19. Giovanni David

Cabella Ligure 1743 – 1790 Gênes

Le Masque au Caffé ; Le Zendale ; Gaspar Gribolari Brocanteur à Padoue ; Le Perruquier fatigué, 1775

The painter and engraver Giovanni David largely owed his headway to his fellow Ligurian Giacomo Durazzo (1717-1794). The latter, who pursued a brilliant diplomatic career between Italy and Austria, was a great art lover and introduced David to the Roman master Domenico Corvi (1721-1803). Durazzo was also a fervent votary of the theatre,1 and it was probably his interests as David’s protector that saw the artist selected, a little while later, as a set painter for the theatre “La Fenice” in Venice. Unquestionably, the “Various etched Portraits, and Dedicated to Mr Dominique Corvi Celebrated Painter by Jean David Genois his Pupil. In Venice. 1775.”, belong to a world steeped in references to popular theatre and Commedia dell’arte.

These twelve Venetian personages, presented with verve by David the very year he settled in this city,2 are figures de caractère – the Brocanteur is the only real portrait –, each subtitled with a quotation of Boileau from the Satires or the Epistles. Not without a dash of irony, David painted individual picturesque figures, in the vein of capricci: trivial short plays that were highly popular in eighteenth-century Venice, and an ideal exercise for any artist seeking celebrity.3 However, it is certainly in technical terms that the Divers portraits stand out in the midst of the engraved production in this leading printmaking centre that Venice was at the time. Indeed, if the first states of the plates of this series were done solely in etching, David heightened the second states with aquatint, an elaborate technique developed by the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Le Prince (1734-1781) in the mid-1760s. The series can be considered one of the oldest examples – if not the first – of the application of this process in Venetian prints. The scope of this innovation would eventually extend far beyond Italy, and notably inspire Goya (1746-1828), who in turn would apply it in his series of the Caprichos.4

Aquatint allows the artist to create a subtle palette of mid-tones, very similar to the effects obtained by grey washes in drawing. The grainy surface, formed on the plate by the aquatint powder deposit, gives these nuances a characteristic texture. David demonstrated his mastery of the process by playing on the powder’s density and fineness, as well as on the biting time, according to the sought intensity of grey. He alternated these values with spared white areas, as shown, for example, in the foreground of the Brocanteur.

At present, the Fondation Custodia is the third institution to preserve the entire series of the Divers portraits, a privilege it shares with the Albertina in Vienna and the National Gallery of Washington. MNG

1C.G. Boerner, Etchings by Giovanni David, Düsseldorf 2000, pp. 3-4.

2Ibid., p. 3.

3Ibid., p. 5.

4David’s teaching is particularly obvious in plates 5, 15 and in 27 of Goya’s Caprichos, that display the influence of the Zendale; see Mary Newcome Schleier and Giovanni Grasso, Giovanni David. Pittore e incisore della famiglia Durazzo, Turin 2003, under no. 14a.