Rachel Sloan, Assistant Curator of Works on Paper
We’re used to thinking of prints as objects to be framed and admired on gallery walls, or kept in a portfolio and perused at leisure. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Prints have been put to many different, and sometimes surprising, uses over the centuries: they’ve been used as maps, playing cards, and, in the case of this superb etching by Jacques Callot, as fans.
Callot (1592-1635) hailed from Nancy, in eastern France, although he spent the first part of his career in Italy. One of the most accomplished and innovative printmakers of his age, he soon found employment in the Medici court in Florence, where Grand Duke Cosimo II commissioned him to record – and enhance – the extravagant festivals and pageants for which both court and city were renowned.
One of these festivals was a mock battle staged annually on an artificial island in the River Arno by the rival guilds of weavers and dyers. In 1619, Cosimo asked Callot to design a fan to commemorate the event – the etched design would be printed, then cut out and stuck down on board before being distributed to 500 lucky spectators. (A thousand impressions were printed, so a large number of impressions – including this one – were never actually cut out and transformed into fans.)
As is often the case with Callot’s prints, the pleasure is in the details. Hundreds of tiny figures, their elegant costumes meticulously recorded, are massed along the riverbank, and the bridges, the battle itself and the distant city are depicted with exquisite care.
Callot had initially trained as a goldsmith, something which no doubt honed his ability to render figures on a miniature scale – and it’s worth remembering that the two most time-honoured intaglio printmaking techniques, engraving and etching, both evolved from the goldsmith’s craft.
Callot embraced the freedom and ease of the etching technique (drawing a design with a needle on a wax-coated plate is much less laborious than painstakingly incising it) but he didn’t want to give up the elegance and control of the engraved line, which typically swells in the middle and tapers gracefully at each end.
He found the solution in a tool called an échoppe, whose oval head allowed him to achieve the same effect. You can see how skilfully he used the échoppe to achieve the swooping curves that form the borders of the fan.
One of the distinguishing features of many of Callot’s prints is their playfulness, and The Fan is no exception. On the curling scrolls that form the lower border are perched several small figures.
One of them, just right of centre, is glancing back over his shoulder and brandishing a fan. One of Callot’s?