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May 05, 2023

Acquisition: Teodoro Filippo di Liagno, called Filippo Napoletano

Teodoro Filippo di Liagno, "Skeleton of a Heron"

Teodoro Filippo di Liagno
Skeleton of a Heron, 1620–1621
etching on laid paper
plate: 14.6 x 9.2 cm (5 3/4 x 3 5/8 in.)
sheet: 17.4 x 11.4 cm (6 7/8 x 4 1/2 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Funds from Virginia Mars

Teodoro Filippo di Liagno (1589–1629), sometimes called Filippo Napoletano, worked primarily in Naples and Rome as a landscape painter in the first quarter of the 17th century. He also produced a limited number of prints that mostly comprise two rare but influential etched series. The National Gallery of Art has acquired 15 of the 21 sheets from his Animal Skeletons series (1620–1621) through a gift of funds from Virginia Mars. These etchings reflect the artist’s keen observation of nature and exemplify the fundamental relationship between art and scientific inquiry in the early modern period.

While living in Rome from around 1614 to 1617, Liagno became acquainted with members of the Accademia dei Lincei (Academy of the Lynx-Eyed), a society dedicated to the communal study of the natural sciences. Among his friends was Johan Faber, a doctor from Bamberg, whose scholarly interests extended to botany and zoology. Liagno’s etchings document specimens from Faber’s personal collection of more than 100 animal skeletons.

The 15 etchings acquired by the National Gallery include sheets depicting the articulated skeletons of a goose, a camel, a hedgehog, and a fish, to name a few. Liagno has presented each skeleton on its own sheet, evoking the structure and aesthetic of a display case. Additional etched lines suggest solid ground or sprigs of foliage. The bones of each creature are arranged to suggest a state of suspended animation. Engraved Latin inscriptions identify the animal and comment, sometimes humorously, on the creature’s typical behavior or their depicted skeletal state.

This set of prints also includes the frontispiece to the series, which features a winged human skeleton holding an hourglass and reclining on a stone bearing the artist’s signature and a dedication to Faber. An additional sheet in the group depicts another human skeleton, this time with a bow and quiver. These personifications of death are part of a tradition of memento mori, which remind the viewer that nothing lives forever.

Liagno’s series points to the international network of exchange between artists and naturalists in the early 17th century. Although they reproduce the personal collection of a German doctor living in Rome, the etchings were executed in Florence, where the artist was employed by Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. At the Medici court, Liagno worked closely with the inventive printmaker Jacques Callot of Lorraine (northeastern France). Although they were likely printed only in a small edition for Faber’s friends and colleagues, the etchings were influential, even inspiring a set of copies by Dutch printmaker and publisher Hendrik Hondius.

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