Studying Italian master drawings is considered the cornerstone of an education in art history, and Princeton University has quite a collection, with more than 1,000 drawings showing styles and techniques by artists from the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

A new exhibition, “500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum,” showcases more than 100 of these masterworks from the 15th through the early 20th centuries, and includes rarely seen works by Bernini, Michelangelo, Modigliani, Parmigianino, Giambattista, and Tintoretto, among others. It’s on view through Sunday, May 11.

New discoveries about technique, provenance, dating, iconography, and function enrich the viewing of these works. The exhibition is organized by theme rather than chronologically to demonstrate the role of “disegno,” or drawing, in the Italian design process. The themes are: Technique; Drawing as Discipline; Freedom of Invention; Stages of Design; Autonomy of Expression; A Closer Look: Three Masters of Disegno; and Collecting and Connoisseurship.

“Whether made from life, recorded after sculptures, or born from the imagination, these evocations of the human body (usually male) are emblematic of the centrality of this object of scrutiny, idealization, and ultimately fragmentation within the history of Italian art,” writes Laura Giles, the museum’s curator of prints and drawings.

In “Technique,” examples of wet techniques such as pen-and-ink are shown, including one on parchment. Giles says 99 percent of the drawings are on paper. “Paper was invented in China and available in Europe by the 14th century. Paper mills started to form by rivers. Paper makers would create a watermark to identify their product, and this can help to date a drawing.”

Dry technique includes red chalk and graphite, first mined in the late 18th century.

“Drawing as Discipline” explores the important role of copying in artistic education. “Embedded in the training of Italian artists by the middle of the 15th century, disegno provided an enduring impetus for future generations to conceptualize a design and then realize that mental image on paper — the first mark-making step toward the project’s final realization on canvas or in stone,” adds Giles. “Disegno played a significant role, beginning in late 14th century Florence, in elevating the status of painting, sculpture, and architecture from manual craft to liberal art.” Florentine painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that disegno was the father of all the arts.

The section “Stage of Design” takes the viewer from first thoughts to the final painting. We learn that this process began in the early 16th century, with rapid brainstorming sketches, called “schizzi” and “primi pensieri,” or first thoughts, followed by studies of individual figures, or “studi,” and culminating with “modelli” — finished drawings. There are examples contrasting Venetian “colorito” — broken contours and smudged shadow drawing — and the Florentine disegno, expressed in long continuous contours and precise modeling.

“Autonomy of Expression” shows the growing importance of drawing as an autonomous and collectible work and presents the design for a late 18th-century Bologna ceiling by Flamino Innocenzo Minozzi.

PUAM acquired these rich holdings thanks largely to Frank Jewett Mather Jr., the second director of the museum (he served in the 1920s to the 1940s), and Dan Fellows Platt, Class of 1895.

Mather — born in Deep River, Connecticut, the son of a lawyer — earned a bachelor’s degree at Williams College and a doctorate in English philology and literature at Johns Hopkins University. He traveled to Berlin to study Italian art and in 1893 returned to Williams to teach Anglo-Saxon and Romance languages. He made a second trip to Europe five years later, studying at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. He moved to Paris in 1901 to accept a job as an assistant editor of the Nation and then as editorial writer for the New York Evening Post. In 1904 he began writing art criticism for the Post.

Mather contracted typhoid fever and moved to Italy to recuperate, working as a freelance journalist. In getting acquainted with the expatriate community, he met Allan Marquand, founder and major benefactor to Princeton’s department of art and archaeology. Mather began collecting Italian art while there, especially affordable drawings. “He first began acquiring as a student — carpets and Japanese art,” says Giles. “His interests were broad. Most of what Mather acquired was American. He collected Arthur Dove watercolors.”

His collection included more than 350 Italian drawings, largely 16th to 17th century. After returning to the U.S. Marquand hired Mather to teach Italian art history, and by 1922 Mather was chosen to direct the museum. During his years as director he acquired his own personal collection, some of which was Italian art. He used the university’s endowments and his own funds to build the core of the European and American painting collection. In 1946 he retired and donated his collection of prints and drawings to the museum.

Platt — archaeologist, author, lawyer, art collector, and the mayor of Englewood, New Jersey, from 1904 to 1905 — was inspired by Marquand and collected Italian Renaissance paintings from Umbria and Siena, as well as drawings. He went to Italy every summer and collected, leaving it all to the art museum after his wife’s death.

Both Mather and Platt sought drawings that could provide teachable moments and transformative experiences, but after Mather died in 1953 the collection was not used much again until the late 1960s, when it became part of a traveling exhibition, the Italian Princeton Collection, organized through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art museum had undergone reconstruction in the 1960s, and the Met saw it as an opportunity, Giles says. Since then, individual works have been shown and have been on loan. The collection is well known among scholars internationally.

Platt (1873-1937) also collected contemporary art of his day, including Amedeo Modigliani — this was considered “adventurous” at the time, says Giles. “Modigliani was considered avant-garde.”

“Modigliani’s life was a drama,” she says. “He spent a lot of his career in France but was an Italian Jew, and Italy was where he studied. He loved Italian Renaissance art.” Known for his elongated faces and figures, Modigliani only lived until age 35. His mother was from Marseille, descended from an intellectual and scholarly family of Sephardic Jews. His father’s family included successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. At the time of Modigliani’s birth, an economic downturn plunged the family into bankruptcy. Because of an ancient law that creditors could not seize the bed of a pregnant woman or a mother with a newborn child, Amedeo’s birth saved his family from financial ruin. Modigliani’s mother started a school.

Though drawing and painting from a very early age, Modigliani was a sickly child. Beginning at age 10 he suffered with pleurisy, typhoid, and tuberculosis. After a second bout with pleurisy, his mother took him on a tour of southern Italy — he had requested this during his feverish moments — and he began to study with Italian masters.

In 1906 Modigliani moved to Paris, the center of the avant-garde, and lived in a commune for penniless artists. He led a bohemian lifestyle, was unable to sustain relationships, and abused drugs and alcohol, including absinthe and hashish, often embarrassing himself in social situations.

Nevertheless, he was a prolific worker, making as many as 100 drawings a day. Influence by Toulouse-Lautrec and Cezanne, he ultimately developed his own style. His first one-man exhibition in 1917 was shut down within hours of its opening because of the nudes. He died penniless and his epitaph reads: “Struck down by Death at the moment of glory.”

But Modigliani was largely interested in the figure, and so Platt collected his drawings.

Giles points out that the word drawing goes back to the Anglo Saxon word for making a furrow in the land. Drawings selected for the show are “master drawings,” but not necessarily done by the masters, Giles says. “Many of the masters passed along their studies for students to copy, and these were collected by their students.”

So, for example, a work attributed to Tintoretto might be a copy by one of his students.

In organizing this exhibition and its accompanying scholarly catalog, Giles wanted to show continuity through the history of Italian drawing. “People will become aware of so many more artists,” she says. “Drawings are revelatory of the creative process; you can get close to an artist bringing ideas to life in a drawing that you don’t see in painting. People who like Italian art but are not familiar with the drawings will be transformed by this peeling away of the layers of the creative process. In some cases, a drawing records something lost or unexecuted and serves as documentation. Works on paper may not be big. There are no jewels. There’s no bling, but it’s very intimate.”

500 Years of Italian Master Drawings from the Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University Art Museum. Through Sunday, May 11. Free.

Princeton Singers, Mathey Common Room, Princeton University. The museum hosts an Italian-themed concert under the direction of Andrew Megill. Saturday, February 15, 5 p.m. Reception in the museum, 6 to 7:30 p.m. Free.

Lasting Legacies, Changing Attributions, 101 McCormick Hall, Princeton University. Laura Giles discusses the collecting and connoisseurship of Italian drawings at Princeton. Thursday, February 20, 5:30 p.m. Free.

Princeton University Art Museum Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Free. or 609-258-3788.

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