The graphic context of Jusepe de Ribera’s The poet


The National Gallery of Victoria holds in its collection a fine impression of The poet (fig. 1), one of the most enigmatic, yet influential, etchings from the seventeenth century by the hand of the Spanish-born Neapolitan artist Jusepe de Ribera (1591–1652). 

In their analysis of The poet, scholars have traditionally looked towards iconographic interpretations, neglecting the notion of intentionality and the specific function of the print itself. If considered within the context of other contemporary etchings by Ribera, the incongruous nature of this classical subject is immediately striking and gives rise to various questions regarding the validity of its traditional interpretation. 

In 1625 the enthusiastic patron of the arts and one-time Viceroy of Naples the Duke of Alcala wrote that Ribera ‘in my time had begun to etch in Rome’.1Quoted in Craig Felton, Jusepe de Ribera: A Catalogue Raisonné, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971, p. 23. The Duke was clearly making reference to the most productive period in Ribera’s etching career, the early to mid-1620s, a time in which etching appears to have been his principal artistic activity. 

Although the graphic output of the 1620s may have been comparatively prolific for Ribera, one must bear in mind that throughout his entire artistic career he produced only eighteen known etchings. The diversity among these works in terms of subject matter indicates that he rarely approached the graphic medium with the intention of seriality. (It was commonplace in the seventeenth century for a printmaker to produce a number of etchings illustrating a particular theme, such as the seasons, histories of war, or moral reflections upon earthly existence.) Ribera’s sparse and varied production is indicative, therefore, of a passing affair with the etching medium, rather than of a preoccupation with his development as a graphic master. 

Although Ribera’s graphic career may not have followed a conventional development, it is most probable that for him, as for other artists, the printed image, by virtue of its qualities of multiplicity, provided financial support while he attempted to establish his good name and secure a clientele. 

The majority of his etchings from the 1620s appear to have been designed as part of a pattern plate compilation; examples include Studies of eyes (fig. 2), Studies of the nose and mouth and Studies of ears, all of c.1622.2See Jonathan Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador: 1591–1652, Fundación Caja de Pensiones, Valencia, & Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 1989, pp. 68–73. Although Ribera’s pattern prints appear not to have been bound, the conception and execution of pattern plates was essentially a continuation of the pedagogical tradition of artists’ manuals developed in the sixteenth century; these manuals had become increasingly popular as reference material from which students could practise the drawing of anatomical and physiognomical details. 

Anything a student wanted to know about external features, anatomical proportion, movement, musculature or internal organs could be obtained from pattern plates and from books like the enormously influential De humanis corporis fabrica (1543) by Andreas Vesalius, in which the author provided a detailed visual analysis of all components of the body.3Andreas Vesalius, De humanis corporis fabrica, Basel, 1543. The dramatic increase in both the publication of anatomical treatises and the distribution of pattern plates during the sixteenth century reflected the desire for a more comprehensive knowledge of the human body, an interest that was closely linked to the significant advances being made in the related fields of the natural sciences. For artists, furthermore, the reduction of human features to easily identifiable and schematised typological examples facilitated their quick translation to more ambitious compositions. The repertory of types in the pattern book had a mnemonic function, and provided students with an efficient visual and practical encyclopaedia that could easily be passed around the studio. 

Taking into consideration the visual aspect of The poet and its place within the context of Ribera’s early etched oeuvre, we are now able to suggest that this work was in fact conceived as part of the artist’s pattern book and, more specifically, that it was designed as a title-page for that project. 

The poet can be dated to c.1620–21 and represents Ribera’s first full-figure etched composition. The image shows a male figure, dressed in a classical toga, crowned with a laurel wreath, and supporting his head with his left arm, which rests upon a stone block in an attitude indicative of contemplative thought. The etching possesses a classical simplicity, frontality and directness of approach that is immediately striking. The emphasis upon the frontal disposition of the solitary upstanding figure and the stone block, and the minimalisation of extraneous background detail, demonstrate that Ribera was concentrating on conveying a sense of imposing immediacy. It is also interesting to note that the only other images by the artist that similarly lack context are those that formed part of his pattern book. 

In terms of technique, the expressive and constructive function of Ribera’s etched lines is very similar to that of his drawing style of the early 1620s. The linear articulation of the stone block, and the schematised lines delineating the diagonal trunk of the tree, reveal his confidence as a draughtsman while simultaneously betraying his hesitancy at realising the full potential of the etching needle. The complex interaction of the overlaid lines within the folds of the poet’s garments does, however, point to an initial competence with the etching medium that was to become more evident in Ribera’s later works. 

The contention that this work is a title-page for the artist’s pattern book is supported by further visual analysis. The relationship between the poet and the stone block is clearly important: the psychological and physical interdependence of this union is one of the most striking features of the image. The poet’s left arm leans heavily upon the stone, while his left knee, under his garments, coincides with the swing of his body, which points towards the stone; the downward inclination of the poet’s head also directs our attention to the stone, whose blank face would have made an ideal space for an inscription or for some visual indicator as to the contents of a book. 

The use of the stone pedestal or architectonic cornice as a title-page feature became extremely popular in the seventeenth century and was a development upon the use of such pedestals in title-pages from the preceding two centuries. An engraving such as Agostino Carracci’s title-page to the Cremona fedelissima città of 1582 (fig. 3), an allegorical image in honour of Philip II of Austria, demonstrates well the expediency of the stone block as a title-page feature. In this work the female figure on the right has the same physical attitude and downcast eyes as Ribera’s poet. The woman’s gaze directs our attention to the elaborate escutcheon upon the stone face. 

We know that Ribera’s pattern book never reached completion; if The poet was indeed intended as its title-page, Ribera may well have decided to leave the image as it was, as an independent work, and this would explain the absence of an inscription on the face of the stone.4See Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 101. 

The poet has variously been identified as representing Virgil5See Erwin Walter Palm, ‘Ein Vergil von Ribera’, Pantheon, vol. 33, no. 1, January–March 1975, p. 25. or Dante.6See John Moffitt, ‘Observations on “The poet” by Ribera’, Paragone, vol. 29, no. 337, March 1978, p. 80. However, although these proposed identifications have been carefully thought out, an examination of the visual facts reveals that Ribera’s figure is, as Jonathan Brown observes, a typological representation rather than a portrait of a specific individual.7Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 22. The disconsonance among interpretations is surely symptomatic of this character type that Brown mentions. Furthermore, the heavily shadowed face and downcast eyes of the poet, which clearly inhibit character identification, suggest that Ribera was aiming to convey not only a typological representation, but, more specifically, a sense of symbolic personification, an amalgamation of the ‘types’ traditionally associated with both poetry and melancholy. 

A representation of this discrete and anonymous nature would be well suited to a title-page, for it embodies, through exemplification, the didactic nature of a pattern book. 

There appears to be no exact source for Ribera’s poet, although the general disposition of the figure, with inclined head supported by a hand, follows an Antique tradition of similar representations that can be traced to Egyptian art. The poetical personage essentially belongs, however, to a popularised emblematic vocabulary of the artist’s time and corresponds to a traditional conception of the ‘melancholic type’.8There are many examples of this compositional arrangement, for example, Annibale Carracci’s Saint Margaret (1595), in the Church of S. Caterina dei Funari, Rome. Professor Peter Tomory has kindly pointed out the relevance of the figural arrangement in tomb relief sculpture. On the sepulchral monuments of Bishop Giovanni Ortega Gomiel and Cardinal Bernardino Lonati, both in the Church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, which is only two streets from where Ribera resided, one notices the standing contemplative figures leaning upon shields flanking an inscribed stone tablet. These figures may well have provided an impetus for Ribera to employ the motif. Cesare Ripa, the late-sixteenth-century compiler of allegorical representations, was largely responsible for this type, which ultimately refers to Vesalius’s Second skeleton from the De humanis corporis fabrica.9See Palm, ‘Ein Vergil von Ribera’, p. 24. The original image by Vesalius, which juxtaposes a tomb and a skeleton with its hand on its cheek, is one of relatively few such representations in which the figure is standing. It is quite probable that Ribera knew this symbolic conception of melancholy, especially if one considers the enormous distribution and popularity of Ripa’s book of emblems, Iconologia, the first illustrated edition of which appeared in Rome in 1603. 

Of the four humours – Melancholy, Sanguine, Choleric and Phlegmatic – Melancholy was considered the most incompatibly constituted. The melancholic temperament was characterised by surly, bad-mannered, greedy, despondent and misogynist qualities. The only redeeming feature of the melancholic type was an inclination for solitary study and melancholies were often depicted surrounded by attributes of scholarly pursuit. From the time of Aristotle, individuals of great intellectual capacity in the sciences and the arts had commonly been associated with melancholy when their individual qualities were seen to be compatible in the broadest sense with the constituent characteristics of the melancholic type. Aristotle’s equation of melancholy with genius held fast well beyond the seventeenth century and was consistently reiterated. The influential Platonist, Marsilio Ficino, in his treatise De vita triplici of 1482–89, had expounded at great length upon the notion of melancholy as a divine gift, thereby maintaining the link between genius and the saturnine temperament. In the seventeenth century numerous artists of considerable reputation, including Annibale Carracci and Adam Elsheimer, were said to be of melancholic disposition, a condition it appears could be ‘expected’, given their artistic distinction.10See Rudolf Wittkower & Margot Wittkower, Born under Saturn. The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 1963, pp. 98–124. 

Ribera’s The poet was linked not only with earlier representations of the melancholic type, but also with portrayals of Melancholy personified, a tradition that found its artistic climax in Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I 1514 (fig. 4).11See Wolfgang Stechow, ‘A Note on “The Poet” by Ribera’, Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 2, 1957, p. 69. The wreath and the left hand supporting the face are visual points of coincidence between the two works. In Dürer’s print, however, Melancholy is personified as a woman, whereas in Ribera’s etching the laurel wreath is an attribute of the male poet. The connection between the poet and Melancholy is relatively clear. The association between deep thought, although not necessarily melancholic thought, and the head supported by the hand, had become popular through representations of ancient philosophers and poets, and we see Raphael thus depicting Heraclitus, ‘the weeping philosopher’, in his School of Athens fresco in the Vatican, a work that has been identified as a compositional source for Ribera’s etching.12See Selma Holo, quoted in Jonathan Brown, Jusepe de Ribera – Prints and Drawings, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1973, p. 66. 

The particular relevance of Dürer’s Melancholia I is that in this engraving Dürer fuses and transforms two great traditions – that of Melancholy as one of the four humours and that of Geometry as one of the Seven Liberal Arts. Erwin Panofsky has also pointed out that Melancholia I ultimately refers to the melancholy of the artist.13Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1955, p. 162. Furthermore, the most important iconographical dimension in Dürer’s print, and one that Dürer himself stresses, is that Melancholia I typifies Theoretical Insight and the Infant Practical Skill.14ibid., p. 164. When theory and practice are not united as in Dürer’s print, the result is impotence and gloom. 

The relation of theory to practice is clearly integral to the function of the pattern book. Moreover, if one takes into account the scholarly and artistic attributes of the melancholic, it is easy to see that the melancholic allusions in Ribera’s etching were particularly suited to the title-page of such a book, which was intended as a study manual for those engaged in the production of art. Ribera’s poetical figure as a title-page illustration simultaneously acknowledges Dürer’s figure Melancholy and the relation of theory to practice. Although in Ribera’s print the infant, or an immediate symbol of practice, is absent, the initial conception of The poet as a title-page, taken in conjunction with the ensuing and associated pattern plates, reinforces the practical necessity of the artistic project as a whole. 

It is difficult to utilise material a posteriori for intentional clarification, but in the case of The poet it is revealing to examine several of the most important designs by artists contemporary with Ribera (and later) who employed his composition as a basis for their own works that were intended as title-pages. The connection between The poet and a title-page of c.1657 from the hand of Stefano della Bella (fig. 5) is particularly clear. In the latter work a female melancholic with a laurel wreath leans upon a stone block. Her associations with poetical inspiration are reinforced by the inclusion of three small background figures that may represent poets.15See Anthony Blunt, The Drawings of G. B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen at Windsor Castle, Phaidon, London, 1954, p. 94. 

Ribera’s The poet was obviously the inspiration for the frontispiece to Frederick de Wit’s Lumen picturae et delineationes, of c.1660 (fig. 6).16De Wit’s volume is an expansion of Crispyn van de Passe II’s Lumen picturae, first published in 1643. The Dutch publisher de Wit closely followed Ribera’s etching except for the inclusion on the stone block of anatomical figures. De Wit, further to realising the potential of the stone face to contain images, has included physiognomical and anatomic details that allude to the contents of the book. Furthermore, several of the anatomical prints contained in de Wit’s book are derived from Ribera’s etched compositions. 

Another seventeenth-century compilation of prints held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London employs the image of The poet as its title-page (fig. 7).17Although these engravings after Ribera are from the same hand and are now bound, an examination of the spine reveals that the prints were originally loose. It appears that they were bound upon entering the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. In this work The poet has been reversed and the stone block bears the inscription ‘IOSEPH RIBERA. ESPAÑOL. INVENT ABEX.’, a clear indicator of the image’s principal source.

Jonathan Brown also draws attention to a collection of seven engravings after Ribera, in which The poet, copied in reverse, has again been used as a title-page.18Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 111, cat. no. 35. These works are held at the Biblioteca del Palacio Real in Madrid.

Although the composition and the general typology of Ribera’s poetical personage were clearly dependent upon preceding representational traditions, the title-page examples that have been discussed here suggest something more than visual derivation. Inductively, they also suggest a currency of thought in Ribera’s own time and indicate the way in which the artist’s contemporaries may have understood the purpose of his etching. That The poet has been copied and adapted so often (the works discussed above being but a few examples) testifies to its success as a pertinent title-page formula and as a composition that incorporated theoretical artistic concerns of the Renaissance and Baroque mind, while simultaneously visualising the instructive function of the pattern book. 

The year 1991 commemorates the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jusepe de Ribera. 

 

Mark P. McDonald, La Trobe University (in 1992).

Acknowledgements 

I would like to thank Professor Peter Tomory, Dr Frank Heckes and Ms Sonia Dean for their valuable comments. 

 

Notes 

1          Quoted in Craig Felton, Jusepe de Ribera: A Catalogue Raisonné, University Microfilms International, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971, p. 23. 

2          See Jonathan Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador: 1591–1652, Fundación Caja de Pensiones, Valencia, & Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, 1989, pp. 68–73. 

3          Andreas Vesalius, De humanis corporis fabrica, Basel, 1543. 

4          See Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 101. 

5          See Erwin Walter Palm, ‘Ein Vergil von Ribera’, Pantheon, vol. 33, no. 1, January–March 1975, p. 25. 

6          See John Moffitt, ‘Observations on “The poet” by Ribera’, Paragone, vol. 29, no. 337, March 1978, p. 80. 

7          Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 22. 

8          There are many examples of this compositional arrangement, for example, Annibale Carracci’s Saint Margaret (1595), in the Church of S. Caterina dei Funari, Rome. Professor Peter Tomory has kindly pointed out the relevance of the figural arrangement in tomb relief sculpture. On the sepulchral monuments of Bishop Giovanni Ortega Gomiel and Cardinal Bernardino Lonati, both in the Church of S. Maria del Popolo in Rome, which is only two streets from where Ribera resided, one notices the standing contemplative figures leaning upon shields flanking an inscribed stone tablet. These figures may well have provided an impetus for Ribera to employ the motif. 

9          See Palm, ‘Ein Vergil von Ribera’, p. 24. 

10        See Rudolf Wittkower & Margot Wittkower, Born under Saturn. The Character and Conduct of Artists: A Documented History from Antiquity to the French Revolution, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York, 1963, pp. 98–124. 

11        See Wolfgang Stechow, ‘A Note on “The Poet” by Ribera’, Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin, vol. 14, no. 2, 1957, p. 69. 

12        See Selma Holo, quoted in Jonathan Brown, Jusepe de Ribera – Prints and Drawings, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1973, p. 66. 

13        Erwin Panofsky, The Life and Art of Albrecht Dürer, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1955, p. 162. 

14        ibid., p. 164. 

15        See Anthony Blunt, The Drawings of G. B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of Her Majesty The Queen at Windsor Castle, Phaidon, London, 1954, p. 94. 

16        De Wit’s volume is an expansion of Crispyn van de Passe II’s Lumen picturae, first published in 1643. 

17        Although these engravings after Ribera are from the same hand and are now bound, an examination of the spine reveals that the prints were originally loose. It appears that they were bound upon entering the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

18        Brown, Jusepe de Ribera, grabador, p. 111, cat. no. 35.