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giovanni david
(1743 Cabella Ligure – 1790 Genoa)

The Blind Democritus. Etching on firm, Venetian laid paper. 29.9 x 21.2 cm. (1775). Grasso 117 I (of III). Watermark: Tre Lune.

Giovanni David’s oeuvre occupies a special place in Italian art of the Settecento thanks to its remarkable originality and powerful imagery. David was a gifted etcher and his extensive printed work, most of which was done between 1775 and 1779, is striking for its technical experimentation and ingenuity. He preceded Goya in exploring the artistic potential of the aquatint technique; some of Goya’s caprichos betray the influence of David’s etchings. David owed his artistic success to the patronage of a single man, the Genoese diplomat and patron of the arts Giacomo Durazzo, who vigorously sponsored him throughout his career. Thus in 1770 David remained at Durazzo’s insistence in Rome, where he was trained by none other than Domenico Corvi. In 1775 the artist settled for some years in Venice, while Durazzo was there on a diplomatic mission.

The Venetian sojourn marks a high point in David’s artistic output, as the present etching – indisputably one of the most important works in his entire graphic oeuvre – impressively proves. Apart from the technical brilliance of the execution, in which borrowings from Castiglione and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo are combined to form a very successful artistic synthesis, the composition shows the very personal way in which David interpreted mythological subjects, transforming them into highly original pictorial inventions. David shows the Greek philosopher Democritus against a background of atmospheric and picturesque ruins illuminated by ghostly moonlight. The sage has an open book on his knee, while on his left an oil lamp emits a feeble light. More books and an astrolabe are to be found on a stone rostrum, indicating the learning of the philosopher, who devotes himself to perfecting his knowledge in solitude. David’s narrative sense has an inner magic that ultimately eludes interpretation. The tense, contorted pose of Democritus’ body seems to suggest that the old man was overcome by drowsiness during his nocturnal reading and has fallen into an uneasy slumber. Or are the tightly closed eyes and the futility of his gestures a reference to the legend of how Democritus deliberately blinded himself by exposing his eyes to the sun, as his sight prevented him from exploring the world with his mind’s eye?

The print is available in the very rare first state, in which a white, unrestored patch is still visible up in the sky. In the second state the sky has been completed and the column capital in the right foreground shows additional hatching. In the third and final state the plate has been reworked yet again and the chiaroscuro contrasts have been intensified by further line shading. Inscribed in the lower margin are the artist’s name and a motto taken from Horace: “Integer vitae scelerisque purus” (“Blameless in life and free from sin”).

A superb, tonal and rich impression with even margins around the inky platemark. Minimal signs of ageing, otherwise in perfect condition.