Bacchanal with Silenus

Bacchanal with Silenus
engraving, circa 1470-75, on laid paper, watermark Basilisk (Martineau 1; see Briquet 2629-79), a very fine, rich impression of this very rare and important print, one of only a few lifetime impressions in existence, trimmed partially into the subject on all sides, paper losses at the upper left and right corners, the sheet backed
Sheet 267 x 408 mm.
Dr Christian David Ginsburg (1831-1914), Palmer's Green (Lugt 1145); his sale, Sotheby’s, London, 20-23 July 1915, lot 314 (with two others: ‘Combat of Marine Deities’ and ‘Bacchanals at a wine-press’) (£15-10; to Meynell).
With Everard Meynell (1882-1926), London.
Private Collection, Milan.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
Hind 3; Bartsch 20; Martineau 75

P. Kristeller, Andrea Mantegna, London & New York, 1901.
J. Martineau (ed.), S. Boorsch, D. Landau (et al.), Andrea Mantegna, Royal Academy of Art, London, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992.
R. Signorini, ‘New Findings about Andrea Mantegna: His Son Ludovico's Post-Mortem Inventory (1510)’, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 59 (1996), pp. 111-112.
A. Canova, ‘Gian Marco Cavalli incisore per Andrea Mantegna e altre notizie sull’oreficeria e la tipografia a Mantova nel XV secolo’, in: Italia medioevale e umanistica, no. 42, 2001, pp. 149-179.
S. Fletcher, ‘A Closer Look at Mantegna’s Prints’, in: Print Quarterly, vol. XXIII, 2001, no. 1, 2001, pp. 3-41.

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Stefano Franceschi
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Lot Essay

The rediscovery of this impression of The Bacchanal with Silenus by Andrea Mantegna offers a rare opportunity to acquire an early impression of one of the most important works of 15th-century Italian printmaking, by one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance. Together with its companion piece, The Bacchanal with a Wine Vat, printed from the verso of the same plate, it is among the most sophisticated engravings of Mantegna’s printed oeuvre. Of all the prints associated with the artist, his workshop or school, The Bacchanal with Silenus is one of a small number of prints now firmly attributed to Mantegna himself. As early as 1550, Giorgio Vasari stated that the artist had created seven prints, a view that was later supported and elaborated by Paul Kristeller in 1901. Subsequently, in the catalogue of the important Mantegna exhibition of 1992 (Royal Academy, London & Metropolitan Museum, New York), David Landau extended this group to a total of eleven prints made by Mantegna himself, all probably created during the 1470s.
He assumed that later in his career, probably in the 1490s, Mantegna commissioned a professional engraver to produce prints after his designs, and referred to this anonymous printmaker as the ‘Premier Engraver’. The discovery, in 2000, of a contract from 1475 between the artist and the goldsmith Gian Marco Cavalli (circa 1454–after 1508) in the state archives of Mantua confirmed Mantegna’s collaboration with at least one engraver. This remarkable document did not, however, specify any prints made by Cavalli - nor did it rule out that Mantegna had made some engravings himself. (A. Canova, ‘Gian Marco Cavalli incisore per Andrea Mantegna e altre notizie sull’oreficeria e la tipografia a Mantova nel XV secolo’, in: Italia medioevale e umanistica, no. 42, 2001, pp. 149-179.)
Following this documentary evidence, Shelley Fletcher in 2001 published the results of her microscopic examination of the seven plates traditionally attributed to Mantegna and the four questionable plates (S. Fletcher, ‘A Closer Look at Mantegna’s Prints’, in: Print Quarterly, vol. XXIII, 2001, no. 1, 2001, pp. 3-41). The comparison revealed subtle but distinct differences in the engraving technique between the two groups: she identified a single hand on the plates of the core group, and two separate hands on the four additional plates - presumably Cavalli and another, unknown engraver.
For Fletcher, the detailed analysis of the engraving style of each of seven prints of the core group strongly suggested that they were indeed created by the artist himself. Two findings in particular convinced her of Mantegna’s authorship:
Firstly, the presence of some very fine, compositional lines or ‘sketching-in’ strokes, which may have been done with a metal-point pen or needle rather than a burin, suggests that the artist was developing the composition and putting guiding lines for subsequent engraved work directly on the plates. These lines are present in most of the seven core prints, but often covered with the heavier burin lines which fill in and complete the image. A professional engraver working from a finished preparatory drawing would not have required such under-drawing on the plate.
Secondly, Fletcher detected a stylistic and technical development from one plate to another, beginning with The Risen Christ and the Entombment, followed by the Bacchanal with the Wine Vat, the Bacchanal with Silenus, the two sides of the Battle of the Sea Gods, and finally the Virgin and Child. She described how the engraver moved from relatively simple and repetitive marks, in particular diagonal hatching in the shaded areas, towards an increasingly complex, graphic ‘vocabulary’. While The Risen Christ already shows fine hatched lines parallel to and in between the broader lines – a trait common to all the core prints – the engraver in the following plates develops a system of broader and finer strokes placed at a V-shaped angle to each other, suggestive of a back-and-forth movement that would be impossible to perform with the burin. It seems clear that the artist slowly worked up the plates by layering lines and hatching, to create three-dimensionality, depth and atmosphere, and that he perfected the way to achieve these effects from plate to plate. Shelley Fletcher found such minute stylistic differences even between the two Bacchanals, with the complexity and flexibility of the engraved strokes culminating in the Bacchanal with Silenus: ‘The Bacchanal with Silenus is the fulcrum around which the questions, and perhaps the solutions, surrounding Mantegna attributions can be discussed and analysed. For example [the] beautifully rendered slanted cross-stroke seen in Pan’s puffed-out cheek is not seen in earlier core-group engravings. Its introduction offers the artist more flexibility in rendering the shading of rounded forms.’ (Fletcher, p. 27)
According to David Landau, ‘total mastery of chiaroscuro was finally achieved in a group of extraordinary prints, the greatest images in black and white of the Italian Renaissance’ (Landau, p. 48). However, it seems that it is indeed the subtlety and variety of Mantegna’s engraving technique and not his use of drypoint, as Landau thought, which creates the rich and soft tonal effects of these prints. Yet, as far as the durability of the plates is concerned, the result was very similar: the very fine, engraved ‘in-between’ lines of shading wore out just as quickly as drypoint lines and very few good impressions could be pulled. Landau thus rightly observed that only ‘a handful of early impressions of prints by Mantegna’ have survived (Landau, p. 53). When it came to his own prints, it seems that Mantegna was not much interested in producing large editions. Instead, as a new technique with its own formal possibilities, it allowed him to explore the tonal effects of shading and inking in a way that drawing or painting did not.
A number of Mantegna’s printing plates were part of the estate of the artist’s son Ludovico (1460-1510). The inventory of 1510 is an extraordinary source of information and indicates that his father had been in possession of some of the printing plates, including the one of the two Bacchanals ('uno stampo ut supra cum le istorie de Bacho da ogni canto') until the end of his life.
(R. Signorini, ‘New Findings about Andrea Mantegna: His Son Ludovico's Post-Mortem Inventory (1510)’, in: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 59 (1996), pp. 111-112.)
Six of these plates found their way to France, possibly with Primaticcio or another artist from Mantua travelling to Fontainebleau, where they were reprinted from around 1540 onwards. The vast majority of impressions from these plates are such later reprints. These appear regularly on the market and can be identified by the French paper on which they are printed and by a rather hard and flat, lifeless appearance, with only the bold outlines and the heaviest shading still printing.

Lifetime impressions of The Bacchanal with Silenus, such as the present one, are of the greatest rarity. To our knowledge, only five early, lifetime impressions are in major public or private collections:
1) British Museum, London (inv. no. V,1.64; trimmed, some losses and defects,
the left subject edge made up, backed)
2) Victoria & Albert Museum, London (inv. no. 071958; trimmed, some losses
and stains)
3) Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (printed in brown ink, watermark Basilisk,
subject complete)
4) Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kupferstichkabinett, Dresden (inv. no. 87056;
printed in sanguine (?), watermark Basilisk, trimmed, some losses and defects)
5) Collection of the Dukes of Devonshire, Chatsworth, Derbyshire (watermark Basilisk,
slightly trimmed, minor defects)

The Basilisk watermark of the present, previously unrecorded impression is the earliest watermark found in Mantegna’s prints and drawings. It identifies it beyond doubt as an impression printed in Northern Italy, probably between 1470 and 1480. According to the census of watermarks by Boorsch and Landau in the 1992 catalogue, the Basilisk watermark only appears in a total of ten early impressions: of the Entombment, The Bacchanal with Silenus, and the two sides of the Battle of the Sea Gods. It also occurs on two drawings by the artist, The Risen Christ (Graphische Sammlung, Munich, inv. no. 3065 Z) and Mars, Diana and Iris (?) (British Museum, London, inv. no. 1861,0810.2). As the present sheet is tightly backed, the watermark can only be seen clearly in extreme raking light. It is most similar to, although not identical with, the watermarks recorded as Briquet 2669 (first documented in Mantua, dated 1459) and Briquet 2670 (first documented in Ferrara, dated 1469). The same or very similar watermarks can be found in the sheets of the impressions in Paris, Dresden and at Chatsworth. It is not recorded whether the impressions at the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum have watermarks, and they could not be examined from the reverse.
No early impression with a full plate edge on all sides is known. The Paris impression is the most complete, all other impressions are trimmed into the subject to varying degrees, and show some losses and tears. The present sheet has suffered two large losses in the mainly blank upper corners and is trimmed into the subject on all sides, but majority of the image is remarkably intact and well preserved.
All six examples, including the present one, are quite different in character and inking. The impression in Dresden is the lightest and appears to be printed in sanguine. The Paris impression is slightly darker, but also printed in a brownish ink; it is perhaps the clearest of all. The British Museum impression is printed in brownish-black and shows more intense contrasts. The impression at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the present one are both printed in black. The Victoria & Albert impression is the darkest, but appears over-inked and lacking definition, while the present one is sharper and clearer, especially in the dark background of the reeds and tree trunks, with all the fine shading printing distinctly. The Chatsworth impression could not be seen for this comparison.
Images of the examples in Dresden, London and Paris are available upon request.

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