When the twenty-year-old Venetian Battista Franco arrived in Rome around 1530, he developed a passion for the art of Michelangelo, making the latter his sole model and copying his paintings in numerous quick drawings that signalled the virtuosity to come. His first commission, in 1536, comprised four large compositions for a temporary decor for Charles V's entry into Rome. Vasari employed him the same year to decorate Ottaviano de' Medici's palace in Florence and assigned him the execution of his commissions from the Court. In Florence Franco continued to follow in Michelangelo's footsteps, studying the sculptures and painting an enlarged version of the master's Noli Me Tangere cartoon. Commissioned to paint The Battle of Montemurlo in 1537, he once more borrowed his compositional elements from Michelangelo. The work was part of a strategy of legitimation of the authority of Duke Cosimo I, after his army's victory over the Republican insurgents put the seal on the de' Medici domination of Tuscany. Franco's picture is an amalgam of quotations from Michelangelo, drawing on the Sistine Chapel frescoes and engravings of drawings including The Dream of Human Life – see the reclining figure lower right – and The Rape of Ganymede.
A preliminary to the two men conversing lower left, our drawing borrows from one by Michelangelo in the Ashmolean Museum. This makes it clear, as Michel Hochman had already suggested, that Franco had had access to the master's workshop – a meeting attested to by no other source. Dispensing with the original's shading, the young Venetian retraces its lines with supple, vigorous strokes of the pen.
Franco has met with enormous success as a draughtsman. Eagerly sought after since the sixteenth century, his drawings were acquired by the most prestigious European collectors – Vasari, Jabach, Crozat, Tessin, Mariette, Reynolds and others – before entering the leading international museums. Our example, formerly in the J. P. Morgan collection, is the perfect illustration of the accuracy of Philip Pouncey's quirky judgement: "You can always recognise drawings by Franco because his line is as thin as a bat’s squeak."
John Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), stamp lower left (L. 1509). ? Stamp DP of an unidentified contempo