This large and impressive sheet was made by Andrea as a study for the sleeping Saint Joseph in the private devotional painting, the Bracci Holy Family, now in the Galleria Palatina, Florence and commonly known after the name of its patron, Zanobi di Giovambattista Bracci (1488–after 1531). In this deeply naturalistic study drawing, which is rendered on a similar scale to the figure in the painting, Andrea characteristically disregarded the lower part of the face, as it would be obscured when Joseph rested on his left arm. Andrea focused instead on the fall of light on the face and—most spectacularly—on the shadows cast within the vivid gray hair, rendered so realistically in the painting as a result of this drawing. Much of the black-chalk work is tied into effects of stumping, with the stump (a rolled piece of leather sharpened to a point) used to create patches of shadow that are then reworked with further strokes of chalk. Blank reserves of paper are skillfully left as highlights and firmer black-chalk lines create accented shadows. A brief subsidiary study lower on the page explores the possibility of raising Joseph’s head slightly and showing him awake. A further small-scale sketch in the bottom right corner studies the detail of a flower, although no flowers are present in the painting. On the verso of the sheet are two red-chalk sketches of legs, not securely connectable to any surviving work.
The scale and power of this drawing is matched by its illustrious provenance. The first owner of the drawing, as evidenced by the characteristic inscribed mount on which it is laid, was none other than the artist and writer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), himself a pupil of Andrea del Sarto. Vasari is now often characterized as the “father of art history” for his published artist-biographies, and as an painter he was a key figure in sixteenth-century Medici Florence.