A fascinating mirror of Italian society at the beginning of the Seicento
38 Album with representations of Italian, mainly Venetian, costumes and characters from the Commedia dell’Arte22 miniatures on vellum. Italy Venice?, first quarter of the 17th century.
c. 125-127 x 190-195 mm. 22 single leaves, mounted on paper guards, compensation guards added at regular intervals. 22 miniatures in full colours with occasional use of gold and silver. One miniature with a paper flap (fol. 7).Tituli in gold in a regular Antiqua Capitalis.Versos blank. – Most miniatures in fine condition, only minor rubbing, 2 miniatures (fol. 5 and 13) partly smudged, occasional staining, several repairs around the edges of the leaves. Tiny foliation in pencil, yet not corresponding to the number of leaves nor their current position in the codex. – Modern dark blue morocco binding with title on the spine, turn-ins gilt, stamped “Bernasconi” (Italian book binder of the first half of the 20th century), 3 paper flyleaves at beginning and end, pastedowns and first flyleaves in marbled paper. In a modern slip-case with marbled paper.
PROVENANCE: Private collection Switzerland.
ILLUMINATION: Titles of the miniatures: fol. 1: Come si bace li piedi del papa – fol. 2: Come le done si petinano nel sol per rossir li suoi capeli – fol. 3: Gentildona venetiana & Donzela venetiana – fol. 4: Procurator di Venetia & Magnifico di Venetia – fol. 5: Duco di Venetia & Duchesa di Venetia – fol. 6: Cortegiano de la corte del papa & Comendatore in Padoa – fol. 7: Cortesiana & Vedoa Feraresa – fol. 8: Caposta di Padoa & Procurator in Padoa – fol. 9: Cortegiana romana & macarela – fol. 10: Un evesque de France allent en prossession – fol. 11: Generale de Larmata di Venetia & Concilio di Venetia – fol. 12: Medico – fol. 13: Gondola di Venetia – fol. 14: Come li batuti vano nela processione – fol. 15: Arlequin & Isabella & Franquatripa – fol. 16: Un contadino sacando otirando lato duna capra – fol. 17: Contadina – fol. 18: Charlatano – fol. 19: Mascarata – fol. 20: Come si porta il vino nel tempo di vendemi – fol. 21: Un pescator ilquale va pescando pece sopra il fiumo – fol. 22: Come duy fachini giocano a la m(ora). The album is composed of 22 miniatures.While the first two, showing such contrasting scenes as an audience before the pope and a young lady dyeing her hair, are set in frames and have fully articulated backgrounds, the others follow a simpler scheme. A stripe of beige-pink sets the stage for a défilé of figures that can be divided into several groups. Fol. 3 to 13 present the upper class. Mainly high officials of the Venetian republic, from the doge to a procurator, they alternate with ladies from Venice, Ferrara and Rome.The only exception is a procession scene on fol. 10, curiously with a caption in French. Although special attention is paid to the depiction of costumes, the miniatures also reveal a certain sense of irony.The best example of this is fol. 7 juxtaposing a courtesan and a widow. Here the artist has attached a flap of paper to the courtesan’s skirt, which, if lifted, reveals her nakedness except for stockings with fancy ribbons and highheeled shoes. The remaining miniatures show various figures in a seemingly arbitrary order. Of particular interest is the depiction of the Commedia dell’Arte, a type of theatre developed in 16th-century Italy, characterized by improvised dialogues based on plot outlines and featuring certain stock characters. Fol. 15 presents three of the most famous of them. Harlequin is the darling of the audience: witty, often impertinent and full of jokes. Like him Franquatripa belongs to the “Zanni”, the simple folk. His name signifies “nonsense”, and he is a real good-for-nothing. Isabella is the most often used name for the beautiful girl whose adventurous path to a happy union with her beloved forms one of the central plot lines. Closely related is the miniature entitled “Charlatano” (fol. 18). Charlatans entertained their audience with fantastic stories, often about illnesses and miraculous cures for which they held in stock a wide selection of “medicine” on sale for the audience. Like the comedians they performed in city and town piazzas. Another aspect of the fascination with theatre and costume is illustrated by the masquerade (fol. 19), a popular pasttime of the wealthy Venetians, which of course reached its annual peak at Carnival. The miniatures in the second half of the manuscript, among which that of the flagellants stands out, present other strata of society: a peasant woman and her male counterpart, a fisherman, two vineyard workers and two servants at leisure. This last miniature shows the figures in the act of playing “mora”. In this popular Italian game the two players hold up simultaneously one or several fingers, each player trying at the same time to predict the number of fingers shown by the other. Taken together the miniatures, which may originally have belonged to a larger series, offer a cross-section of Venetian society at the beginning of the 17th century, as indicated by the fashion style.With their faithful representation of costumes, typical traditions and social habits they form a precious historical document. The miniatures were probably inspired by contemporary series of woodcuts and engravings, like Ferando Bertelli’s Omnium fere gentium nostrae aetatis habitus (Venice 1569) or Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti antichi e moderni (1589).The Commedia dell’Arte likewise enjoyed enormous popularity in the visual arts. The earliest extensive series of woodcuts by a French artist of the late 16th century is contained in the Recueil Fossart (Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, Department of Prints and Drawings). Better known are the engravings entitled “Balli di sfessania” by Jacques Callot, published in 1622. Unlike our album, however, they show the characters in a narrative context. The author of the miniatures remains anonymous. The French title and subject of fol. 10, which, though comparable in its graphic style,may originate from a distinct series, could suggest that the artist belonged to the large community of French or Flemish artists active in Venice at the time.
LITERATURE: The album is hitherto unpublished. Ballarin 1973; Esrig 1985; Leik 1996.