As Visiting Curator of Prints, under the auspices of the Research Forum, I spent part of January and most of February working systematically through The Courtauld collection of Italian prints of the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I had been asked to try to assess the overall strengths and weaknesses of the collection. The Gallery is very interested indeed in encouraging the use of the collections, especially by students and staff at the Institute but also by others from outside. I was asked to think about how that could be achieved for the prints.

The prints included in my survey were to be Italian, but I interpreted Italian in the most generous way to include non-Italian printmakers working in Italy and printmakers outside Italy working with Italian compositions or subject matter. The Courtauld Gallery’s Italian prints are constituted from four collections given to the Institute: those of Antoine Seilern, Anthony Blunt, Johannes Wilde and Robert Witt. They consist of single-sheet prints and albums of various kinds. Some of the absolute highlights came from Count Seilern, whose etchings and chiaroscuro woodcuts connected with Parmigianino, for example, form an especially fine and impressive group. His copy of the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae, an album of prints recording the monuments of ancient and modern Rome, put together at Rome around 1575, is outstanding. Quite different are the prints that came from Robert Witt’s collection, bought to be put into the boxes of his image-library. For him, quality was not an issue: his prints served a strictly documentary purpose and were therefore of no greater or lesser value than black and white photographs cut out of modern sale catalogues. It was only around 1990 that the prints were rescued from the Witt boxes and transferred to the Print Room. They form a very varied collection, with extremely poor and second-rate objects alongside really fine and valuable ones. In the context of a study/teaching collection, the poor and the second rate may have considerable importance because they can illustrate aspects of prints and printmaking that beautiful etchings by Parmigianino cannot.

This is a resource of great potential. Apart from providing material for the study of prints themselves, it can assist the art historian in so many other ways. To give some very limited examples: here can be found crucial visual evidence about lost works by artists like Raphael and Polidoro da Caravaggio, records of the original appearance of great monuments like the buildings and gardens of the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati, and documents for the history of the reception of artists like Michelangelo, Titian and Annibale Carracci. The key problem that needs solving is how to make detailed information about the contents of the collection publicly available – preferably on-line – and thereby allow all potential users access to knowledge of what is there.

Michael Bury, University of Edinburgh

Visiting Curator Michael Bury