Giambattista Tiepolo, ‘Punchinelli preparing a meal of gnocchi and parmesan cheese’, Christie's Old Masters

There are just over two dozen documented drawings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo of Punchinello, the buffoon character that originated in 17th Century popular theatrical productions or commedia dell'arte. Tiepolo seems to have developed the subject of Punchinelli beginning in the 1730s and then intermittently through the early 1760s, mostly in drawings, and also in at least two paintings and etchings. Unlike his son Domenico whose Divertimento per li Regazzi show Punchinelli engaging in a wide range of every day activities, Tiepolo père almost exclusively depicts his Punchinelli making, eating, over-eating and suffering the consequences of over-eating gnocchi.

It is believed that the subject of gnocchi consumption was related to a regional festival, venerdì gnoccolare, which took place in Verona on the last Friday of Carnival. Young boys from the poor district of San Zeno dressed in costume convened in front of the Palazzo del Podestà and invited the mayor to the town square for a glass of wine and a dish of gnocchi, after which the entire town drank and ate until dawn. From this tradition Giambattista was inspired to create, if not quite a narrative, then certainly a related series about gnocchi and Punchinelli.

The present drawing is among the finest and most elaborate dedicated to the subject of Punchinelli preparing and serving gnocchi. The translucent washes are subtly deployed, complemented by strong pen contours, and black chalk is used not just as underdrawing but also as accents around the facemasks of the figures. The animated, perhaps even slightly menacing group of figures in their conical hats, beaked masks and white, ruffle-collared costumes crowd forward towards a seated Punchinello, his right side in shadow from the fire. One Punchinello offers a hunk of parmesan cheese on a plate, while another stirs the gnocchi with a long fork in a traditional earthenware vessel with ear-shaped handles which mimics the conical hats of the Punchinelli.

This drawing is among the most ambitious of the series. Only two drawings, one formerly in the Oppenheimer Collection (G. Knox, 'The Punchinello drawings of Giambattista Tiepolo', in Interpretazioni veneziane: studi di storia dell'arte in onore de Michelangelo Muraro, D. Rosand, ed., Venice, 1984, p. 440, fig. 5) and another in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris that shows a Punchinello prostrate in front of the pot of gnocchi (Les dessins vénitiens des collections de l'Ecole des Beau-Arts, exhib. cat., Paris, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, 1990, pp. 106-07, no. 51) are comparable in the degree of finish and the number of figures. In addition, there is a sheet of similar composition with fewer figures - four around the pot of gnocchi serving three seated Punchinelli - in the Art Institute of Chicago (Tiepolo and his circle, op. cit., 1996, pp. 216-17, no. 17).

It seems unlikely that Tiepolo conceived these drawings as a cohesive series like Domenico's Divertimento per li Regazzi (A. Gealt, Domenico Tiepolo. The Punchinello drawings, New York, 1986) given the span of time in which he is thought to have executed them. However, he does seem interested in a narrative arc or serial story-telling, with the present drawing and the Oppenheimer, Paris and Chicago examples of festive consumption towards the beginning. The adverse consequences of overeating gnocchi or gnoccolonità preoccupied him as well, and there are sheets of individual Punchinello both standing up and lying down, bellies distended, as well as in clear gastrointestinal distress, and even defecating, while other Punchinelli watch concerned (see Knox, 1984, op. cit., p. 441, no. 11; p. 443, nos. 14-15).

George Knox in his 1984 seminal article on Giambattista's Punchinelli drawings suggests a Veronese collector, Scipione Maffei, as a possible patron or early catalyst for these works (Knox, 1984, op. cit., pp. 439-446). Tiepolo is known to have visited Verona twice -- once around 1730 when he worked with Maffei on Verona Illustrata, and nearly thirty years later in 1760 to paint the ceiling of the Palazzo Canossa. However, by the middle of the 18th Century these Punchinelli drawings were appealing to collectors well beyond Verona. There are two etchings by the artist Georg Friedrich Schmidt (1712-1775) dated 1751 when Schmidt was based in Berlin. One etching is after a drawing of three Punchinelli around a pot of gnocchi that was last recorded in the Folinoux collection, Paris (Knox, 1984, op. cit., p. 445, figs. 19, 20). The drawings were also highly sought after by contemporary collectors, as demonstrated by Count Francesco Algarotti's boast in a 1761 letter to Pierre-Jean Mariette that he had 'les plus belles polichinelles du monde de la main de notre célèbre Tiepoletto' (Knox, 1984, op. cit., p. 444). Later, this drawing belonged to the celebrated diplomat and collector Dominique-Vivant, baron Denon (1747-1825), first director of the Louvre, who lived in Venice between 1789 and 1793. His collection was sold posthumously in Paris in 1826 and 1827.

Cambridge, Mass., Arthur M. Sackler Museum, and New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, Tiepolo and his circle: drawings in American collections, 1996, no. 79.

Dominique-Vivant, baron Denon (L.779).

with Colnaghi, London, 1972, where acquired by

Eugene Chesrow.

About Giambattista Tiepolo