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Why did Renaissance artists steal each other’s drawings?

8 June 2022

One morning in Bologna in the late 1520s, Parmigianino awoke to a nasty surprise. Finding his strongbox prized open, he realised his store of drawings and prints had been looted overnight. With his collaborator Antonio da Trento suddenly nowhere to be seen, the culprit was clear, and before long the prints had been recovered from one of the perpetrator’s friends. But the thief himself was more evasive. ‘Decamping with the devil’, in the words of Giorgio Vasari, Antonio and the drawings were never heard of again.

No wonder Parmigianino had kept his sketches under lock and key. Works on paper did not actually carry hefty price tags at the time, but as the Italian Renaissance matured, thefts of drawings became occupational hazards for artists. Just as Parmigianino was counting his losses, in fact, a spate of similar crimes was happening across the peninsula. Pity Giulio Romano in Mantua, who was victim of not one but two break-ins within a few years of the Parmigianino job. And down in Florence Michelangelo was faring no better. In 1529 the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli led a clandestine raid on his studio, making off with 50 figure studies and some models, ideas for the New Sacristy among them. A load more designs also vanished around the same time, snatched by some young chancers from the hands of Michelangelo’s assistant Antonio Mini.

The case notes for these robberies show some common trends. All prioritising drawings, all the heists were, to varying degrees, inside jobs: the work not of seasoned crooks but of fellow artists. Some of the thieves were so out of their depth that they made shoddy work of hiding their guilt. Bandinelli, for example, was farcically unprofessional, incriminating himself by leaving a chisel at the scene bearing his father’s initial.

As assistants, collaborators or acquaintances of their victims, the burglars often had privileged access to the drawings they coveted. And once inside their target’s inner sanctum there was little more to do: small, lightweight and concealable, works on paper were easy prey even for bungling amateurs, and for an assistant with a moment alone the temptation could be too great.

Museum print rooms remain vulnerable to these urges, but the Renaissance thefts stand out for how little they resemble art crime as we know it. Lacking street value as booty or bounty, drawings (and other preparatory pieces like models) were interesting choices of plunder. Sure enough they were easy to filch, but even thieves with time on their hands seem to have preferred sketches over higher-ticket items that must have lain nearby.

Man seated viewed from behind (Narcissus) (c. 1527–30), Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

What, then, were the robbers up to? Vasari had ideas, stating that the naivest of them were led astray only by ‘a love of art.’ All very noble. Awestruck assistants surely cherished every squiggle from hands like Michelangelo’s, but we also get hints of more pragmatic motives. Joking one day with il divino about thefts past, Vasari claimed that given the chance he would have deprived the great man of more than a few drawings ‘merely for the sake of learning.’

Despite the flattery, this jest rings true. More than simply learn, however, by taking sketches from the very best, the thieves were enriching themselves with a commodity no money could buy: ideas. For the Renaissance artist, a stockpile of inventions could ensure success for years to come, and for the ambitious but unoriginal artisan the chance to look novel promised great rewards – especially if they could pass off pilfered plans as their own. But this was a big if. Giulio Romano’s pupil gone rogue Dionisio Brevio was rumbled even before he tried the ruse: eager to recover the stolen drawings for projects he had commissioned, Duke Federico II Gonzaga went the extra mile to hunt the thief precisely because he feared that the designs ‘will be executed in other places.’ Orders for Brevio’s arrest were promptly issued.

That the Duke fretted about sketches is a sign of the times. Coinciding with some of the first stirrings of cognoscenti taking an interest in preparatory studies, these thefts were happening at a key moment in the history of drawing. Though widespread collecting was a way off, our flurry of unorthodox acquisitions is a curious prelude to what was coming. In fact, thieving assistant and discerning patron were reaching similar conclusions about the value of drawings. There were even opportunities for the parties to swap notes, as the renowned artist tempting collectors with sketches may have been less than innocent as a young apprentice.

Vasari for one did not have a clean record. The man who did so much to convince educated audiences of the nobility of owning drawings, who thought Antonio da Trento so devilish for stealing from Parmigianino, also admitted to having secretly ‘passed on’ studies by his master Andrea del Sarto to his friend Francesco Salviati. When he jested about nicking Michelangelo’s sketches, was he really joking?

To think of the Renaissance obsession with ideas is to think of the divinely inspired artist, but our spate of thefts shows another side to the craze, less heroic, less highbrow, but also more human. With success or failure at stake, ideas surely meant more to the assistant trying to earn a crumb than they did even to the most enraptured Maecenas. Indeed, it is hard not to feel some sympathy for the first-time criminal desperate to get ahead – not least because most were probably disappointed. Many seem to have received a worse sentence than poor Dionisio Brevio: obscurity. How many pictures by anonymous ‘followers of’ are by artists using purloined ideas, thinking they would make their name? And whatever became of Antonio da Trento? The jury is still out. Had he known he would be remembered only as Parmigianino’s collaborator-in-thief, would he have smashed that strongbox after all?

Grant Lewis is an associated academic in the department of prints and drawings at the British Museum, London. 

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