Tintoretto produced numerous studies after Michelangelo’s celebrated but uncompleted sculpture of Samson and the Philistines. This drawing was probably made in Tintoretto’s workshop after a clay model, as indicated by the stick supporting the back of the central figure. This powerfully modelled figure seems to have been drawn by the master himself, whilst the repetitions might be by an assistant. Michelangelo’s statue was admired as an example of figura serpentinata (snakelike figure), an ambitiously twisted pose demonstrating artistic skills.
Disegno played a significant role in Tintoretto’s artistic practice and Michelangelo was an important model for the workshop, particularly in his development of the figura serpentinata, or ‘serpentine figure’. This drawing displays three studies of a nude male from an identical posterior angle. There is a full figure in the centre, whilst the other two drawings represent only the head, back and upper parts of both arms. An additional head appears half way down the central composition, whose arm grasps the main figure’s leg. The confidence of the central study is perhaps evidence of Tintoretto’s hand at work. The chalk is used securely and rapidly; its painterly strokes are blended together and natural highlights from the mid-tone paper combined with lead white heightening add tonal variety and a sense of solidity to the assured male form. The raised hand and left foot, executed in a more sketchy manner, are typical of Tintoretto’s early paintings. The difference in quality between Samson’s raised arm and the rest of the body is emphasised by the arm’s juxtaposition with the weaker, upper left drawing. This study lacks Tintoretto’s characteristic bulbous anatomy, and shows similarities with drawings after the same sculpture at the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge (Mass.). The lower right study on the Courtauld sheet is closer to the central composition, although its angular musculature and clearly hatched shading stylistically differentiate the two. For these reasons, it is likely that the peripheral studies are a result of workshop involvement.
The drawing is after Michelangelo’s Samson and the Philistines, a sculpture that was intended to stand alongside David (1501-04) in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It was conceived by the artist after the Medici’s second expulsion from the city in 1527, but due to politically tumultuous times, the group was never executed. A clay model, now lost, must have been replicated in bronze soon after its conception. Tintoretto’s version, as seen here, was most likely made of wax, clay or plaster, implied by the support projecting from the back of the group which is visible in the central drawing.
Faint traces of black chalk in the upper right hand section of the sheet reveal what appears to be a counter proof, offset from another drawing. This, and the splash of reddish brown ink near Samson’s elbow, suggest that drawings were stored together, intending to be revisited for reference or further study. Tintoretto’s relationship with Bolognese painter and printmaker Odoardo Fialetti (Bologna 1573—ca.1638 Venice) offers an insight into the crucial role played by disegno in the workshop. Fialetti was allegedly told by the Venetian artist to ‘draw and again draw, rightly deeming that drawing was what gave to painting its grace and perfection’. A later etching by Fialetti, who had spent time in Tintoretto’s studio, demonstrates the multiplicity of hands in the workshop and the variety of angles from which this sculpture was studied.
Carlo Ridolfi, Tintoretto’s biographer, writing almost a century after the artist’s death, claims that Tintoretto ‘inscribed on the walls of one of his rooms the following work rule: Michelangelo’s design and Titian’s colour’. The year in which the artist gained access to Michelangelo’s compositions is unknown, but clear references to his works in Tintoretto’s painting suggest a date in the mid-1540s. The muscular, red figure in the lower right corner of St. Mark Rescuing the Slave (1548) strongly recalls the Courtauld study, whilst the reclining figure to his left has been inspired by Michelangelo’s Crepuscolo in the Medici chapel of San Lorenzo in Florence.
Of the approximate 200 drawings to have survived from Tintoretto’s Venetian studio, no subject was explored so thoroughly as Samson and the Philistines. For Tintoretto, the importance of this composition lay in its embodiment of what was later to be termed the figura serpentinata. The sculpture allows for an exploration into anatomical torsion and movement whilst facilitating the sixteenth century artist’s growing desire to study figures from all sides. Tintoretto’s graphic oeuvre is preoccupied with this formula and inventories of his workshop contents include other twisted sculptures such as the Laocoön and works by Giambologna. Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines (1583) with its three components and lack of preponderant views was later to become paradigmatic of the figura serpentinata.
These studies after Michelangelo’s Samson and the Philistines can be taken as evidence of the visual dialogue in existence between artists of the sixteenth century. The Courtauld drawing is a reflection of the importance of disegno and its role in the development and dissemination of the ‘modern’ style in the Cinquecento.