The plate and the painter: on a little discovery in late 2017

Countless are the ways music and visual arts meet. Here is the short account of what was recently discovered behind a painting on copper.*

This tale begins at the beginning of last summer, in June, on my trip back from Arezzo. A dear friend in Bologna, Tommaso Pasquali, introduced me to Camillo Tarozzi, a renowned restorer. He had just completed his intervention on the beautiful Christ Carrying the Cross, by Alessandro Tiarini (1577–1668), on copper.

A. Tiarini (1577-1668) – Christ Carrying the Cross – private collection (image DOROTHEUM, 19.04.2016)

“The artform of painting on copper dates back to the mid-sixteenth century, when European artists found that the smooth surfaces of thin sheets of copper lent themselves to fine workmanship, were easy to handle, and even gave a luminous shine to the paint. Masters including Jan Breughel the Elder, Claude, El Greco, Reni, Guercino, Rembrandt, and Vernet are among those who produced fine works on copper” Copper as canvas : two centuries of masterpiece paintings on copper, 1575-1775, Phoenix Art Museum, Summary.

Tiarini, though, used a second-hand plate for his picture. As shown in the picture below, the plate had been earlier engraved as to result, once pressed, in a page with a lute tablature. (For more information on tablatures for lute please visit this page; find also more material concerning the instrument and its history and repertoire here

alessandro-tiarini back 1
A. Tiarini (1577-1668) – Christ Carrying the Cross – verso, upright format; private collection (image DOROTHEUM, 19.04.2016)

But when was the plate engraved and when was the painting made? According to the sale records:

“The copper panel shows rapid and incisive brushstrokes and this artistic approach can be compared to Tiarini’s Finding of Moses (1641) conserved in the Kunsthalle, Bremen. The face of Christ is similar to that in the Resurrection of Lazarus in the Museum of Fine Arts, Ekaterinburg and it can also be compared to the facial type of Saint Joseph in Saint Joseph in glory in the church of Santi Giuseppe e Ignazio in Bologna. For this reason, the present work can be dated around 1640.

Alessandro Tiarini was the godson of the painter Lavinia Fontana. He received his first training in Bologna under her father, Prospero Fontana. In 1597, Tiarini studied with Bartolomeo Cesi before being forced to leave Bologna because of a lawsuit. Tiarini then went to Florence, where he worked on the fresco decoration of the cloister of Sant´Antonio in the monastery of San Marco in 1602″. (DOROTHEUM sale catalogue online).

By 1650s in Italy, music was published almost exclusively with movable types (Rudolph Rasch in 2005 has collected various essays on music publishing in Europe; see Music Publishing in Europe 1600-1900: Concepts and Issues Bibliography, BWV Verlag). This was true also for special-notated music, like lute or gamba tablatures. Therefore I was quite sure that a lute tablature from at least the first half of the 17th century was rather unusual to find. So I reached out to someone much more expert in the field of tablatures: lutenists.

Step 1: getting to know the signs

I forwarded the image below to a dear friend Borut Novakovic, a Slovenian lutenist. I digitally reworked the picture, to allow him a better reading of the plate. I contrasted the picture and flipped it over, just as it was a regular printed page.

A. Tiarini (1577-1668) – Christ Carrying the Cross – verso, upright format, contrasted and flipped picture; private collection (image DOROTHEUM, 19.04.2016)

My lutenist friend took a very close look at the page and here are his indications.

First of all the beginning and the end of the piece are missing. The plate was possibly cut and adjusted according to the needs of the painter. Second: the music itself is rather pleasant and interesting. It is written for a nine-courses lute (at least). The small points or dots beside the numbers indicate the finger with which the performer had to strike the strings: one dot stands for second finger, two dots for middle finger.

Back in Bologna, while having a look at the plate, my friend Tommaso noticed that the numbers were impressed with a sort of loose metal type (puncheon), hammered on the surface of the copper. All the digits are identical one to the other. Occasionally, they were hammered in different direction. This fact makes the page look rather messy, especially in the lower part.

Despite these details, though, my striving to find the composer of such a piece was still unfulfilled.

Step 2: follow the signs.

At the beginning of December I was again in Bologna and I visited, as usual, the magnificent library of the likewise magnificent Civico Museo della Musica. I was going on with my regular researches when I realized I was in the perfect place to look for the composer of the lute piece. I reached out to the responsible of the library, Ms. Targa. She was extremely kind and open and proposed me to submit the question to Maestro P. Prosser, a lute scholar.

He confirmed all the theories and indications I already had. Yet he proposed a further extension of the “research team”, asking to involve the members of the Deutsche Lautengesellschaft. And that was when the sky opened.

Step 3: the more the marrier.

A team of Lute players, scholars and enthusiasts came to help: M. Lutz, P. Király, M. Rösel, P. Steur, A. Schlegel, G. Söhne joined forces with P. Prosser…

“P. Prosser sent me the request of the art historian Anna Bianco about the back of a picture that was drawn on a copper plate. The picture probably was made around 1640 in Italy (Rome/Bologna). On the other side the printing plate of a yet unknown piece can be found. If someone is able to identify the piece, it would be fine to contact me” (M. Lutz in

So in a couple of hours I was able to read the piece in a contemporary .pdf tablature and hear the notes in the Midi-file (on the site’s menu >Index >Research find this amazing material)!

But even more extraordinary was the less-than-24 hours later discovery:

“The piece has been identified by G. Söhne. It is a work by Alessandro Piccinini: Aria III Con parte variate. From Piccinini: Intavolatvra di liuto, et di Chitarrone. Libro primo, Bologna 1623, p. 49-51. But the version below is simpler and stems from another edition (possibly a pirate print?).” [see link]

Alessandro Piccinini (1566-c. 1638) is therefore the composer of the music. Yet the 1623 edition was still made in movable types. Therefore an actual printed page from this very plate is still to be found and many questions are still there to be answered. For instance: who engraved this plate and why? Is this a pirate copy of the 1623 edition or can it predate it? Which function did this had in respect to the known edition?

Prof. Dinko Fabris and M. Franco Pavan provided crucial information for the plate. A letter from Piccinini to Enzo Bentivoglio dating from 1614 suggests that he had the piece already composed from before he left Rome in 1611!

“…Io son dietro a una inpresa cioé di far intaliare un libro da sonare di lauto che già cominciai a scrivere sino a Roma: per stampare sarà di gran spesa, ma non ho dubio di guadagnarli dentro”(Ferrara, Archivio di Stato, Archivio Bentivoglio, Lettere sciolte 227, c.149 Alessandro Piccinini da Bologna a Enzo Bentivoglio, Ferrara in data 27.VIII.1614)

in Dinko Fabris, Mecenati e musici. Documenti sul patronato artistico dei Bentivoglio di Ferrara nell’epoca di Monteverdi (1585-1645), Lucca, LIM, 1999, n. 432, pp. 296-97.

Piccinini says: “I am about to have a book of lute sonatas engraved, that I had already begun when I was in Rome: it will cost money, but I have no doubt I will make some money with that”. Therefore the plate might date from around 1614.

Many are still the questions to be answered. What remains is this beautiful Christmas discovery, made possible through an international collaboration among scholars and enthusiasts to whom I will always be extremely grateful.

Anna Bianco

*Many are the people I am grateful to for this tiny adventure: Tommaso Pasquali and Prof. Camillo Tarozzi, Borut Novakovic, Cristina Targa, Pietro Prosser, the Deutsche Lautengesellschaft (Markus Lutz, Frank Legl, Mathias Roesel, Peter Steur, Andreas Schlegel); a very heartfelt thanks to Prof. D. Fabris and F. Pavan. My acknowledgments go also to Mm. J. Held, M. Niessen and E. Valorz.