The bottom edge of this image bears the inscription “Intrada oder Eingang in den garten desz Card. Borghesse zu Rom.”, indicating that the Arcadian scene portrayed above is set by the entrance to the Villa Borghese, the vast sculpture park and suburban palace built by Cardinal Scipione, nephew of Pope Paul V, over the first two decades of the seventeenth century. It is an inscription that testifies to the mobility of the paper sheet on which it is printed, and the villa it purports to portray, with its somewhat jaunty juxtaposition of Italian and Gothic script, and the addition of a distinctly German surplus ‘s’ to the Borghese name. Above it appears the names of its authors; ‘I W Baur in’. (for invenit, denoting that Baur devised the composition in drawing), and ‘Melchior Küsell fe’ (for fecit, attesting that Küsel made the printed image), both of whom were artists from the North, where this etching was printed (the inscription C: Privi: S: C: M: is an abbreviation for cum privilegio, sacrae caesareae maiestatis – conveying the printing licence and copyright bestowed on this image by the Holy Roman Emperor).
Johann Wilhelm Baur, who hailed from Strasbourg, enjoyed a certain success in Rome with his vedute and miniatures, for which he was praised by Baldinucci. Before departing for Vienna to work under the patronage of the emperor, he painted and drew several views of villa gardens and fountains, frequently featuring people strolling about in the presence of lifelike, elongated statuary. Sometime after Baur had passed away in 1642, a number of his designs were purchased from his heirs by Melchior Küsel, an enterprising engraver who lived and worked in his native Augsburg. From here, Küsel etched and published a series of Baur’s designs under the title Iconographia, an ambitious work in four volumes spanning a broad range of subject matter including the life, Passion and miracles of Christ; palaces, sea ports and gardens; pastoral landscapes, mythological scenes and classical allegories.
With remarkable mastery of the medium, the etching depicts two figures in conversation in front of a garden wall, dwarfed by two colossal and heroically nude characters, half sculpture, half flesh, that tower above them on pedestals, flanking a monumental gate. Although the sun is high in the sky, a brilliant light emanates from within the gate, the blank whiteness of the unprinted paper contrasting sharply with the density of textured foliage that saturates the image all around. Were it not for the title, it would be difficult to identify the scene as the entrance to the Villa Borghese. Yet, descriptive though it is, this title is also deceptive; at this time there was no Borghese cardinal presiding over the villa on the Pincian Hill.
While the Borghese villa had been conceived as an image of the magnificence of its founding patron, comprising an unrivalled collection of ancient statuary, modern sculptures and paintings, it was not before Marcantonio IV Borghese inherited this monument to the family fortune in 1763 that the garden estate underwent significant alterations to the architecture and collections. Writing the first guidebook to the site in 1650, nearly two decades after the passing of the founding patron, Jacopo Manilli, the guardarobba of the villa, described his own efforts as motivated by the wish to provide iconographic explanation to curious foreigners, more specifically those visiting from the Oltremontane, North of the Alps, who, so he explains, have an insatiable appetite for Roman antiquities; the ‘mysterious ancient eruditions’ that saturate the property in the form of statues and reliefs. Writing the guidebook, he wishes to spread the fame of the villa and its collection to ‘the most remote nations’.
By this time, the villa featured on the itinerary of the growing number of travellers that would visit Rome at the outset of the Grand Tour, taking a foremost position in the emerging canon of must-see monuments in the city. Those who visited often took Manilli’s guidebook home, some described the villa in published diaries. A large majority of others knew the villa only through prints like this one that passed through Europe. So, while interventions to the casino and gardens were reduced to a minimum and its organising principles were receding into the past, even for the guardarobba who sometimes expresses puzzlement at the indecipherable reliefs displayed on the estate, the villa took on a new mobility in print, disseminated among audiences in the North.
Sketched in Rome, published in Augsburg, and circulated widely both in Italy and elsewhere, Küsel’s etching is testament to this mobility. The first edition of the Iconographia, published from 1670 and comprising nearly 150 impressions (the more complete copies contain 146 or 148 etchings), was expanded for a second edition of 1682, where this image first appeared, subsequently published again in 1686 and 1702; evidence of a great commercial success. The images that made up the Iconographia were also reshuffled and used in other editions. The numbering of the plate, appearing twice – once as a ‘4’ in the bottom of the image and again directly below, cancelled out – bears witness to this. In this process, mutations of images and their annotations is at work, and one thing passes for another as Küsel translates Baur’s designs into etchings. Whether wilfully or not, he gets it wrong. A fairly accurate perspective of the main façade of the Villa Borghese is labelled “Pallaz zu Genova Villamena genandt”.
This impression likely stems from the edition of 1682 and belongs to the third volume of the Iconographia. Here, it appears in sequence after a rendition of a Roman Triumph (#3) and before a dramatic waterfall from Tivoli ‘with the power to petrify’ (#5). In Küsel’s encyclopaedic catalogue of images, it takes its place among the art of the Roman past and of the wonders of nature. In this series of the fantastic, the gate to the Villa Borghese appears remote and otherworldly, and guarded by ancient giants. Although we find mention of several pairs of such sculptures flanking gates at the Villa Borghese in Manilli’s guidebook – the pair of herms executed by Pietro and Gian Lorenzo Bernini are among them – the statues depicted by Küsel, in their dramatically exaggerated proportions, are at a far remove from the ancient marbles displayed in the villa gardens, none of which much exceeded life size. Equally incongruous are the overgrown wall and the tall tree leaning over it, thoroughly departing from the principles of strictly ordered nature that governed the Borghese gardens. With its almost complete lack of descriptive accuracy, so praised in other genres of topographically specific printmaking in the seventeenth century, the etching rather presents a bucolic vision of a garden not only separated from Augsburg in space, but also in time. By evoking a vast secret garden protected by ancient guardians, Küsel’s etching suggests the possibility that a petrified antiquity, spread throughout the gardens as ‘mysterious ancient eruditions’ in statuary and reliefs, is animated and alive inside the gardens, out of view of the beholder.
Images captions: Melchior Küsel (etcher) after Johann Wilhelm Baur (draughtsman), Two figures in front of a monumental gate flanked by two sculptures. Etching. This impressions ca. 1682. Private collection.