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Dominique-Vivant Denon

(1747 Givry – 1825 Paris)

Portrait of Abbé Zani, discovering an engraving by Maso Finiguerra. Etching and roulette, heightened with white, on blue paper. 18.6 x 13.7 cm. Bartsch 19, Le Blanc 83 (avant la lettre), The Illustrated Bartsch, vol. 121 (Supplement) .191, IFF 341, Catalogue Dominique Vivant-Denon, Paris 1999, No. 66 I (of II).

As explained in the inscription on the print in its final state, the portrait shows Abbé Zani at the moment he discovers an early engraving by Maso Finiguerra in the Cabinet des estampes in Paris. The considerable significance attached to Zani’s discovery is attributable to remarks made by Vasari in his biography of Marcantonio Raimondi to the effect that the Florentine gold­smith, draughtsman and niello artist, Maso Finiguerra (1426–1464), was the inventor of copperplate engraving. According to Vasari, he produced the first impressions by rolling his niello designs on paper before filling them with a black niello compound (G. Vasari, Le Vite, second edition, Florence 1568, vol. 1, part three, pp. 294–295).

In 1759, Abbé Gori discovered a niello with a Coronation of Mary (currently in the Palazzo del Bargello, although it was originally intended for the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence) which he deemed to be the work of Maso Finiguerra (A. Gori, Thesaurus veterum diptychorum consularium et ecclesias ticorum..., Florence 1759, vol. 3, p. 315). Some forty years later, in November 1797, Abbé Zani finally discovered in the Cabinet des estampes of the Bibliothèque nationale an impression on paper of the niello which Abbé Gori had attributed to Maso Finiguerra.

Zani’s discovery has since been interpreted as a vindication of Vasari’s early assumption that Finiguerra was indeed the inventor of copperplate engraving, a theory which nowadays is no longer sustained. Be that as it may, Denon’s etching is undoubtedly a testimony to the tremendous significance these assumptions had at the time. A very fine impression with thread margins on three sides, trimmed just within the platemark below. From the collection of François Heugel (Lugt 3373).

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