GIOVANNI BATTISTA TIEPOLO

Venice 1696–1770 Madrid

Punchinello Observed or The Discovery of the Tomb of Punchinello

 

Inscribed in pen and ink, lower left, Tiepolo

Pen and brown ink and wash over traces of black chalk, partially indented for transfer

297 by 215 mm

11 ¾ by 8 ½ inches

 

PROVENANCE

Georg Edward Habich (1818–1901), Kassel and Boston (L. 862); his sale, Stuttgart, H.G. Gutekunst, 27th April 1899 (and following days), lot 644 (Satyrische Darstellung. Verschiedene Personen betrachten eine Grabplatte mit einem Relief, wahrscheinlich Sartyre auf einen Mediziner)

Antonio Grandi, Milan, 1910

Juan A. (1862–1920) and Felix Bernasconi (1860–1914), Milan, by descent, their sale,

London, Christie's, 1 April 1987, lot 84, illustrated; acquired by

C.G. Boerner, Düsseldorf, Die schönsten Neuerwerbungen: Graphik und Zeichnungen von 1500 bis 1900, 1988, cat. no. 40, illustrated; acquired by

Dr. John O’Brien

 

LITERATURE

E. Sack, Giambattista und Domenico Tiepolo, Hamburg, 1910, cat. no. 193

This finished drawing, executed in Giambattista Tiepolo’s favourite medium of pen and ink and wash over a slight black chalk under drawing, was made in preparation for the Scherzi di Fantasia, a set of twenty-four etchings Tiepolo worked on intermittently from circa 1743 to circa 1757.¹ His earlier Capricci, his first set of etchings, consisting of ten prints, were published in 1743.² Our drawing is a study, in reverse and with several differences, for Scherzo no. 17, usually entitled Punchinello Observed or The Discovery of the Tomb of Pulchinello.³

 

The Scherzi have been roughly divided into several groups based on subject matter and presumed dates of execution, which cannot be stablished with absolute certainty.⁴ While some of the prints, usually those considered to have been made early in the sequence, have relatively straightforward subjects, such as a mother and child resting or a family of satyrs, others are more enigmatic, even sinister, in character. The overall flavour of the series is decidedly exotic and oriental, evoking the ancient cultures of Babylon and Egypt, with distinctly dark tones, as can be seen in several scenes of sacrifices and necromancy towards the end of the set. Several elements, such as dilapidated remnants of antique and oriental architecture, spoils of war, and various memento mori appear throughout the set. Our drawing shows a group of four figures: two older Orientals, a version of which appears in most of the prints, a semi-nude youth reminiscent of Pan (in the print he is holding reed branches), as well as two women standing in front of Punchinello’s corpse which is stuck on a slab of stone. That the scene takes place in a necropolis becomes clear from the outcrop at left (at right in the print) which is surmounted by a single bone and an hourglass and serves as a memento mori. The horse rearing its massive head behind the group is not included in the etching, which emphasises the trees behind it to balance the composition on the left (in the print). Long, thin, and almost branchless trees, diagonally bent across the sheet, are a compositional device frequently found in Tiepolo’s work. Horses, donkeys, sheep, ram and cows feature in five other etchings, as do other animals, such as monkeys, dogs and the ominous owl, which appear in more than half of the prints, including ours. The importance of the owl is underscored by the fact that nine of them feature prominently in the frontispiece, thus setting a grave and dangerous tone for the whole set. Another unusual object is the circular stone dial with indecipherable signs that appears in our drawing and several other prints. Tiepolo’s etching clearly took inspiration from Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s famous print, Diogenes searching of an Honest Man (c. 1645-47, Fig. XXX).⁵ Of particular interest were several motifs, such as the all’antica satyr herm, which seems to have given Tiepolo the idea for his dead Punchinello, the trees, the owl, and the ox skull, which appears as the head of a large fish or crocodile in Tiepolo’s etching.⁶

 

The snake entwining a staff, in the foreground of the drawing, features also in several other prints.⁷ There is no connection between Punchinello and snakes, the latter being merely another mysterious motif for Tiepolo to enhance the overall flavour of the set. The snake may well, as Charles Dempsey has noted, allude to such early Christian movements as Gnosticism, which had an Egyptian background, and in particular to the snake worshipping Ophites.⁸

 

Punchinello appears also in another Scherzo, entitled Punchinello giving Counsel, in which he seems to lament the death of a fellow Punchinello to a crowd of bystanders consisting of the now familiar Orientals and a handsome, reed-bearing youth, and other, less distinctive, figures.⁹ Several preparatory drawings of different degree of finish survive for the Scherzi di Fantasia series.¹⁰ George Knox tentatively identified one of a group of studies for the Scherzi in the Victoria & Albert Museum as a first sketch for our composition, though this connection remains uncertain and was rejected by Dario Succi in his comprehensive analysis of the Tiepolos’ prints.¹¹ Succi was more supportive of Maria Santifaller’s idea, however, that another V&A drawing, of similar upright format, showing a semi-nude youth and an Oriental leaning on an altar might be an early idea for this composition.¹²

 

Our drawing once belonged to the German entrepreneur Edward Habich, who liver for a while in America where he made a fortune as a beer brewer in Boston. Following his return to his native Kassel in the 1870s, over a period of roughly twenty years and advised by his friend, the art critic and historian Giovanni Morelli (1816–1891), Habich amassed an important collection of old master drawings, particularly of the Northern and Italian schools. His 1899 sale catalogue of roughly eight hundred drawings lists twenty-one sheets by the Tiepolo family, four of which, including the present one, were by Giambattista.

 

  1. For a comprehensive account of the series, see K. Christiansen in Giambattista Tiepolo, 1696-1770, exhibition catalogue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, pp. 358-69. 

  2. Ibid., pp. 348-57.

  3. A. de Vesme, Le peintre-graveur italien, Milan 1906, p. 390, cat. no. 29. The latter title seems to appear here for the first time.

  4. For the dating of the Scherzi, see also G. Knox, “G. B. Tiepolo: the dating of the ‘Scherzi di Fantasia’ and the ‘Capricci,’” in Burlington Magazine, vol. 114, 1972, no. 12, pp. 837-42.

  5. Bartsch XXI.20.21). D. Succi (et al.), Giambattista Tiepolo. Il segno e l’enigma, exhibition catalogue, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice, 1986, pp. 164-65, cat. no. 76, illustrated.

  6. If the head is indeed that of a dead crocodile it would most likely signify lussuria, a vice traditionally associated with Egypt. On the crocodile and Egypt, see R. Lewis, ‘Romans, Egyptians, and Crocodiles,’ in Shakespeare Quarterly, 68.4, 2017, pp. 320-50.

  7. The snake-entwined staff, or rod of Asclepius, is traditionally associated with medicine, and that was the reason why the drawing was described as ‘probably a satire linked to a doctor’ in the Habich sale catalogue.

  8. See Christiansen, op. cit., p. 359.

  9. De Vesme, op. cit., p. 387, cat. no. 21.

  10. G. Knox, Catalogue of the Tiepolo Drawings in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1960, p. 26.

  11. Ibid., p. 61, cat. no. 106, illustrated. Succi (et al.) 

  12. Succi (et al.), Giambattista Tiepolo, op. cit., p. 164. For the drawing, see Knox, Catalogue…, op. cit., p. 50, cat. no. 45, illustrated.