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Pietro Testa

Italian, 1612 - 1650

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Little is known of Pietro Testa's early life beyond the fact that he was born in Lucca in 1612, the son of a dealer in secondhand goods. Early on he moved to Rome, where he underwent an informal apprenticeship with Domenichino and spent some time in Pietro da Cortona's studio. Both artists were high-profile masters of the period and capable of instructing young artists in the principles of the Roman Baroque. From them Testa would have learned the working methods established by the inheritors, then working in Rome, of the Carracci's Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy for Beginners), founded in Bologna in 1582. Their methods consisted of drawing from life combined with studies after antique models, an admiration for Raphael, and the habit of making a lengthy series of preparatory drawings for an envisioned final work, from initial sketch through final formal cartoon.

Testa's contemporary biographer, Joachim von Sandrart, saw him drawing amid the ruins on the Palatine Hill and gave him money and other help, but in his writings he unaccountably does not mention the time Testa spent in Domenichino's studio or that of Pietro da Cortona. Another biographer Giovanni Battista Passeri, tells us that Testa drew from antiquities and also the works of Raphael, and, indeed, his fame today rests largely on his drawings and etchings rather than on his paintings. There is a story that the artist burned his drawings (Wittkower, Rudolf. Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600 - 1750. 3rd rev. ed. Harmondsworth [London]: Penguin Books, 1973, pp. 261-78), but his output in this area was immense and many nonetheless survive. He did some five volumes of drawings for the Museo Cartaceo, or "Paper Museum," a multi-volume collection of drawings of antiquities and natural-history subjects, much of which is now in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle. This commendable enterprise was instituted by Cassiano dal Pozzo, an important Piedmontese intellectual, scholar, and patron of Nicolas Poussin, and was aimed at visually recording great numbers of antique and scientific motifs.

In 1644 Pope Urban VIII, who had been a supporter of Cassiano, died, and Testa could no longer rely on Cassiano's favor and was not lucky in finding suitable patrons. Failing as a painter, he lived off his graphic production. His recognized talent as a draughtsman led to his work with the excellent reproductive engravers for the Galleria Giustiniani, a publication of engravings after the antique sculpture in the collection of Vincenzo Giustiniani for which Testa produced drawings. During this time he went about with foreign artists in Rome and was a friend of Poussin, who was then also struggling for recognition. Many of Testa's other friends died, among them Domenichino in 1641 (according to his wife, by poisoning) and François Duquesnoy in 1643.

Contemporary accounts describe Testa as melancholy, isolated, and shabbily dressed. Even discounting the seventeenth-century tendency for friends and biographers of artists to hint at their psychological deviations, the fact of his death--probably a suicide--by drowning in the Tiber, recorded in the records of his parish on 3 March 1650, gives credence to this interpretation (Pietro Testa, 1612 - 1650: Prints and Drawings. Exhibition catalogue by Elizabeth Cropper et al. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988. pp. xi-xiii). Testa is now recognized as one of the three major printmakers in seventeenth-century Italy, along with Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and Salvator Rosa. His etchings are imbued with the spontaneity usually associated with freestyle drawings termed primi pensieri, or "first thoughts." These etchings served as his mode of communication with the world beyond Rome and were considered with approval by Rembrandt, the master of the medium in northern Europe.

Testa was an engaging theoretician of art. He left notes for a projected treatise on painting, and his prints of the 1630s and 1640s can be seen as illustrating his ideas. His etching The Lyceum of Painting of about 1638 has as its subject the relationship between the theory of art and its practice and includes an allusion to the man of genius weighed down by poverty (Pietro Testa, 1612 - 1650: Prints and Drawings. No. 41, pl. 41, see p. 78).

Mimi Cazort, from Italian Master Drawings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (2004), cat.14.

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