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Sack of Siracuse

Frans Floris

* c.1519 in Antwerp † 1570 in Antwerp

Pen and brown ink, two tones of light brown wash. Size of sheet: 20.3 x 23.3 cm.

Laid onto an album sheet, the edges of the drawing lined with thin strips of yellow ochre paper. 

Frans Floris, the son of a stonecutter, trained as a sculptor before joining Lambert Lombard’s studio as an apprentice painter. Barely 20 years of age, he travelled to Italy upon his master’s advice. From 1541 to late 1547 he immersed himself in the works of ancient and modern masters. According to Carel van Mander’s biography of Floris, published in 1604, ‘… he used his time very well, making drawings … of everything that attracted him’.[1] Floris travelled to Mantua and Genoa, but spent most of his time in Rome. Given his early training he was naturally drawn to ancient art, and made careful copies of classical sarcophagi, statues and reliefs.[2] He also assiduously studied the works of contemporary Italian painters, for example Giulio Romano and Polidoro da Caravaggio, who strongly influenced the development of his style.[3] Moreover, Van Mander testifies that he was totally captivated by Michelangelo’s nudes in the Last Judgement.[4]

Upon his return to Antwerp, Floris founded a highly organised studio based on the Italian model and established his reputation as the city’s leading painter, winning renown as the ‘Flemish Raphael’ – ‘den Vlaemschen Raphael van Vrbijn’ in Van Mander’s words.[5]

In the present drawing Floris recorded Perino del Vaga’s Sack of Syracuse, painted in simulated bronze beneath the School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura; one of several compositions adorning the basamento, which Vasari described as ‘bellissime’.[6] Raphael was a major influence on the young Floris, which makes this sheet doubly remarkable: not only does it represent his only known drawing after Perino, but it is one of just two surviving copies of compositions connected with Raphael. Its ‘companion piece’, preserved in the Teylers Museum, shows Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law from the Vatican Loggia, executed by Raphael’s workshop.[7] Floris may well have assumed that both compositions – which he clearly copied at much the same time – were by Raphael himself.

Both this and the Teylers drawing were once bound into the same album, the provenance of which remains obscure. They are similar in handling and size and laid onto sheets of cartridge paper, their respective edges lined with thin strips of paper tinted yellow ochre to complement Floris’s varying tones of near-golden wash.

When executing copies, Italian artists generally tended to suppress their personal style so as to replicate objects exactly as they saw them. This was clearly never the case with Floris, and here we find all his familiar mannerisms. Perino’s compact and classically proportioned figures are transformed into elongated beings, their heads small and their limbs elongated. We see Floris’s characteristic facial profiles with pinched upturned noses and chins that sometimes protrude beyond the line of the forehead. Hair and beards are rapidly annotated with short penstrokes as are eyes, with dabs of wash to emphasise their sockets.[8] Though, like its ‘companion piece’ in the Teylers Museum, Floris executed the present drawing more freely and rapidly than his studies after the antique, the handling and morphologies are consistent. So too is the beautifully saturated golden wash, in this instance subtly replicating Perino’s tones of simulated bronze. The eccentrically elongated Term, remarkable for its freedom of execution, marks the point at which Perino’s composition divides to show, on the right, the Death of Archimedes, murdered by a Roman soldier as he contemplated a mathematical diagram.[9]

 Van Mander perceptively observed that Floris ‘drew antiques with a clever style of cross-hatching’, evidently referring to his way of recording the extent to which figures carved in relief project from their background.[10] Floris employed an identical method in the present drawing, where, as in his studies after the antique, Perino’s areas of deepest shadow are indicated by a combination of cross-hatching and dark wash.

Following his return from Italy, Floris radically transformed Netherlandish art. His monumental works, massively inspired by Michelangelo, introduced a new appreciation for the heroic nude to the Low Countries. Naturally he attracted commissions from important patrons, and his mastery of the human form propelled him to international fame. Floris’s extraordinary contribution to the development of painting and drawing was celebrated by a Florentine merchant resident in Antwerp: Lodovico Guicciardini, nephew of Francesco, the great historian and diplomat. In his Descrizione di tutti i paesi bassi of 1567 Lodovico described Floris as the country’s greatest living painter, an unrivalled master and the very first of the second generation of artists to return from Italy, where he acquired total mastery in the rendering of musculature, and the skill to create foreshortened figures that were natural and awe-inspiring.[11]

 Just as the young Michelangelo learnt by copying the works of early Florentine painters, so the path to Floris’s fame and remarkable achievement upon his return to the Netherlands was determined by his study of Italian masters. The dual connection with Raphael and Perino thus makes the present drawing a rare and important addition to our knowledge of Floris’s formation as an artist.


[1] ‘… heeft te Room zijnen tijdt met grooten ernst waer ghenomen, conterfeytende alles waer zijnen geest bevallen oft welbehagen in hadde’ (Carel van Mander, Het leven der doorluchtighe Nederlandtsche en Hooghduytsche schilders, in Het schilder-boeck, Haarlem 1604, fol. 239v). For the chronology of his journey, see Carl Van de Velde, ‘A Roman Sketchbook of Frans Floris’, Master Drawings, VII, 1969, p. 275.

[2] The greater part are preserved in the sketchbook in the Kunstmuseum, Basel, analysed by Van de Velde 1969, pp. 255-86.

[3] See Emmanuelle Brugerolles & David Guillet, Renaissance et maniérisme dans les écoles du Nord: dessins des collections de l’Ecole des beaux-arts, Paris 1985, no. 66, with copies of details from Giulio’s ceiling in the Camerino dei Falconi in the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, and Polidoro’s Triumph of Paulus Emilius on the façade of Palazzo Madama, Rome. Floris also studied the works, among others, of Tintoretto, Veronese and Salviati.

[4] ‘… verscheyden naeckten uyt ’t Oordeel, en welfsel van Michel Agnolo’ (Van Mander 1604, fol. 239v).

[5] Van Mander 1604, fol. 239r.

[6] Giorgio Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti architettori, pittori et scultori italiani, 2 vols, Florence 1568, II, pp. 365-66. The new basamento was commissioned by Paul III in the 1540s to replace Fra Giovanni da Verona’s wooden panelling, adorned with geometric intarsia, which was lost during the sack of Rome.

[7] Haarlem, Teylers Museum, KT 2008 018. Pen and brown ink, brown wash, 255 x 220 mm. See Edward H. Wouk, Frans Floris (1519/20-1570): Imagining a Northern Renaissance, Leiden 2018, p. 98, fig. 3.23.

[8] See Van de Velde 1969, pp. 264-65, for a discussion of Floris’s stylistic traits.

[9] According to Plutarch, Archimedes was contemplating a mathematical diagram during the capture of Syracuse. He ignored the orders of a Roman soldier, saying he had to finish working on his theorem, and was consequently murdered.

[10] ‘… en Antijcken die seer cloeck gheartseert en gehandelt waeren, ghelijck icker wel eenighe van hebbe gesien, die afghedruckt waeren’ (Van Mander 1604, fol. 239v). Cf. Basel, Kunstmuseum U.IV.23 showing a Victory, a Reclining nymph and a Matron with Children (Van de Velde 1969, pp. 270-71, pl. 9).

[11] Lodovico Guicciardini, Descrizione di tutti i paesi bassi, altrimenti detti Germania inferiore, Antwerp 1567, p. 99: ‘Or parliamo de’ vivi e prima porremo Francesco Floris, pittore tanto eccellente nella sua propria professione d’invenzione e di disegno che … non ha forse pari, perché nel vero è Maestro singular … A costui s’attribuisce la palma d’aver portato d’Italia la maestra del far muscoli e scorci naturali, et maravigliosi’.



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