Looking through the notes in my copy of the Mira Calligraphiæ Monumenta I found reference to a series of grotesque designs by one Cornelis Floris that had been engraved by his compatriot Frans Huys ca. 1555. There was only a minimum of information to be found about either man, but a review of a 1996 exhibition entitled The Grotesque: Ornamental Prints from the British Museum in which these artists’ collaboration was mentioned, led me on to other things.
My eye was drawn to a paragraph about an artist called Giovanni Battista Bracelli, who had apparently been active in Florence, Rome and Naples, between 1624 and 1649. In Florence in 1624 he had dedicated to the Medici thirty-two plates gathered under the title Bizzarie di varie figure. The title of this album was, the review said, most apt, as the figure studies therein were bizarre indeed, somewhat reminiscent, if anything, of the works of De Chirico, only three centuries before the fact.
Naturally I went looking for some examples of Bracelli’s work, finding a complete electronic edition of the Bizzarrie…, and also a more accessible selection of the figure-studies themselves, hidden somewhere at this site.
This vellum-bound curiosity is one of the rarest and most mysterious etching suites of the late Renaissance. The creation of an almost unknown Florentine painter and engraver, it languished in near-total obscurity until it was rediscovered in modern times. A remarkable precursor of the radical artistic movements of the twentieth century, this rare show of visual oddities is filled with fabulous and jocund variations on the human form, constructed from an hallucinatory variety of animate and inanimate components.
The Bizzarie can rightly lay claim to being a prime exemplar of the artistic enigma—a work truly without precedent or explanation beside itself. Its sensuous imagery, occupying a dreamlike space between thought and form, made it an underground sensation amongst twentieth-century artists and connoisseurs. The art historian Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-83) was instrumental in the rediscovery of Braccelli, and the poet Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) drew parallels between these etchings and the revolutionary artistic agendas of Dada and Surrealism. - Sue Welsh Reed.