(Genoa, 1554-1627)

The Assumption of the Virgin

pen, brown ink, and wash on paper

13 3/8 x 9 1/8 inches
(34 x 23.2 cm)


Unidentified collector’s mark, lower right.
Suida-Manning Collection, New York.
Private Collection, USA.  

This impressive drawing of the Assumption of the Virgin is the work of the Genoese artist Giovanni Battista Paggi. The son of a nobleman, Paggi received a humanist education and was a self-taught artist. According to Paggi’s first biographer, Raffaele Soprani, it was only after encountering Luca Cambiaso and being praised by him that Paggi decided to pursue a career as a painter, against the wishes of his father. Paggi was banished from Genoa in 1581 after murdering a patron who had refused to pay for one of his works. He took refuge in Florence under the protection of Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, remaining there until 1599. In Florence, he worked out of a studio in a house owned by Federico Zuccaro and was a member of the Accademia Fiorentina del Disegno beginning in 1586. He undertook numerous commissions in Tuscany during this period, supplying altarpieces for churches in San Gimignano, Pistoia, Lucca, and other minor cities.

This Assumption of the Virgin is a characteristic work by Paggi, whose complex compositional arrangements were frequently divided across several levels. Here, the Virgin is framed by the cloud supported by putti that encircles her. Below, the apostles are arranged in a circle around her open tomb, gazing upward with expressions of amazement as she ascends towards heaven. The significance of this moment is expressed through the emphatic gestures of the figures, including the outstretched arm and upturned palm of the Virgin, the hands clasped in prayer of the angel to her right, and the various gesticulations of the apostles.

One of the most striking details of the drawing is the arrangement of the apostles in the foreground, who, facing away from the viewer, obscure a complete view of the tomb and draw our attention to the Virgin. Paggi has masterfully captured the confusion and wonder of the apostles through the angular lines of the drapery, rendered with quick, nervous strokes of the pen. The liberal application of the wash in the lower half of the composition and its restrained use above is particularly skillful, allowing the white of the paper to highlight the upper portion of the drawing and express the radiance of the light concentrated on the Virgin.

The episode of the Assumption of the Virgin, when Mary ascends to heaven, episode derives from the apocryphal account of Saint James. Paggi completed two altarpieces with this subject during his Florentine period—one for the chapel to the left of the high altar in the cathedral of Pistoia (1593-4) and another for the church of Nostra Signora del Carmine in Genova (1596), which he presumably painted in Florence and shipped back to his native city.[1] Although the present drawing does not correspond exactly to the final composition of either of these paintings, the stylistic relation is apparent, especially with the version in Pistoia. The drawing likely dates from the latter part of Paggi’s stay in Florence, when he was most frequently engaged as a painter of church decorations. It may have originally been executed as a design for a never completed or now lost altarpiece for a church altar dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin.

[1] For a discussion of these altarpieces, see: Peter M. Lukehart, Contending Ideals: The Nobility of G. B. Paggi and the Nobility of Painting, PhD dissertation, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, 1987, pp. 76-77 and 78-79, respectively.