October 21, 2007


Seeing a post about Giorgio Ghisi’s engraving Allegoria della Vita Umana (‘Allegory of Human Life,’ also known—like an earlier engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi—as ‘The Dream of Raphael’) at John Coulthart’s feuilleton weblog, led me to seek more information about this printmaker, and, ultimately, led me to buy a book about his work: Paolo Bellini’s L’opera Incisa de Giorgio Ghisi, published in 1998 by Tassotti Editore of Bassano del Grappa. The following images are details of scans of the works illustrated in this book.

Detail from 'Silenus Sleeping,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, 1540s.


Detail from 'The Vision of Ezekiel,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, early 1550s(?).

Ghisi was born in Mantua in 1520, to which city his ancestors had moved from Parma a century before. Many in the Ghisi clan were notaries, while others, like Giorgio’s father Ludovico, were merchants. The engraver’s childhood and youth coincided with the construction and decoration of the Palazzo del Te, under the supervision of Giulio Romano. From about 1535, it is thought that Ghisi studied engraving with one Giovanni Battista Scultori, whose workshop was largely dedicated to reproducing Romano’s designs. Ghisi’s earliest known prints can be dated to the early 1540s.

Detail from 'Venus Pricked by the Thorns on a Rose-Bush,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, mid-1550s.


Detail from 'Apollo Among the Muses,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, 1556/7.

Ghisi lived and worked in Rome for a few years in the late 1540s, where it is likely he met the renowned Flemish artist & printseller Hieronymus Cock. He relocated to Antwerp ca. 1550, to work at Cock’s print shop Au Quatre Vents (‘At the Four Winds’). From about 1554 Ghisi was in France, ‘working with Fontainebleau artists like Luca Penni and Primaticcio and presenting works by Giulio Romano, Raphael, and Michelangelo to Northern print-collectors and painters.’ Ghisi returned to Mantua in the late 1560s, where he remained until his death in 1582.

Detail from 'Allegory of Life's Destiny,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, 1558/9.


Detail from 'Hercules Resting After his Labours,' an engraving by Giorgio Ghisi, early 1570s(?).

The present images are (i) ‘Silenus Sleeping,’ one of Ghisi’s earliest surviving prints, after a design by Giulio Romano; (ii) ‘The Vision of Ezekiel,’ which follows an original by Giovan Battista Bertani; (iii) ‘Venus Pricked by the Thorns on a Rose-Bush’ and (iv) ‘Apollo Among the Muses,’ both of which are modelled on works by Luca Penni; (v) ‘Allegory of Life’s Destiny,’ which is thought to be based on a lost design of Romano’s, and, (vi) ‘Hercules Resting After his Labours,’ which again carries the influence of Romano, but is meanwhile, in the detail of the landscape in the background, reminiscent of the work of Flemish painters such as Marten Heemskerck.

Posted by misteraitch at October 21, 2007 04:13 PM

The stampede to your final post is causing people to overlook this one... The engravings look amazing. Does Bellini's book explain the allegories?

Posted by: e.b. on October 25, 2007 02:51 PM

e.b.—in the case of the ‘Allegory of Human Life,’ Ghisi himself provided a partial explanation in a short Latin text incorporated into the engraving’s seventh and last known state: ‘When a man is born, he finds himself in a place of horror and desolate solitude; sea, land, air and fire all threaten him with death; among so many monsters, he who trusts in God walks secure; surrounded on all sides by serpents, hostile forces and enemies, he who trusts in God’s mercy will be protected, freed and exalted.’

Bellini supposes it to have been based on a drawing or painting now lost, and relates several of the hypotheses that have been advanced to explain it: it is a (relatively) straightfoward allegory on human life; it has a ‘Virgilian’-Neoplatonic interpretation; it’s an alchemical allegory; it somehow represents the temptations of St. Anthony; it is based on the first verses of the Divina Commedia; it derives from Ovid’s description of the meeting between Iris and Somnus in the Metamorphoses; it’s an allegory of the liberation of the soul; etc., etc.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 27, 2007 08:03 PM

And regarding the ‘Allegory of Life’s Destiny,’ there is, again, a cryptic clue, courtesy of the Latin text in the lower-right of the image, which apparently translates as ‘Above all it is important that you be received by that genius that the mother of Memnon fans and what torches life lights for you.’ Bellini describes three interpretations. The first is that it’s a ‘generic’ allegory of birth; and the second that it specifically depicts of the birth of Memnon, with his mother Aurora/Eos apparently being depicted twice, as the exhausted (or moribund) woman in the bed, and the figure sitting on the ground on the left, and with the lady in the strange headgear apparently representing Cybele. The third interpretation is a more prosaic, political one, in which the lady in the hat represents the city of Mantua, and that the child is a newborn Gonzaga prince.

Posted by: misteraitch on October 27, 2007 08:40 PM
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