The Renaissance fortune-telling book goes baroque
202. [Stefano della Bella, after]. Spirito, Lorenzo (ca. 1425-1496)
Libro della Ventura. Manuscript drawn and calligraphed in brown ink, in Italian. Italy (possibly Florence?) ca. 1650.
295x284 mm. I + 48 + I leaves. Complete. Six quires. Collation: 110, 26-1, 36, 44, 510, 616-3. Beautiful allegorical title leaf, surrounded by a cornucopia in the form of a garland, with richly festooned garlands draped over the upper portion of the frame. On the verso of the title leaf, introductory text held by three putti and a bust labelled 'Lorenzo In', an homage to the inventor of the game (the bust reappears at a slightly different angle bearing the full 'Lorenzo Inventi' on fol. 22r). The following leaves are finely illustrated with full-page and double-page ink drawings within elaborate frames, depicting – according the widespread iconography of fortune-telling books – kings, wheels of fortune, and prophets (see below). Calligraphic text in a single hand, drawings most likely in two. Each leaf has been 'tabbed' and labelled in the outer right margin to facilitate game playing. Seventeenth-century calf, over pasteboards. Covers within gilt frieze, spine divided into seven compartments by gilt fillets. Later endleaves, the original flyleaves preserved, bearing some essays with a compass. Manuscript in good condition, three leaves (including the title leaf) extended to fit the size of the volume, several others with repairs to the lower and outer margin, occasionally affecting the drawings and/or labels.
The manuscript contains:
-ten full-page drawings of busts of kings placed upon pedestals and within decorative rectangular frames; twenty full-page tables of dice bearing at the centre a small drawing showing each figure of the game (real or imaginary animals, zodiac signs, emblems, etc.);
-twenty full-page drawings of wheels of fortune, again with each figure placed at the centre, set before largely pastoral landscapes. Under each wheel is a vignette with scenes of travellers, putti, castles, etc.; twenty double-page spreads dedicated to the prophets, featuring the prophet's portrait on the first page set within a garland, extensive calligraphic text in terzine that carries through both pages, and a highly inventive 'carpet' drawing at the bottom of the second page.
All drawings included here are within elaborate ornamental frames, surmounted by banderoles that identify the passage or figure depicted below.
Provenance: ownership inscription inked out, and almost illegible, on the front flyleaf, 'Venne alla [...] di detto libro in Venezia dal Signor G[...] D[...] go'.
A very refined seventeenth-century manuscript containing the Libro della Ventura by Lorenzo Spirito, first printed in Bologna in 1482 – one of the most popular printed fortune-telling books of the Renaissance and here profusely embellished with high-quality ink drawings that beautifully exemplify the organic ornamentality of the Baroque.
The manuscript text is copied from the printed edition nearly verbatim, as are the major figures and motifs (kings and fortune wheels, for example) thus allowing for standard game play. However, the illustrations themselves are far more embellished and in the manner of the prominent Italian draughtsman and printmaker Stefano della Bella (1610-1664). A prolific artist, della Bella was particularly well known for the vastness of his subject matter which ranged from wittily inventive ornamental plates, frontispieces, and illustrations for theatre productions, to present-day and historically bent scenes of the military arts and the royal court, to metaphoric representations of skeletons during the plague and a plethora of capricci. Indeed, so varied was della Bella's work that he was even commissioned to produce four sets of educational playing cards for the young Louis XIV covering history, mythology, and geography.
The breadth of figures, motifs, scenes, and ornament that permeate the pages of the manuscript presented here is equally impressive, particularly given the overall coherency and unity of form established throughout. This careful balance also points up an important feature of della Bella's style: in his youth, the Florentine artist had been an ardent follower of the technically exquisite Jacques Callot (ca. 1592–1635), but his stay in Paris between 1639 and 1650 witnessed the development of his own unique style suffuse with supple, lyrical lines and almost mannerist figuration. The artist was also keen to work en plein air as much as possible, imbuing his rhythmical forms with a marked sense of spontaneity that is certainly to the fore in the present illustrations. In more particular details, too, the master's style is everywhere evident; thematically, for example, in the small, elaborately costumed figures in fancy headdresses that recall his interest in Rembrandt, or in the array of animals that enliven the page as they scamper across imaginative landscapes (in fact, della Bella was undertaking a series of etched animal portraits right around the date we propose our manuscript was produced, and certain animals, such as the deer and eagles, demonstrate remarkable similarity to those included in his series). Formally, too, the remarkable sense of luminosity and texture evident in the hair, feathers, grass, leaves, and sky – achieved through sure, painterly yet delicate strokes economically and efficiently employed to let the white ground come through – is practically signature della Bella. A further point to the level of creativity demonstrated in this manuscript: the 'carpet' drawings mentioned above bear no evident relation to the illustrations in any printed edition of the book.
The visual coherency of this manuscript is strengthened still by the unity of 'disegno' between the drawings and the three columns of calligraphic text, such that one may infer that artist(s) and calligrapher worked in close collaboration. This is nowhere more evident than in the magnificent title leaf or the drawing on the following verso. The opening leaf gives the title in Roman capitals, beneath which are some introductory verses, not present in the received text. The text proper begins on the verso of the same leaf ('Qui comincia il libro'), and is neatly disposed on a curtain, a common feature of Baroque, held at the top by three putti.
While there were at least twelve Italian editions of Spirito's text – all now exceptionally rare (see no. 42) – the source for the present manuscript remains unknown. Comparison with the printed editions nonetheless suggests the basic trajectory: schematic woodcut figures (with frequent re-uses of the same block) are replaced by the individuation of figures, often with orientalizing, 'a l'antica', or historicizing detail, and by fine modeling and minute cross-hatching. Artistically, the 'carpet' drawings, which occupy a quarter to half of the lower margin, are among the most inventive in the album. Subjects include capricci, pastoral scenes of animals, seascapes, landscapes, fortified cities, and putti at play. A few are emblematic: one in which three putti seem to be playing a game involving a certain number of coins hidden under a hat (fol. 29r), with one of the three (the loser?) in tears; or another in which a small putto appears to be suckling an antlered deer (fol. 32r).
We suggest the motive for the present manuscript was the production of a luxury object, probably for presentation, rather than simply a 'copy' of an increasingly rare printed text. The carefully cut tabs in the right margins make it clear that it was to be played as a game, and minor defects suggest other signs of use. The drawings were clearly made on individual sheets and then bound; although the paper stock is uniform, the sizes of the individual leaves are not, hence some irregularity in the fore-edges, a few of which are gauffered.
The manuscript ends with what, in retrospect, seems a joke: in a later hand is written a colophon imitating that of a printed book and stating that the text was written and personally copied by Lorenzo Spirito and illustrated by his countryman Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), followed by a date which is sheer nonsense.
A. de Vesme - P. D. Massar, Stefano della Bella. Catalogue raisonné, Milano 1906 (New York 1971); T. De Marinis, “Le illustrazioni per il Libro de le Sorte di Lorenzo Spirito”, Idem, Appunti e ricerche bibliografiche, Milano 1940, pp. 67-83; A. Blunt, The Drawings of G.B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, London 1954; P. D. Massar, Presenting Stefano della Bella, Seventeenth-Century Printmaker, Greenwich, CT 1971; L. Hartmann, “Capriccio”. Bild und Begriff, Nürnberg 1973; C. Limentani Virdis, Disegni di Stefano della Bella, Sassari 1975; M. Catelli Isola (ed.), Disegni di Stefano della Bella 1610-1664. Dalle collezioni del Gabinetto Nazionale delle Stampe, Roma, Villa della Farnesina alla Lungara, 4 febbraio – 30 aprile 1976 (exhibition catalogue), Roma 1976; Le carte da gioco di Stefano della Bella (1610-1664), Firenze 1977; T. Ortolani (ed.), Stefano della Bella. Aggiornamento al “Catalogue raisonné” di A. de Vesme e Ph. D. Massar, 1996; L. Nadin, Carte da gioco e letteratura fra Quattro e Ottocento, Lucca 1997; D. Klemm, Stefano della Bella (1610-1664). Zeichnungen aus dem Kupferstichkabinett der Hamburger Kunsthalle, Köln-Weimar-Wien 2009; D. Klemm (ed.), Von der Schönheit der Linie. Stefano della Bella als Zeichner. Hamburger Kunsthalle 25. Oktober 2013 bis 26. Januar 2014, Petersberg 2013; Philobiblon, One Thousand Years of Bibliophily, no. 202.