Though he frequently drew from life during his training, in his early career the Florentine artist Agostino Ciampelli often harked back to the tradition of elongated and stylized figures that was fading as reforms in the city's artistic community took hold. The Crocker Visitation exemplifies this period: combining elegant, almost Mannerist figures with clear storytelling antithetical to Mannerism itself, it preserves a moment not only of Ciampelli's career but also of the Florentine reform at the turn of the seventeenth century.
Agostino Ciampelli, born to a cobbler in 1565, trained under Santi di Tito, the Florentine Reform artist whose studio Julian Brooks has called the city's "real engine-room of life-drawing."(1) He entered the Accademia del Disegno in 1585, where Medici patronage led to Ciampelli's first court comission in 1586, a frescoed frieze for the Tribuna of the Uffizi, now destroyed. By 1594 he had secured the patronage of Alessandro de' Medici, the archbishop of Florence. After frescoing two rooms in the archbishop's palace in Florence, Ciampelli was called to Rome in late 1594 when his patron became a cardinal. His simple and direct narrative style, in the spirit of the reforms proposed by the Council of Trent, meant that he played a major part in the cardinal's renovation of S. Giovanni in Laterano for the jubilee of 1600. The election of Alessandro de' Medici as Pope in 1605 ironically led to Ciampelli's eclipse, as the Pope was dead within three weeks. A new Florentine connection, the new pope's protégé Marcello Sacchetti, raised Ciampelli's fortunes again: by 1623 he was principe of the Accademia di San Luca and soon working on the renovation of the church of Santa Bibiana with Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The pinnacle of his career were his commissions at Saint Peter's for the Tuscan Pope Urban VIII Barberini, who made him Soprastante alla Fabbrica di San Pietro alongside Bernini in 1629. Already failing in health, Ciampelli died the following year.
Recent scholarship by on the part of Milan Togner and Maria Cristina Terzaghi will continue to change our view of Ciampelli as a draughtsman and historical figure. Togner's 1998 discovery of sixty previously unknown drawings by the artist in the State Science Library in Olomouc in the Czech Republic has already helped to assess the artist's working method in his major commissions.(2) Terzaghi's archival work has located Ciampelli in 1609 in the household of his father-in-law Pietro Bernini, recently arrived from Florence.(3) This connection to the eleven-year-old future sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini sheds light on their later collaborations and raises the question of their relations during the sculptor's training and the painter's eclipse.
In the Crocker drawing, Ciampelli builds his composition of graceful figures into a legible whole. As Zacharias looks on at left, the Virgin greets the aged Elizabeth, soon to be the mother of John the Baptist. The shadowed space between them provides the background for the real focus of the composition, their joined hands and Elizabeth's gesture of welcome. A triangle of figures reinforces this focus through gesture and glance, Zacharias, the servant at right, and the foreground figure who points while addressing the viewer. Even the dog gazes in curiosity. This narrative clarity is supported by Ciampelli's technique with its well-defined light source slightly to the left of the viewer, created with deep washes and shimmering white-lead highlights.
The drawing entered the Crocker collection as the work of Ciampelli. The near-contemporary inscription at lower right seems to share the hand of an inscription on a confirmed drawing in the Uffizi,(4) though the use of short and long s differs. The technique is consonant with Ciampelli's early pen-and-ink style, seen also in a Christ before Herod and a Crowning with Thorns now in the Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe in Rome first connected with the Crocker Visitation by Christel Thiem in 1971. Both of these share as well the format of deep architectural background, side repoussoir figure and mid-ground central action emphasized by lighting. Perhaps because of the difficulty imposed upon stylistic research by the small number of confirmed drawings, the date of the Visitation has fluctuated between about 1594(5) and about 1600.(6) Until further assessment of the Olomouc drawings permits a more nuanced view of the artist's development, the present writer prefers the latter, implied by the relationship to the drawings in Rome.
William Breazeale, in William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010
(1) Julian Brooks, Graceful and True: Drawing in Florence c. 1600, intr. by Catherine Whistler, exh. cat. Ashmolean, Oxford 2003, p. 26.
(2) Milan Togner, "Neznámé kresby Agostina Ciampelliho v olomoucké sbirke," in Umění, vol. XLVI, nos. 1/2, 1998, pp. 101–108 and by the same author Agostino Ciampelli 1565–1630, Kresby, exh. cat. Olomouc, 2000, also published in Italian as in Togner 2000 in Literature above.
(3) Maria Cristina Terzaghi, "Bernini padre, figlio e cognato, nuovi dati ed aperture," in Decorazione e collezionismo a Roma nel Seicento, ed. Francesca Cappelletti, Rome, 2003, pp. 101–106
(4) Thiem 1971 as in Literature above, p. 364 n. 18 and plate 5a
(5) Moir 1977 as in Literature above
(6) Thiem 1971 as in Literature above, pp. 362–63
Inscriptions: dark brown ink, lower right corner: Agostino Ciampelli
Marks: none discernible
Provenance: Edwin Bryant Crocker, Sacramento, by 1871; gift of his widow Margaret to the Museum, 1885
Literature: William Breazeale, with Cara Denison, Stacey Sell, and Freyda Spira, A Pioneering Collection: Master Drawings from the Crocker Art Museum, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 2010, no. 7; William Breazeale, "Old Masters in Old California: the Origins of the Drawings Collection at the Crocker Art Museum," in Master Drawings, vol. XLVI, no. 2, Summer 2008, p. 222; Milan Togner, Agostino Ciampelli 1565–1630, Disegni, Olomouc, 2000, no. B69 and under no. B64-65; Jeffrey Ruda, The Art of Drawing, Old Masters from the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California, exh. cat. Flint, 1992, no. 43; Simonetta Prosperi Valenti Rodinò in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, Rome, 1960- (1982), sub vocem Ciampelli, Agostino, p. 125; Christel Thiem, Florentiner Zeichner des Frühbarock, Munich, 1977, p. 309; Simonetta Prosperi Valenti Rodinò, Disegni fiorentini 1560–1640, exh. cat. Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, Rome, 1977, under no. 68; Alfred Moir, Regional Styles of Drawing in Italy 1600–1700, exh. cat. Santa Barbara, 1977, no. 25; Simonetta Prosperi Valenti, "Ancora su Agostino Ciampelli disegnatore," in Antichità viva, vol. XII, no. 2, 1973, p. 9; Christel Thiem, "The Florentine Agostino Ciampelli as a Draughtsman," in Master Drawings, vol. IX, no. 4, Winter 1971, pp. 362–63; Master Drawings from Sacramento, exh. cat. Sacramento and tour, 1971, no. 37; Walter Vitzthum, A Selection of Italian Drawings from North American Collections, exh. cat. Regina and Montreal, 1970, no. 24; Russell Bohr, The Italian Drawings in the E. B. Crocker Art Gallery Collection, Sacramento, California, unpubl. Ph.D. diss, University of California at Berkeley, 1958, no. 49