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Sydney librarian discovers rare drawing by Renaissance artist

One of the most enigmatic figures in Renaissance art, Giorgione, has been identified as the artist behind a drawing that remained undiscovered for over 500 years on the back page of a University of Sydney library book. An Italian Renaissance painter, Giorgione’s life was shrouded in mystery for centuries, with his age and exact date of death remaining unknown – until now.

Julie Sommerfeldt and Kim Wilson with the 1497 book. Photo: Sarah Lorien

Kim Wilson discovered the red chalk drawing of the Madonna and Child on the back page of a 1497 copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the University of Sydney’s Rare Books collection. The drawing is one of only three attributed to Giorgione, the others residing in Rotterdam and New York. “It’s in a part of the book you’d never normally turn to and the drawing looked like a confident master hand,” said Ms Wilson, an Academic Liaison Librarian at the University of Sydney.

After discovering the drawing, Ms Wilson sought the expertise of Emeritus Professor Nerida Newbigin from the University’s Department of Italian Studies, to translate the inscription written in 16th century Venetian dialect at the top of the page on which the drawing appears. Translated, it reads: “1510 Ihs Maria. On the day of 17 September, Giorgione of Castelfranco, a very excellent artist died of the plague in Venice at the age of 36 and he rests in peace.”

Together with Julie Sommerfeldt, Manager of the University’s Rare Books and Special Collections, and Emeritus Professor Jaynie Anderson, Giorgione expert from the University of Melbourne, Ms Wilson and Professor Newbigin wrote an article explaining the attribution to Giorgione, published in the prestigious Burlington Magazine on March 1. The article also suggests Giorgione, who was one of the founding fathers of the Venetian school of Italian Renaissance art, may have owned the copy of Dante’s famous text.

“This astonishing find highlights the potential for these kinds of serendipitous discoveries when working with Rare Books and heritage collections, and the hidden gems waiting to be discovered in libraries worldwide,” said Julie Sommerfeldt. “The fact that the sketch remained protected in the pages of a book for so long and then survived at least one rebinding is very fortunate,” said Kim Wilson. The authors explain the drawing may represent a precursor to Giorgione’s “The Holy Family” in the National Gallery of Art in Washington or “Adoration of the Magi (Kings)”, in London’s National Gallery. Curators at both galleries backed the findings.

Despite significant research, so far the date the University of Sydney Library obtained the book remains unknown. However, the authors note, “records indicate the book was a donation to the library sometime between 1914 and 1959, probably after 1928”.

The newly-discovered drawing will undergo further analysis in late March, when the Australian Synchrotron will use a non-destructive technique, x-ray fluorescence, to analyse the ink and chalk. This process might give the researchers insight into details on Giorgione’s technique as well as comparison of the ink used in the inscription, with instances of underlined text also found throughout the book.

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