In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, many palazzos and public buildings in Rome had elaborate painted facades. The scenes were executed in fresco, a technique that binds paint with wet plaster, forming a hard surface when dry. Favorite subjects were the battles and heroic feats of the ancient Romans. Most murals were painted in simple tones of gray or brown, which were chosen to simulate the stone reliefs of antiquity.
Among the most famous paintings in the city at the time, most of these narrative facades have now disappeared. The elements eventually took their toll on the exposed artwork. However, at their peak during the Renaissance, artists flocked to Rome to admire the murals and sketched copies to take home. Their drawings and prints preserved their fame throughout the subsequent centuries.
The J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles presented an exhibition called “The Lost Murals of Renaissance Rome” through September 4, 2022. The first gallery showed the drawings and prints of the painted building facades. The second gallery presented the rags-to-riches tale of the Renaissance muralist Taddeo Zuccaro (1529 – 1566), as illustrated by his younger brother, Federico Zuccaro (c. 1541 – 1609).
At the age of 14, Taddeo left his provincial hometown of Sant’Angelo in Vado, near Urbino (Le Marche) to seek his fame and fortune in Rome as an artist. One of the first drawings by Federico shows Taddeo Leaving Home Escorted by Two Guardian Angels. Federico depicted himself clinging to his mother’s skirt; he was one of 8 or 9 children in the family. Throughout the series of about 20 drawings, Federico inscribed them, labeling Taddeo and himself and adding text to explain the contents of the scenes.
Taddeo suffered many hardships on his journey to become an artist. He eventually secured an apprenticeship, but in a studio where he was starved and mistreated. In Taddeo in the House of Giovanni Piero Calabrese, he is seen twice: grinding colors at the back of the room, watched over by the mean-spirited wife of the painter; and holding an oil lamp so that his master, Calabrese, can study a drawing by Raphael. The center text reads, “You deprive me of that which I desire most,” referring to Taddeo’s anguish at not being able to study the Raphael drawing himself. Bread is kept in a basket hanging from the ceiling—with a bell attached, so that Taddeo could not steal it.
Taddeo eventually achieved success as a mural painter and became one of the most famous artists of his time. Federico, who also became famous as an artist, planned this series of drawings in the Getty collection as designs for the interior of his lavish Roman palace. He intended the building to become an academy and hostel for young artists visiting the city, to save them from the trials that befell his beloved older brother. The project never came to pass due to squabbles among his heirs.
Federico tells the story of his brother in a charming fashion. The series of drawings also gives us insight into how young artists learned to draw in Renaissance Rome by making copies of works by Michelangelo, Raphael and others.