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Vera effigie di Paoluccio della Cerra, detto comunemente Pulcinella. Mezzotint. 11 x 8 cm. A. de Vesme, “Carlo Enrico di San Martino”, in: Maso Finiguerra. Rivista della stampa incisa e del libro illustrato, V (1940), p. 273, No. 2; F. C. Greco, Pulcinella. Maschera del mondo, Naples, 1990, p.105, pp. 107–8, Cat. No. 1.2.
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Count Carlo Enrico di San Martino, the author of this enigmatic and fascinating little portrait, came from a noble Piedmont family and was a descendent of Margrave Arduin of Ivrea, who became King of Italy after the death of Otto II in 1002. While still a youth San Martino went to Rome, where he served in the Papal Guard, whose commander he became under Pope Alexander VIII (1689–1691) and Pope Innocent XII (1691–1700). He was then appointed to the command of the papal troops in the Romagna. During this period San Martino was also active as a writer, composing mainly poetry. He was admitted to the Accademia dell’Arcadia, which had been founded in Rome in 1690, and maintained close friendly relations with its custodian, the historian and man of letters Giovanni Mario Crescimbeni (1663–1728). Numerous poems by San Martino appeared from 1700 onwards in Rome and Venice under his academic pseudonym of Luciano Cinureo.
The fact that San Martino also tried his hand as a draughtsman and engraver is little known. Besides his participation in the design of a tomb for Pope Alexander VIII (see E. J. Olszewski, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (1667–1740) and the Vatican Tomb of Pope Alexander VIII, Philadelphia, 2004), for which a study drawing attributed to San Martino has been preserved in Windsor Castle, De Vesme records a total of three prints by this dilettante artist. The present print occupies a special place in the limited oeuvre as it was executed in the maniera nera, the Italian synonym for the mezzotint technique. De Vesme surmises that San Martino learned the technique while travelling in Austria or Britain, since mezzotint was not very common in Italy apart from a few works by Antonio Taddei and Giovanni Antonio Lorenzi (see: C. Wax, The Mezzotint. History and Technique, London, 1990, p. 36). According to the inscription, this print was based on a painting by Ludovico Carracci (1555–1619), a painting whose existence is only known now through San Martino’s work. It is assumed that the painting was a portrait of a real person who was the original for the figure of Pulcinella, one of the main characters in the Italian commedia dell’arte. There is a theory current among historians of theatre, according to which the figure of Pulcinella goes back to a peasant of grotesque appearance who was born in Acerra near Naples. Today the town has a museum dedicated to Pulcinella. It therefore seems plausible that the inscription on San Martino’s mezzotint is erroneous and should read “dell Acerra” instead of “della Cerra” (see M. A. Carr, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: A Facsimile of the Sources and Sketches, Middleton, 2010, p. 59, note 42). Nevertheless, the origins of this quaint theatrical character are still not entirely clear and subject to ongoing debates among scholars (see F. C. Greco, Pulnicella. Maschera del mondo, Naples, 1990, p. 108).
Despite its small format the portrait exerts a compelling fascination. It shows a man of indisputably peasant stock who is called Paoluccio and whose wrinkled face has a sly and cunning look. He wears a smock with an open collar revealing the scrawny neck and bony chest of an elderly man. A cap cocked at a rakish angle with a jaunty plume adds a droll touch to his appearance, as though he wanted his style of dress to distract attention from his lowly social status. Still, the man does have something uncanny about him. The subtle use of the mezzotint technique creates a strong chiaroscuro effect and adds to the liveliness of the furrowed, sour-looking face.
A superb, vivid impression with narrow margins. Minimal signs of ageing, otherwise in excellent condition. Extremely rare.