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Giovanni Antonio Pordenone (1483/4-1539)

The Annunciation c.1537

RCIN 906658

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Pordenone’s large altarpiece of the Annunciation, still in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the Venetian island of Murano, was his last major work. The dedication of the church explains the presence - in addition to the annunciatory Gabriel - of the archangel Michael at centre left, with his scales for weighing human souls, and the guardian angel Raphael at upper centre, his arm around the child Tobias.

This drawing is a study for Pordenone’s large altarpiece of the Annunciation in the conventual church of Santa Maria degli Angeli on the Venetian island of Murano - his last major painting, and (like several other works of this period) produced in more or less direct competition with Titian. The Annunciation was said by Giorgio Vasari to have been commissioned from Pordenone after Titian’s altarpiece of the same subject had been rejected by the sisters as being too expensive at 500 scudi. Titian sent the painting instead to Isabelle of Portugal, wife of the Emperor Charles V, who supposedly paid him 2,000 scudi, and a congratulatory letter to Titian from his friend Pietro Aretino of November 1537 provides an approximate date for the beginning of Pordenone’s work on the project. Titian’s painting is lost, but an idea of the composition is given by an engraving by Gian Giacomo Caraglio.

The dedication of the church to Santa Maria degli Angeli explains the prominence of angels in the painting - not just the annunciatory Gabriel (his pose taken from Pordenone’s Annunciation of ten years earlier for the church of San Pietro Martire in Udine), but also the archangel Michael with the scales for weighing human souls, and in the distant landscape the guardian angel Raphael with Tobias. In the drawing Raphael appears instead at upper centre, his arm around Tobias who clutches his fish. Both here and in Titian’s composition the Virgin is submissive, with hands held in prayer or folded across her breast, whereas in the altarpiece she holds her hands apart in surprise, and her bold twist seen in the drawing has been abandoned.

The group of God the Father and his flanking cherubim is here uncomfortably small, and drawn in a different manner from the rest of the sheet, with the black chalk repeatedly dampened to strengthen the tone and accentuate the outlines of the figures. It may be that Pordenone made a late decision to add the group - a reprise of several earlier compositions by the artist - when it became apparent that all the visual interest of the tall altarpiece would otherwise be concentrated in the bottom half. Subsequent studies would have corrected the relative sizes of the figures in the composition; but by scaling the composition up to the huge dimensions of the altarpiece, in which the figures are life-size, Pordenone lost the dense luminosity of the drawing, and the stretched spaces between the figures were drained of emotional intensity.

A sheet in the Louvre, sketched on both sides with slight studies including an Annunciation and airborne angels, has been connected with the project, though there is no compelling case for this.

Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007