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Attributed. Naked Men Fighting in a Rock Cave (Dix hommes nus dans des rochers). Engraving. 29.5 x 43 cm. Herbet (Domenico del Barbiere) 13. Watermark: Little coat of arms with the letter W and quatrefoil attached (Nivelle papermaking family, Troyes, circa 1540, cf. Briquet 9869).
Published by Félix Herbet around 1900, this extraordinarily evocative and powerful print posed a riddle for researchers and has lost none of its fascination ever since. Whereas Herbet recorded the engraving under Domenico del Barbiere, the sheet was apparently unknown to Henri Zerner (The School of Fontainebleau. Etchings and Engravings. New York, 1969). Its authorship thus remains unresolved for the moment. In the account books of Fontainebleau from 1537 to 1550 Domenico del Barbiere is listed as a painter and “imager”. The artist distinguished himself as one of Primaticcio’s close collaborators, but it is not certain whether he actually made his engravings in Fontainebleau. His work for Primaticcio notwithstanding, contemporary sources indicate that del Barbiere probably lived and worked in Troyes from the 1540s onwards.
The present enigmatic work has been executed using a powerful, concentrated and close-knit engraving technique. The muscles and anatomic details of the protagonists are rendered in a pronounced mannerist style. Dense hatching produces stark shading on the legs and thighs of the naked men. Although uncertainty still prevails as regards del Barbiere’s authorship, stylistic parallels are nonetheless recognisable in his printmaking œuvre. His engraving The Group from Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (Herbet 2, Zerner DB 3), for instance, reveals a comparable, strikingly sculptural accentuation of the men’s muscles. The structure of the abdomen is treated in a similar way with very fine lines and stippling, especially in the group of three on the left of the sheet. The individuals all but resemble anatomic lay figures, as can be seen in del Barbiere’s famous allegory Squelettes et Écorchés (Zerber DB 10), for instance. The present watermark connecting the print with the Nivelle papermaking family active in Troyes places the impression in the 1540s and might be another reference to the authorship of del Barbiere who had settled here in the same period. However, the stylistic heterogeneity found in the artist’s printed œuvre renders a firm attribution difficult.
Last but not least, the work’s iconography remains quite intriguing. Several interpretations of it have been proposed, including one put forward by Jacques Chamay, an archaeologist from Geneva, who suggests it might be a depiction of Ajax’s madness. However, the absence of the sheep mentioned by Homer makes this interpretation appear a little implausible. The violent criminal who is overcome by his fellows after murdering his opponent could be seen in a figurative sense as a universal allegory of the discord and fraternal strife that has plagued mankind ever since Cain and Abel (see catalogue Le Beau Style. Gravures Maniéristes de la Collection Georg Baselitz, edited by N. Strasser, R. Mason, Geneva 2002, no. 64, p. 154). A superb, striking and strong impression of this extremely rare print, trimmed to the platemark. Minor ageing and tiny blemishes in the left-hand margin, an inconspicuous smoothed drying fold verso, otherwise a very fine, untouched impression.
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