Newsletter Archive: Spring 2008
Assessing Italian Prints: The Views of Visiting Curator Michael Bury
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