Tempera on panel. Signed on the reverse of the panel: Di Stefano della Bella. Bears numbering in a large inscription: 501?
295 x 203 mm. (11¾ x 8 in.)
A gifted and prolific draughtsman and etcher, Stefano della Bella was born into a family of artists. Apprenticed to a goldsmith, he also received training in painting and etching. He was particularly influenced by the work of Jacques Callot, whom he eventually succeeded as Medici court designer and printmaker. Under the patronage of the Medici, he was sent to Rome in 1633, where he made drawings after antique and Renaissance masters, landscapes and scenes of everyday life. In 1639 he accompanied the Medici ambassador to the Parisian court of Louis XIII, remaining in France for ten years. He established a flourishing career in Paris, publishing numerous prints and obtaining commissions from Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, among other members of the court and the aristocracy. Among his projects was the design of a set of playing cards in 1644 for the young Dauphin, the future Louis XIV. After his return to Florence in 1650, della Bella continued to enjoy Medici patronage. Over the next few years he produced drawings of the gardens of the Medici villa at Pratolino, the port of Livorno and the Villa Medici in Rome; he also became the drawing master to the future Duke, Cosimo III. After suffering a stroke in 1661, he appears to have worked very little before his death three years later.
This airy, slightly autumnal landscape (the leaves are clearly turning) most probably dates from the last decade of della Bella’s career. The signature on the back of the panel compares very closely with others inscribed on drawings of this later period such as that on a drawing of trees in ink and wash, formerly in the Instituto Jovellanos in Gijon, Spain but destroyed in 1936 (known from a photograph in the Witt Library) and also that on a portrait of a man within a decorative frame, now in the British Museum, signed and dated: Stefano della Bella 16501. The sketchy, delicate treatment of the leaves and the entwined and elegant tree trunks are exactly comparable to a drawing in the Louvre of Figures descending a Wooded Hill, executed in black chalk and grey and brown wash (279 x 230 mm)2. Unusually highly finished, the Louvre drawing may have been intended as a subject for engraving and is likened in the catalogue of della Bella drawings in the Louvre, to other lyrical freely drawn works which he made during the mid to late 1650s, rather in the style of Salvator Rosa whilst he was in Florence in the 1640s. These include a series of four etchings known as the Quattro grande paesaggi (253 x 188 mm.) which are similar in composition to the present work having trees as their chief subject matter.3
Della Bella seems practically to have ceased painting whilst working for the Medici and at the French Court. Baldinucci records that della Bella had learned the art of painting in the studio of Cesare Dandini but that he put painting aside ‘posta da parte la pittura’, when his skill at copying the works of Callot led to his becoming an engraver and draughtsman4: henceforth he recorded Florentine and French court life, current and historical events, matters of military and theatrical consequence and decorative designs however his drawings show that he always retained an interest in outdoor sketching. The present work speaks clearly of the quieter, last years when Della Bella indeed appears to have focused more concentratedly on nature and when his style, even in his prints, became more painterly5. This tempera on panel is a rare and fascinating witness to his revived interest in painting and his experimental approach. The only painting in the Uffizi given to della Bella is the nocturnal Burning of Troy, on oval work on slate with many small figures, in the manner of Callot or Tempesta, which must date from early in his career6. This delightful landscape instead recalls the works he might have seen in Rome, of Claude and the Bamboccianti and Baldinucci also records that he travelled through Flanders to Amsterdam, where he would have encountered a landscape tradition quite different to that expressed by his contemporaries in Florence such as Remigio Cantagallini and Giulio Parigi7.
1. British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, inventory number: 1969-9-20-14.
2. See, Françoise Viatte, Dessins de Stefano della Bella 1610-1664, Musée du Louvre, Cabinet des Dessins, Paris 1974, p.211, cat. and fig.391.
3. See Phyllis Dearborn Massar, Presenting Stefano della Bella, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1971, p.100.
4. Filippo Baldinucci, Notizie dei professori del disegno da Cimabue in qua …, Florence, 1846 edition, p. 605 an 607.
5. See Phyllis Dearborn Masser, loc cit..
6. See Giuseppe Cantelli, Repertorio della Pittura Fiorentina del Seicento, Florence 1983, pp.292-294 and text p. 66. But see also the Figures in a Landscape, Cramer collection, The Hague (photograph (neg.707 in the Kunsthistorisches Institut, Florence)
7. See also, exhibition catalogue, Il Seicento fiorentino, Arte a Firenze da Ferdinando I a Cosimo III, Biografie, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 1987, p.79 and 80.