A new discovery in the print tradition of the Songes Drolatiques Allemands

[Custos, Dominicus, attributed to].

Songes Drolatiques Allemands. Set of twenty-six engravings. [Augsburg, after 1597].

[Custos, Dominicus, attributed to] Songes Drolatiques Allemands. Set of twenty-six engravings. [Augsburg, after 1597].

A complete suite of twenty-six plates (108-121x77-90 mm), in the second state of three. Each plate with 4-9-mm margins on all four sides. Plates numbered I-XXVI, at the bottom centre of each plate. Plate XII is signed with the unidentified monogram 'SBR' in reverse, and with the letter 'A' on the left side of the Roman number. Good impressions, very fresh.

Exceptionally rare and complete suite of engravings attributed to the Flemish printer and engraver Dominicus Custos (1560-1612), active in Augsburg from 1590, here in their second, previously unrecorded state. A precious survey of the ornamental grotesque in late sixteenth-century-German graphic art, and an unusually playful testimony to the charm of some of the most imaginative and remarkable 'translations' of sixteenth-century French illustration.

Until the discovery of this second-state set, only one copy of the first state (Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Cabinet des Estampes, Res. Tf-1-Fold, Marolles N° 222), and only an incomplete copy of what is now considered to be the third state (held at the Schloss Wolffegg, Kupferstichkabinett, but possibly now lost) were known.

The Parisian, first-state edition of the Songes Drolatiques Allemands contains a proper printed title-page – Les Songes Drolatiques de Pantagruel ou sont continues plusieurs figures de l'invention de Maistre Francois Rabelais... Imprimé en Augustae Vindelicorum par Iean Pretoir, en despens du Dominique Custodis. M.D.XCVII – based on which art historians have attributed the role of the publication's engraver, or at least its financial backer, to the Flemish artist and printer Dominicus Custos.

Apart from the printed title-page, this first state consists of fifteen single oblong sheets (measuring 154-169x105-121 mm) and mounted by Abbé Marolles (Michel de Marolles, 1600-1681) in a large album, including also a copy of Lucini's Caramogi (see no. 193). Of these, nine sheets contain only one horizontally oriented copperplate, while the remaining six each contain two vertically oriented engravings. The first five plates bear Arabic numerals on the left sides (only the number '4' is still visible in the second state, pl. XI); the subsequent plates 6-9 bear respectively the Arabic numbering 1-4 (with only the numbers '1' and '2' still visible in the second state, pls. V and IV, respectively). These nine engravings of the first state are evidently a new invention by the artist, whereas the remaining six sheets, with two engravings each, are unnumbered, and inspired by the woodcuts included in the Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel, a work attributed to Jean Rabelais and published in 1565 by François Desprez (see the woodcuts on fols. E4r, C4v, D4v, A4v, B7v, C5r, B8r, D8v, C7v, C8r, A5r, and D5r, corresponding to plates XV-XXVI of the second state). These new plates show brilliant combinations of fantastical elements, demonstrating the influence of themes of the so-called 'world upside down' (die verkehrte Welt), and the iconographical tradition known as Schnacken (dragonflies).

For the second state, presented here, the printmaker re-used the first eight copperplates from the first state, each of which contained two figures and was horizontally oriented; he divided these approximately into halves, making an effort to respect the entirety of a given engraving's two figures. He did not use the two small, off-centre images on the fifth and eighth plates, nor that on the ninth, owing to the fact that this was integral to – and thus 'inseparable' from – the original composition. In this way, the printer was able to obtain fourteen vertically oriented, single-figure copperplates. He then used all twelve of the vertically oriented single-figure copperplates from the first state (which had been printed in twos), to arrive, finally, at the total twenty-six single plates.

Each of the second and third state 'vertical' copperplates are set within newly engraved line-border, and are numbered at the bottom with Roman numerals (I to XXVI) which do not correspond to their 'original' placement in the first state.

In the third state – the sole surviving copy of which contains only plates I-II and IV-XXVI – each plate is supplemented by a German moralising quatrain variously engraved in the spaces left empty by the figures.

This newly discovered second-state set is a true testament to the wit and imagination of the Songes drolatiques as well as a critical piece for understanding the evolution of its legacy following the initial Rabelais publication. In this way, it is also a powerful lens into the creative process, offering tangible evidence of the way artists engage with art and its dynamic, multi-layered history.

J. Porcher, “L'auteur des Songes drolatiques de Pantagruel”, Mélanges offert à A. Lanfranc, Paris 1936, pp. 229, 232; Idem, Les songes drolatiques de Pantagruel et l'imagerie en France au XVIe siècle, Paris 1959; J. Baltrusaitis, Réveil et prodiges. Le gothique fantastique, Paris 1960, pp. 348-351 ; E.-M. Schenck, Das Bilderrätsel, Hildesheim 1973, pp. 86, 303; C.-P. Warncke Die ornamental Groteske in Deutschland, 1500-1650, Berlin 1979, I, pp. 71-4, and pls. 628-52; S. Laube, “Songes drolatiques and die Realität der Dinge bei Rabelais and Bruegel”, H. Bredekamp et al. (eds.), Imagination und Rapräsentation, Paderborn 2010, pp. 259-276; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 173.

$ 125.000