The Italian artist Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804) was one of nine children of the great 18th-century Venetian master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770). He spent the first half of his life by his father’s side, learning the ropes by assisting him with commissions as they travelled across Europe together.
Domenico worked with him on the interior decorative schemes for the Würzburg Residence and Villa Valmarana near Vicenza, as well as a spectacular series of trompe l’oeil frescoes for the throne room of Charles III in the Royal Palace in Madrid.
‘By the 1740s, the younger Tiepolo had also begun making his own work, often on biblical themes,’ explains Christie’s Old Master drawings specialist Stijn Alsteens. ‘But it was after 1770, when his father died in Madrid, that Domenico’s art came into its own, especially with three great series of pen and wash drawings.’ Of the three series, Domenico’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Divertimento per li regazzi (‘Entertainment for Children’), also known as the ‘Punchinello’ series.
Consisting of 104 signed and numbered pages (plus a title page now kept at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City) the 1790s work follows the life of Punchinello, a hook-noosed, humpbacked clown whose origins lie in Neapolitan popular theatre, or commedia dell’arte. Punchinello was the inspiration for the British puppet character Punch, of Punch and Judy fame.
One hundred and three pages from the series, which Alsteens likens to a comic novel, were discovered unbound in 1920 at an auction in London. They were bought by the gallery Colnaghi for £610. (Sheet No. 91 has always been missing).
The group was subsequently sold to Richard Owen, a British dealer based in Paris, who exhibited them in full in 1921 at the city’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Not long afterwards he began to sell the sheets off in small groups, or sometimes individually.
‘It wasn’t until the 1986 publication of Adelheid Gealt’s book Domenico Tiepolo: The Punchinello Drawings that the series was ever documented and reproduced in full,’ adds Alsteens.
On 3 December, during Classic Week in London, Christie’s sold six ink drawings from Tiepolo’s Punchinello series for £791,250 in London They were originally from a group of 12 acquired from Owen by the art historian Brinsley Ford between 1936 and 1937, via Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi of Florence.
The first sheet, No. 1 from the series, shows the birth of Punchinello’s father. Hatching from a turkey’s egg, he crawls into the world surrounded by other characters wearing Punchinello’s signature costume, including his tall, white ‘sugar-loaf’ hat.
The second sheet, No. 28, shows a group of Punchinellos playing battledore and shuttlecock (a forerunner of badminton), while the third, No. 47, shows Punchinello being abducted by an eagle in front of panicked onlookers.
On the fourth sheet, No. 51, above, a group of Punchinellos are shown at a market stall overflowing with apples, melons and gourds. The specialist draws attention to the activities of two Punchinellos on the far left of the picture.
Page No. 56 shows some mischievous Punchinellos in a carpenters’ workshop, while the final sheet in the group, No. 85, depicts a group of Punchinellos feasting on their favourite food, gnocchi.
The pots used to cook gnocchi often feature in these drawings. ‘The title page even shows a tomb covered in gnocchi pots, which are similar in shape to Punchinello’s hat,’ explains the specialist.
‘We don’t know why he made the work, or whether it was for his family or a private patron,’ comments Alsteens. ‘The auction records from the 1920 sale are lost, so we are unable to trace the drawings back any farther.’
Many of the sheets from the series are today housed in museums. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cleveland Museum of Art both have nine, five are at the Morgan Library and two are in the J. Paul Getty Museum. The British Museum holds two drawings, and the Ashmolean and the Louvre one each. The sale of these six drawings therefore marks an opportunity to acquire a collection larger than those three museums combined.
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‘The Punchinello series is Tiepolo’s last and greatest work,’ Alsteens says. ‘These drawings were made as the 18th century was coming to a close and the artist’s native Venetian Republic was in decline. They celebrate and mourn the end of Venice’s sense of frivolity.’
Three of the drawings will be on view in Taipei (9-10 November), then in Hong Kong (22-25 November). Three others will be shown in Paris (12-17 November). All six will be reunited for a preview in London between 29 November and 3 December, ahead of their auction in the Old Masters Evening Sale.