The frontispiece of Il Colombo


Il Colombo overo l’India riscoperta, is a ‘dramma per musica’ written by cardinal Pietro Ottoboni in 1690 [link to Googlebook], published under the pseudonym of Crateo Pradelini (anagram of Cardinal Pietro). As one reads on the title­page ‘da rappresentarsi al teatro tor di Nona’ the libretto was published before the staging (28 December that year). Four plates in total are to be found in this booklet: one as frontispiece and the others at the beginning of each act. They were drawn by Giovanni Battista Gaulli and engraved by the Flemish Robert van Audenaerd.

Both of them were active in the circle of Ottoboni: Gaulli was an appreciated painter and Van Audenaerd had already proved himself to be a refined engraver, translating into plates the portrait of the cardinal with some allegorical figures in the title page of the popular Veteres arcus Augustorum triumphis insignes by Giovan Pietro Bellori. The partnership between Gaulli and the Flemish artist produced decorations for at least other two Ottobonian librettos, one in 1694 Il Corradino with an allegory of Justice and Poetry in front of the Gulf of Naples and in the Santa Genuinda, overo l’Innocenza difesa dall’Inganno studied in the 90s by Flavia Matitti.


The dedicatee of il Colombo is Ottoboni’s mother, Maria Moretti, and in the dedicatory letter are to be found important evidence concerning the raison d’etre of this libretto and of the opera itself: here in fact the cardinal compares himself to Columbus when he says that ‘it is now my task to discover a new World… and [with this composition] to bring the light to the rough minds’. Just a few lines earlier he praised the native Americans since, despite their ignorance they welcomed and accepted the new light brought by Columbus. In the same way Ottoboni hoped that the Roman public would have appreciated and welcomed his way of making operas.

The same concept of light of knowledge overcoming shadows of ignorance expressed in the dedicatory letter is recalled in the allegorical frontispiece opening the edition: on the top left corner a sun shines and sheds its light on the rest of the composition. On the opposite side, there is a waning moon. At the center, there is a globe with a stripe on the top of which is the double-headed crowned eagle, recalling the arms of the cardinal. At the sides of the globe appear two personifications of Fama, with trumpets (The drawing in Oxford, at the Ashmolean Museum, inv. WA1970.63 looks remarkably familiar…). The figure on the left is playing her instruments in the direction of the sun, right above her head, whereas the woman on the right is looking down on Earth, holding her trumpet in her hand. It looks like she is calling the attention of humankind as she is pointing with her hand in the direction of the sun, which – as it is now clear – represents Ottoboni himself, a new sun for Rome. There is a cartouche flying in the sky with a Latin inscription ‘NEC SATIS’ possibly a motto related to the Ottoboni family. On the bottom, the title ‘IL COLOMBO’ is impressed on a curtain. This plate is signed ‘GB / Gaulli’. Even if not signed, this plate was also engraved by van Audenaerd.

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