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Aurora. 1770 circa

Pietro Giacomo Palmieri

* 1737 in Bologna † 1804 in Turin

Traces of graphite, pen and black ink, grey wash after Nicolaes Berchem (1620 Haarlem - 1683 Amsterdam). Size of sheet: 30.1 x 36.7 cm.

After Jan Visscher’s etching and aquatint of c. 1660 of the composition by Nicolaes Berchem.

Watermark: Armorial shield surmounted by a crown, with the letters ‘VV’ below.

A glance at this sheet could well suggest it is a print, but a closer look reveals it to be a drawing. However, it is anything but a straight copy or facsimile of Jan Visscher’s etching after Aurora by Nicolaes Berchem, the revered landscape painter of the Dutch Golden Age (1). While it may seem odd to modern taste, the blurring of the boundaries between drawings and prints belonged to a fashion that spread rapidly through Europe (2). Moreover Palmieri occupied a special place in the history of reproductive drawings in emulation of earlier Dutch masters, and played a key role in the migration of this trend from Paris to Italy.
    The present drawing is not especially Northern in character; it has more in common with the drawings and engravings of the great Bolognese draughtsmen of the late 17th century. Comparison with the print reveals it is not a tracing. The dimensions differ, resulting in a mismatch in compositional detail when one is laid over the other (3). Nor is it a line-by-line copy. Rather than follow the graphic idiosyncrasies of Berchem’s design, Palmieri worked freehand in his own style over loose graphite underdrawing.
    Palmieri abandoned religious studies to enrol at the Accademia Clementina, where he acquired considerable skill during a six year apprenticeship in fine art. Significantly, the Accademia encouraged youngsters to learn by copying the prints of renowned 17th-century masters. The drawing style of the artists who taught their pupils was closely linked to their printmaking techniques, and Palmieri was fascinated by Dutch engravers and etchers of the Seicento, particularly Berchem (4). His earliest patron, Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, collected Dutch prints, and obviously had a decisive influence on his taste.
    Palmieri’s ‘virtuoso and effortless penmanship’ (‘uso virtuosistico della penna con disinvoltura’) attracted attention; with a sharply cut nib and diluted washes he was able to simulate printmaking techniques to the extent that he could evoke the effects of etching and aquatint. The drawing style he developed would become his hallmark, characterised by forms built up of subtly modulated webs of hatching and cross-hatching, swelling and receding like finely engraved lines, and enhanced with subtly graded wash. The present drawing almost certainly dates from around 1770, and critics have long agreed that his early drawings are superior to his later works by far (5).
    Such was Palmieri’s fame that in 1770 he was lured from Bologna to Parma by Marchese Guillaume-Léon du Tillot who greatly admired Berchem, and commissioned Palmieri to produce copies of prints by him and other Dutch masters. It was in Parma that he refined the style of landscape drawing for which he would become widely recognised across Europe (6). In 1773 Palmieri followed Tillot to Paris and was employed to replicate – ‘con la tecnica del disegno’ – paintings and prints in his collection and in those of the French nobility. The ground for his success was ready-made, since the fashion for works in the ‘Dutch Manner’ and by Berchem in particular was reaching its peak in Paris (7).
    Berchem featured consistently in Palmieri’s work as a source of inspiration, and he frequently ‘quoted’ him in his own compositions. In Paris he replicated further prints by Jan Visscher after Berchem, often introducing variations (8). Here, for example, he has perhaps unconsciously ‘Italianised’ the physiognomy of the muleteer. For the French and Italians alike, Palmieri’s rendering of landscape and animals was on a par with that of the greatest artists of the previous century, not least Salvator Rosa (9).
    By the time Tillot died in 1774, Palmieri had won great fame. In his studio opposite the Louvre he produced landscape drawings in the manner of 17th-century artists active in Italy, from Claude Lorrain to Dutch Italianate artists, and most notably Nicolaes Berchem (10). Intended as finished works for sale, these unique drawings were greatly admired by French artists and collectors alike (11).
    Ultimately, Palmieri left Paris in 1778 and settled in Turin where he worked for the Savoy court, which appointed him ‘Primo Disegnatore’ and adviser to the royal collection of prints and drawings (12). Though Berchem was very much in vogue in Paris, awareness of him was slight in Turin. However, Palmieri’s impact on the court and educated élite was profound, in that he inspired connoisseurs to col-lect drawings and engravings influenced by the Dutch tradition. Not only did he encourage an apprecia-tion of Northern landscapes, but was instrumental in introducing Turin to the Parisian vogue for the ‘new technique’ of drawing in imitation of prints. Collectors revelled in the way such ‘optical trickery’ could totally disorientate spectators, unsure – at first sight – whether they were looking at a drawing or a print. Thanks to Palmieri, the fashion for what became known as ‘the taste for creating confusion through technique’ – ‘il gusto per lo scambio delle tecniche’ – migrated from France to Italy (13).
    Palmieri’s imitative skill was much admired, and his autograph works were valued far more than the prints and drawings which served as his models. In 1802 the artist Giuseppe Bertoluzzi urged Marchese Giuseppe Turinetti di Cambiano to buy a set of unsigned drawings by Palmieri after Guercino, Berchem and others. The Marchese, in turn, fully understood they were autograph drawings by Palmieri, unsigned, and of the type that he had produced in Parma and Paris. Bertoluzzi exclaimed: ‘I would buy these works not because they are by Guercino or Berchem, but because they are beautiful drawings by Palmieri … I can almost see him laughing’ (14).  It is clear from these words that Palmieri was not setting out to deceive by way of creating fakes, but that – as with the present drawing – he would have ‘laughed’ at his extraor-dinary ability to disorientate and ultimately delight his patrons.

Thanks are due to Chiara Travisonni from the Università degli Studi di Parma for confirming the attribution of the present drawing, which she will include in her forthcoming catalogue of his graphic oeuvre.

Please view the notes in additional information.

£ 8500.-

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[1] Aurora is the first of Berchem’s four pastoral compositions representing the Times of Day. The lower margin is inscribed with its title and production details: ‘C Berghem inventor / J. Visscher fecit’, and ‘Justus Danckerts Excudit’. See F. W. H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings and Woodcuts c. 1450-1700, Amsterdam 1949 onwards, 1-2 (2).

[2] Giuseppe Delogu, ‘Pietro Giacomo Palmieri’, Pantheon, XVI, 1935, pp. 385-91, and especially Chiara Travisonni: Pietro Giacomo Palmieri (Bologna, 1737-Torino, 1804), PhD Thesis, Università degli studi di Parma 2013; ‘Escursioni virtuosistiche tra tecniche artistiche e fonti figurative: il caso settecentesco di Pietro Giacomo Palmieri’, Ricerche di S/Confine, IV, 2013, pp. 147-69. Also her entry on Palmieri in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, LXXX, Rome 2014, sub voce.

[3] The uncut impression in the Rijksmuseum (RP-P-OB-47.283) measures 328 x 372 mm.

[4] This is evident in his first dated drawing of 1762 (Bologna, Pinacoteca Nazionale, inv. 3811); see Trevisani 2013 (Escursioni), pp. 147-48; Maria Teresa Caracciolo, ‘Dessins du Settecento bolonaise au musée des Arts décoratifs de Lyon’, Revue du Louvre, XLIII, 4, 1993, pp. pp. 40-41.

[5] Later in his career Palmieri adopted a heavier penline and denser wash. See further Travisonni 2013 (Thesis), pp. 148, and 11-12, citing Enrico Scarabelli Zunti’s appraisal of Palmieri dating from the 19th century and preserved in manuscript.

[6] In 1771, with Tillot as his patron, Palmieri was appointed Professore di Disegno of the Parma Academy of Art. Travisonni 2013 (Thesis), pp. 66; Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), p. 148-49.

[7] Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), pp. 147-50, points out that Tillot introduced Palmieri to key figures in the Paris art scene, from collectors to dealers and engravers. For Berchem’s rise in popularity, see Gerdien Wuestman, ‘Nicolaes Berchem in Print. Fluctuations in the Function and Significance of Reproductive Engraving’, Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, XXIV, 1996, pp. 36-38.

[8] Travisonni 2103 (Thesis), pp. 66-68, and Catalogue II, no. 85. See also Laura De Fanti, ‘Citazioni da Nicholaes Berchem in disegni del Palmieri bolognese’, L’arte nella storia. Contributi di critica e storia dell’arte per Gianni Carlo Sciolla, ed. Valerio Terraioli, Franca Varallo & Laura De Fanti, Milan 2000, p. 347-51. Palmieri also executed variations on Guercino and Castiglione for Tillot as a form of divertissement, to demonstrate his technical abilities. Like the present sheet many such drawings were not signed, though collectors sometimes recorded his name on their versos, backings or mounts.

[9] See further Travisonni 2013 (Thesis), pp. 15-17. The painter Roberto d’Azeglio wrote: ‘… ad imitazione di Salvator Rosa, gli alberi una varietà ammirevole … Ne’ massi poi ha mostrato intelligenza e varietà quanto niuno altro mai. La cognizione … della struttura e de’ movimenti de’ cavalli, de’ buoi, delle pecore e de’ cani lo mette a livello coi più celebri artisti in simil genere’.

[10] Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), pp. 158, 164; Vittorio Natale, ‘Pietro Giacomo Palmieri. Bologna 1735-Turin 1804’, in Disegni del XIX secolo della Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna Contemporanea di Torino. Fogli scelti dal Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe, ed. Virginia Bertone, 2 vols, Florence 2009, I, pp. 3-9.

[11] Palmieri also captured the market for French aristocrats who had visited Italy and wanted mementos of their travels. His works were handled by the most prominent Parisian dealers and often described in sale catalogues as ‘du plus grand effet’. Travisonni 2013 (Thesis), pp. 13; Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), pp. 150-51.

[12] In 1802 he was nominated Professore di Disegno at the city’s Academy. Many of his works, now preserved in the Castello di Rivoli, were executed for the Gabinetto of the Duke of Aosta. See Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), p. 154.

[13] Travisonni 2013 (Escursioni), pp. 66, 150-52, 157-58. More knowledgeable connoisseurs could also display their knowledge in recognising ‘quotations’ from the works of long-past masters.

[14] ‘… il medesimo Palmieri tante e tante volte me lo concesse anco lui che avea imitato dei Guercini … questi pezzi gli acquisterei non per Guercino, non per Berghem, ma per belle copie di Palmieri … mi pare di vederlo a ridere’; cited by Travisonni 2013 (Thesis), pp. 70-71.


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