An exhibition of master drawings and prints by the little-known but gifted Italian artist Pietro Testa opens at the Scottish National Gallery this weekend. Testa (1612–50) was one of the most talented Italian draughtsmen and etchers of the seventeenth century. His prints in particular had an enduring influence and were much admired and imitated by neoclassical artists in the eighteenth century.
Born in the Tuscan city of Lucca, Testa was a difficult and tortured man, beset by melancholy, self-doubt and frustration at the lack of recognition of his talent. He began his training in Rome at the end of the 1620s where he developed his drawing skills by copying classical antiquities. By 1630 Testa had entered the studio of Domenichino, a Baroque painter of the Bolognese School from whom he learned the painstaking method of planning compositions through numerous preparatory studies. On Domenichino’s departure for Naples in 1631, Testa transferred briefly to the workshop of Pietro da Cortona. It was around this time he began making his first etchings.
Testa gained his earliest employment from the collector and antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo. He made hundreds of drawings for Dal Pozzo’s ‘Paper Museum’, a highly ambitious project to record and classify all branches of human knowledge and culture, with particular emphases on classical antiquity and natural history; a particularly fine example of these drawings, Two Women in Billowing Robes and a Bull (about 1635) is included in this display. Through Cassiano, Testa met the French painter, Nicolas Poussin, who would become the most important formative influence on his artistic development.
Testa’s early work focused on poetical themes from classical mythology and the Bible. As his career progressed he selected increasingly complex allegorical and historical subjects which reflected his growing intellectual interests. Testa was much inclined to theoretical speculation and philosophy, particularly on the relationship between artistic theory and practice. On the first of two brief return trips to Lucca in 1632, he gained the patronage of Girolamo Buonvisi, a cleric at the papal court to whom he dedicated several prints and who was the intended dedicatee of his incomplete ‘Treatise on Ideal Painting’.
Testa received a few commissions for altarpieces in Lucca and Rome, but suffered the indignity of having some frescoes he executed in the church of Santa Maria dell’Anima replaced within a few years by an inexperienced northerner. Testa died aged thirty-seven after drowning in the Tiber; the cause was probably suicide.