing, dated to around 1673–76 (Fig. 1).

The work entered The Courtauld’s collection in 1952, having formerly belonged to Sir Robert Witt (1872–1952). It has always posed a mystery. Clearly a fragment, the sheet’s edges cut off distant buildings and bodies midway. The large and small arcs that encase the composition span a 90° angle, and suggest that the drawing could represent one quarter of a design for a round object, likely a silver dish.

Figure 1. Giovanni Battista Foggini (1652–1725), A battle scene outside a walled city, c. 1673–76, black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, compass and stylus; 26.3 x 24.8 cm, © The Courtauld Gallery Trust, London. Accession number D.1952.RW.3586

In 2018, a further piece of the puzzle — or perhaps in our case, a further slice of the dish — came to light. Experts at a London auction house got in touch with The Courtauld, announcing that the right-hand counterpart to the drawing already in our collection would soon be offered for sale (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Foggini, A battle scene outside a walled city, c. 1673–1676, black chalk, pen and brown ink, brown wash, compass and stylus; 24.5 x 25.6 cm, © The Courtauld Gallery Trust, London. Accession number D.2018.XX.3

It is easy to tell that the newly surfaced drawing also hails from Witt’s collection, since it bears his collector’s mark (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. Sir Robert Witt’s collector’s mark

This is a kind of small stamp, often consisting of a symbol or set of initials, used historically by owners of works on paper to record their guardianship of a particular artwork. Unlike the drawing that entered The Courtauld in 1952, the drawing that was up for sale was removed from Witt’s own collection in unknown circumstances before landing eventually in the hands of the American collector who wished to sell it at auction. Luckily, The Courtauld Gallery was able to acquire the drawing, bringing the two designs under the same roof once again.

Now reunited, the two sheets have had a transformative effect on one another. The incision that once divided them has not since been much altered, so they can be realigned with almost no loss of content (Fig. 4). Juxtaposing these fragments provides a powerful demonstration of the effect that light exposure can have on works on paper. Damage of this kind has caused the right half of the composition to yellow to a greater extent than its left-hand counterpart.

Figure 4. Reconstructed image of Figs. 1 and 2 reunited

The dense mass of writhing bodies to the left of the joined composition is now balanced on the right by a barren battlefield that recedes to a cityscape background. The town’s defenders had more to protect than we had previously understood, as the newly acquired drawing reveals a majestic fortress with turrets and crenelated walls. We learn that the victory of the foremost soldier on the left sheet, who plunges an elongated spear into a gasping cavalryman, will be short-lived. With the arrival of the discovered counterpart, it becomes clear that he will imminently fall prey to the arrow of one of the turbaned archers on the right. Similarly, the extent of the chaos and brutality soon to befall the orderly troops in the background to the right becomes all the more foreboding when the violence of the left-hand sheet is introduced.

Foggini, Draughtsman of Conflict


Figure 5. Vincenzo Foggini (b. 1692), Portrait of Giovanni Battista Foggini, 1729, black and white chalk on blue paper; 36.2 x 24.1 cm, © Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia

The majority of the actors and locations depicted within Foggini’s battle drawings remain unidentified, as is the case with our design. He often drew battle scenes like this one, particularly during his studies at the new Accademia Fiorentina in Rome, which took place between 1673–76. The artist was originally from Florence, where his first artistic training took place. Foggini’s distinction among his peers led the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’ Medici (1642–1723), to send him to Rome where he was one of the Academy’s first scholarship holders. There, the artist became the sculptural apprentice of Ercole Ferrata (1610–86) and received training in draughtsmanship by the institution’s director, Ciro Ferri (1634–89). Foggini’s pivotal position in the Florentine art world was solidified when he was appointed ‘Grand Ducal sculptor’ in 1687 and ‘Court Architect’ seven years later. Renowned for his opulent bronze statuary and marble busts, Foggini’s artistic versatility also enabled him to make designs for architectural structures, interiors and the decorative arts.

Members of the Florentine ruling classes such as the Medici family made up a critical mass within Foggini’s patronage base. He received major commissions towards the end of his lifetime for religious and civic buildings in Florence and Livorno, the latter of which is an important Tuscan port. After Foggini’s death in 1725, his influence lived on in the artworks of his many pupils, ensuring that his characteristic style was still practised well into the middle of the eighteenth century.

Foggini’s Baroque, painterly style comes to the fore in his rendering of drapery and flesh. In the Courtauld drawings, he dynamically opposes the smooth, muscular flesh of the fallen horses with the rippling, creased drapery of the soldiers’ mantles. A body of Foggini’s battle drawings is also at the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica in Rome. The objects within this group share a similar technique to our drawings, whereby the artist has reinforced some lines in ink in order to establish a focal point, while leaving a faint chalk landscape in the background.

The pervasiveness of Battle imagery within Foggini’s career can be seen in further examples, such as the Battle scene with elephants and Orientals at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has been tentatively suggested that the drawing in the Statens Museum illustrates the Battle of Zama, an episode from the Second Punic War. Perhaps the Courtauld design might also depict an episode from the Punic Wars. These conflicts occurred between the Romans and Carthaginians between 264 to 146 BCE. Even across genres such as mythological compositions, Foggini can be seen recycling his forms and techniques. In the Death of the Children of Niobe, the collapsed horse is almost identical to the one in the foreground of our united sheet.

Dish or Decoration?

Foggini was a prolific draughtsman, producing designs for the frescoes, metalwork and furniture that were destined for the luxurious interiors of his luminary patrons. As mentioned above, the curved format of The Courtauld’s works, drawn precisely with a compass, gives the impression that the artist was mapping out the design for a silver dish. Comparable silver dishes depicting warfare were given to Cosimo III de’ Medici throughout his lifetime, and the surviving plaster casts of these can be found at the Museo degli Argenti, located within the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

Foggini, however, is not known to have provided designs for this purpose, despite his appointment as the head of the Grand Ducal workshops in 1695. The design is unusual for a silver dish because it is not concentric — the framing arcs do not share the same centre. Although the shape of the joined drawings resembles a fan, we can safely rule out this idea, as a battle scene would hardly be an ideal subject for such leisurely use. One remaining potential alternative, raised by Foggini drawings specialist Dr. Kira d’Albuquerque, is that our work could be a design for a semi-circular component to a wall or ceiling decoration.

Figure 6. Reverse side of Fig. 1

Whatever the larger project, we know that these designs are not independent, but were made in the context of planning another product. The evidence needed to draw this conclusion comes from a close physical examination of the sheets. Their backs have been blackened with chalk, and then the lines of the drawing have been incised — gone over — with a stylus, leaving grooves in the paper (Fig. 6). During the incision process, the sheet would be resting, chalk side down, on the fresh surface of the object onto which the design is to be copied. The pressure from the stylus would shift the black chalk from the paper to the object, thus replicating its design. This transfer method was commonly used for creating guidelines for engraving on a printing plate or on silverware. Alas, we still do not know whether a surviving printed version of this drawing still exists, or whether the final project for which Foggini’s design was made reached completion.

For now, these questions remain unanswered. Hopefully in decades to come, another serendipitous discovery might bring a new twist to the Foggini story.


By Jasmine Clark and Saskia Rubin (Courtauld PhD Students and Print Room Assistants)