Description & Technical information

Although formerly regarded as depicting The Martyrdom of Saint Agatha, this large and impressive drawing cannot be considered a preparatory study for either of Giambattista Tiepolo’s two altarpieces of that subject; one in the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua, begun in 1735 and completed the following year, and the other painted in c.1755 for the Benedictine convent church of Sant’Agata in Lendinara, near Rovigo, and now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. However, while the present sheet is likely to have been executed as an independent drawing, it may be noted that the poses of the saint and the executioner are particularly close to those in a small oil sketch by Tiepolo of The Martyrdom of Saint Theodora of c.1745 in the Museo del Settecento Veneziano at the Ca’ Rezzonico in Venice, of which a second version or copy was in a private collection in Milan in the 1960s.

The provenance of many of the drawings by Giambattista Tiepolo that appear on the art market today can be traced to several large volumes or albums of drawings, put together by the artist or by his son Domenico. Probably shortly before his departure for Spain, the elder Tiepolo seems to have decided to arrange the numerous drawings that had accumulated in his studio – the product of some forty years of work – into a series of large, leather-bound albums, each containing about one hundred leaves. The drawings were mounted onto high quality paper, and bound into the albums sorted by theme or subject. In the early years of the 19th century, a number of albums of Tiepolo drawings were sold by his descendants to Venetian and foreign collectors.

This fine Martyrdom of a Female Saint was once part of one such album, which contained what has been described by the early 20th century scholar Tancred Borenius as ‘the incomparable series of Tiepolo drawings which belonged to the late Prince Alexis Orloff, and was dispersed at a memorable sale in Paris, on April 29 and 30, 1920.’ This so-called ‘Orloff’ album contained ninety-six pen and wash drawings by Giambattista Tiepolo dating from throughout his career, from around 1715 to about 1760. All in remarkably fresh condition, the contents of the album included many finished presentation drawings, such as this Martyrdom of Saint Agatha. The album of Tiepolo drawings eventually came into the possession of Prince Alexis Nikolaevich Orlov (b.1867), who probably inherited it from his ancestor, the Russian writer and politician Grigory Vladimirovich Orlov (1777-1826), who spent much of his life in Europe and may have purchased the album in Venice.

The earlier history of the album before it entered the Orlov (or Orloff) collection, however, remains a mystery. As another early scholar of Tiepolo drawings, Detlev von Hadeln, has noted, ‘It does not seem difficult for other Venetian contemporaries of Tiepolo to collect in one album a hundred and more of his drawings. Quite unique was that which when divided up constituted the collection of Prince Alexei Orloff. In this case a connoisseur had been able to search out the choicest of the choice; unless we can suppose that the commissions of a Maecenas were in question, to whom we owe the creation of the brilliant variations on the theme of the Annunciation and of the Flight into Egypt.’

Provenance: From an album of Tiepolo drawings probably belonging to Count Grigory Vladimirovich Orlov, St. Petersburg and Paris
By descent to Prince Alexis Orlov (Orloff), Paris
The album broken up and dispersed at his posthumous sale (‘Collection de Son Excellence feu le Prince Alexis Orloff’), Paris, Galerie Georges Petit, 29-30 April 1920, the present sheet as lot 125 (‘Etude présumée pour le Martyre de sainte Agathe du Musée civique, à Venise. Plume et lavis de bistre. Haut., 41 cent.; larg., 28 cent.’, sold for 17,500 francs)
Private collection, Switzerland
Anonymous sale, Bern, Galerie Kornfeld, 6 June 2008, lot 9
Private collection, France.
Literature: Detlev Freiherr von Hadeln, Handzeichnungen von G. B. Tiepolo, Florence and Munich, 1927, Vol.I, p.28, pl.21 (as The Martyrdom of Saint Giustina); Detlev Baron von Hadeln, The Drawings of G. B. Tiepolo, Paris, 1928, Vol.I, p.26, pl.21 (as The Martyrdom of Saint Giustina); George Knox, ‘The Orloff Album of Tiepolo Drawings’, The Burlington Magazine, June 1961, p.273, note 13, p.274 (as The Martyrdom of St Agatha (or Sta Giustina?), and dated to 1725-1735).