Traces of the Hand

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Traces of the Hand: Master Drawings from the Collection of Frederick and Lucy S. Herman

Caricature and Social Satire

Giuseppe Maria Mitelli or His Workshop
Italian, 1634–1718
The Allegory of Fortune (Le Vicende del Mondo), c. 1678
Pen and brown ink
25 9/16 x 20 1/16 in, 64.93 x 50.96 cm (sheet)
Inscriptions: (recto) center bottom: "Le vicende del mondo"
Gift of The Frederick and Lucy S. Herman Foundation, 2007.15.8

On two large sheets of thin paper, The Allegory of Fortune depicts a great number of people attempting to scale a large, two-tiered fortified tower, at the top of which is perched the nude figure of Fortune flanked by the winged figures of Time and Death. Fortune’s current favorite rejoices, seated below her feet on the wheel of fortune, and surrounded by Fortune’s favored few in the top level of the tower. Figures representing many classes and professions—a painter and a musician at left among them—strive to erect or climb ladders to ascend to the first level and then to the second. Some attack one another (notably two academics at left); a few help their fellow strugglers; a number fall with Death’s arrow in their chests. An inscription at the bottom of the sheet, "Le vicende del mondo," or the "The ups and downs of the world," succinctly conveys this work’s pessimistic view of Fate’s capriciousness and human struggles for wealth, power, and status.

Like many drawings in this collection, The Allegory of Fortune is related to printed material, in this case, two Italian popular prints, a sixteenth-century woodcut attributed by Miles Chappell to Cristofano Bertelli and an etching by Giuseppe Maria Mitellli dated 1678.1 Like the etching, the Herman drawing reverses the Bertelli woodcut, but is otherwise very close to Mitelli’s etching except that it lacks the many inscriptions on the etching. The absence of texts might suggest that the Herman drawing was a working study for the etching rather than a copy of the etching, since we might expect an otherwise meticulous copy to include the many labels. The drawing also lacks the tree seen at the top in the print versions of the composition, which renders pointless the presence of the men with the poles in the top of the tower who try to knock riches down from the tree.2 Chappell identified specific stylistic differences from Mitelli’s known drawings, leading him to propose that the drawing is, in fact, a copy of the etching.3 Another possible explanation for this drawing is that it is a copy made in Mitelli’s shop to preserve the original composition, which would be damaged in the process of transfer to the plate.4

In addition to reversing Bertelli’s woodcut, both drawing and etching change the earlier composition by replacing all the monks, bishops, and other clerics in the woodcut with a variety of characters, among them Turkish monarchs and soldiers. Chappell may well be correct in assuming that the clerical figures were removed because of the pressures of the Counter-Reformation; but in the second half of the seventeenth century the Turkish threat was very much on the minds of many Europeans. The choice to include Turks may well have had a topical appeal to the contemporary market.5

Katherine Baker

 

1. For the Bertelli woodcut and Mitelli’s etching, see Miles Chappell, "A Print of the Tower of Fortune Attributed to Cristofano Bertelli," Arte cristiana, 78, 1990, 43–50. For the etching, see also Franca Varignana, Le collezioni d’arte della Cassa di Risparmio in Bologna: Le incisioni, I. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, Bologna, 1978, 358, no. 168.

2. The dimensions of the drawing are very close to those of the woodcut (63.8 x 50.8 cm.) and of the etching (64.6 x 48.5 cm.).

3. Chappell, "Tower of Fortune," 47.

4. For a discussion of secondary working drawings in the production of prints, see Michael Bury, The Print in Italy, 1550–1620, London, 2001, 14.

5. Mimi Cazort and Catherine Johnston, Bolognese Drawings in North American Collections, 1500–1800, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1982, 112.

 

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