Rebirth of the Phoenix:
A Drawing by Bartolomeo Fenis
ENRICO CORTONA AND MARCO RICCOMINI
An intriguing drawing of a Group Turkisll Heads caught our attention when it recently appeared on the London art market (Fig. 1).1 Based on an inscription on the drawing's mount, reading A Figino (a reference to the Lornbard artist Ambrogio Giovanni Figino it was catalogued at the tirne of its sale as "Lombard School, first half of the Seventeenth Century." That similar exotic heads appear in paintings by such Lombard artists as Francesco del Cairo (1607—1665) and Pier Francesco Morazzone (1573—1625) helps to explain the sale room attribution. Yet the drawing's fine, precise pen style is far removed from what we know of these particular Lombard masters. If anything, the handling recalls sketches by the Lombard artist Camfllo Procaccini (c. 1555—1629) or the Bolognese tradition exemplified by the Carracci, in particular Annibale Carracci (1560—1609) and Agostino Carracci (1557—1602). Indeed, the taste for such multiple head studies persisted in Bolognese art until the eighteenth century and the time of the Gandolfi family.
In fact, this pen and ink drawing is by the almost completely forgotten artist Bartolomeo Fenis, who was also known as Barthélémy Fénis or Bartolomeo Fenice (fl. 1652—69). French by birth, Fenis spent most of his life in Modena, where he was active as a printmaker. An early attempt to reconstruct his oeuvre was made by Giuseppe Campori, who in his 1855 catalogue of art in Modena under the Este listed numerous etchings by Fenis, made mostly for printed books between 1653 and 1669.2 Another artist with the same surname, a certain Nicolö (or Nicolas) Fenis (fl. c. 1660), was credited by Campori with the altarpiece in the church of Sant'Agostino in Modena, although the nineteenth-century historian conceded that Nicolö was probably a better watchmaker than a painter.
The drawing that appeared in London is indisputably by Bartolomeo rather than Nicolö. The same bearded head in a turban decorated with a brooch at the centre of the sheet appears on the right of a small, unrecorded, and previously unpublished etching of Three Exotic Heads, which is clearly signed at lower left, Bar. Fenis Scul. (Fig. 2). 3 The two bearded heads are not only identical, though in reverse, they correspond almost exactly in size, suggesting that the drawing must have been used as a preparatory sketch for the print. In addition, the turbaned head at the lower right of the drawing (the one with a mustache, in strict profile to the right) is closely related to the head wearing an elaborate plumed headdress on the left of the etching, this time in the same sense.
A few other etchings by Bartolomeo Fenis are known, some of which testify to his admiration for the work of Stefano della Bella (1610— 1664). His Fantasies capricieuses, signed and dated 1658, for example, are an explicit tribute to the Tuscan Master. The rebirth of Fenice (the Italian word for "phoenix") as a draftsman could very well begin here.
Master Drawings, Vol XLIX, N.2, 2006, Pag. 229-231