Many thanks for your answers to last week’s post. They convey the puzzling nature of this title page border: Is it an unfinished work? Was it intended to be completed by readers of the book? Does it look different in other copies?
To our eyes, indeed, the border design may look incomplete: the figures in the foreground, which we would expect to be highly finished, are either barely ‘legible’, suggested or simply not worked out. Yet, as Dawn has remarked, the skillfully engraved lines convey a sense of design to the image as a whole. The more we look at it and the more we notice things. At first, the eyes focus on areas of dense crosshatched or parallel lines, which contrast sharply with the blank spaces around them. Then we start noticing the figures suggested by engraved lines depicting the folds of their clothes and their hair, which seem to respond to the pen-like figures.
The fact that the title and imprint of the book were engraved on the page also leads to think that this print is not in a proof state as engraved lettering was usually added in the final stage of the design.1
The author of the book, Raffaello Gualterotti (1543-1638), was an aristocrat polymath who evolved in literary and artistic Florentine circles. He is mostly remembered for his correspondence with Galileo and for having been one of the first to mention the use of an instrument similar to a telescope. In 1605, a few years after Il Polemidoro, he published the results of his astronomical observations in a pamphlet on a newly discovered star and on a series of eclipses. All his other publications, though, were literary works and included festival books celebrating several generations of Medici weddings (they were Gualterotti’s patrons).
Gualterotti seems to also have been an accomplished draughtsman although none of his drawings are extant. He used some of them in books he produced in collaboration with other artists. The illustrations in his book celebrating the wedding of Francesco de Medici, were made after his own drawings and served as models for the etchings by the sculptor, printmaker, and poet Accursio Baldi, who was also active at the Medici court.
A few copies of this book show an interest in printmaking experiments with Baldi’s etchings unusually printed in colors most likely to imitate the effect of a hand-painted work.
In his second festival book commemorating Ferdinand I de Medici’s wedding to Christina of Lorraine, Gualterotti had etchings made after paintings created for the wedding celebrations by various artists. These prints look like sketched drawings, reflecting the taste in certain circles for dynamic and less detailed images. They also heavily use contrasts of light between bright and dark areas. Although very different, Il Polemidoro‘s title page employed similar stylistic techniques.
Il Polemidoro is a heroic poem inspired by Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata. The engraved title page is the only image in the book. In his address to the reader, Gualterotti does not mention it but he indicates that his book includes only a third of the poem. Hence, the printed text is also an unfinished work. Later in the poem, further connections appear between the title page and the text, in which Gualterotti compares the world to an unfinished work that the young hero of the poem, Polemidoro, will help transform into gold to reach a divine universe that he compared to a frontispiece in the poem.2
These literary clues point to the intended unfinished look of the title border.
There are examples of renaissance works of art, including a few single sheet prints, which early on became known in an unfinished state. Yet, in very few cases, is it absolutely clear that the artists intended for their work to be seen by others in such condition.3 Among the many questions these works ask, are those of artistic intention at a period when highly finished works were thought to be the most praise-worthy (did artists think that, although unfinished in appearance, their work fulfilled their intention?) and the question of intended circulation. Printmakers could make impressions of images in progress to take a reading of them. Some of these unfinished prints circulated but it was always independently from the artist’s will in the 15th and 16th centuries.4
The Polemidoro title page, no doubt, had a more modest artistic goal: to function somewhat like a visual pun on the content of the book. Aesthetic conventions, though, ruled title page designs and book illustrations. Gualterotti—the author and perhaps the draughtsman of the title border—could afford such unconventional design because he evolved in a small circle of aristocratic literati, who would tolerate and enjoy such a play with norms and viewers’ expectations. But how others who would see and interpret this title page?
There are many copies of this book extant. In some of them, pen and ink drawings have been added to the title page border. Those, which have been digitized, show that details have been added to the foreground figures following the printed sketched lines or modifying them.5 Remarkably, none of these additions disturb the unfinished aspect of the title page border. As John suggested some owners of the book seem to have taken this image as an invitation to add their own design following their imagination without altering its meaning.
Gualterotti never had a chance to publish the rest of his poem although he apparently wrote 33 additional cantos for it and requested financial assistance from the Medici to publish them. We will never know what would have been the appearance of the title page for this subsequent book. As modern viewers, with our own set of conventions and expectations, we are left to puzzle over the border of Il Polemidoro.
- On proofs see https://collation.folger.edu/2013/05/proof-prints-part-one/ and https://collation.folger.edu/2013/06/proof-prints-part-two-or-proofs-and-proofiness/
- For a detailed explanation of the text in relation with the title page image see Massimiliano Rossi, “Le frontispiece du Polemidoro de Raffaello Gualterotti” in Michel Plaisance, ed., Le Livre illustre italien au XVIe siecle; Texte / Image, Paris: Klincksieck / Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 1999, pp. 265-296.
- Elisa Urbanelli and Anne Blood eds., Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New Haven: Distributed by Yale University Press, 2016.
- For more on this, see The unfinished print, by Peter Parshall, Stacey Sell, and Judith Brodie (National Gallery of Art, 2001).
- Examples can be found at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, the University of Turin, and the National Central Library of Rome.