Saints, Sinners and Souvenirs: Italian Masterworks on Paper

By Giorgio Moretti

This exhibition, the first of its kind in over 30 years in Metro Vancouver, features a selection of Italian Master prints and drawings dating from the Renaissance up to the late 18th century. Guest curated by Dr. Hilary Letwin.
Q & A with guest curator Dr. Hilary Letwin.
Marco Polo How did this project come about?
Dr. Hilary Letwin I worked as the Collections Assistant at the Burnaby Art Gallery from 2017 until 2019, and loved that the mandate of the Gallery is to collect and exhibit works on paper, which is very unusual for art galleries. My PhD research, which I completed in 2013, focused on Renaissance Italian prints. When I moved to the Vancouver area, I set about identifying what Italian artworks there were in the public collections. The Burnaby Art Gallery has some great Italian prints, but there were relatively few in Vancouver. The Burnaby Art Gallery’s Director, Ellen Van Eijnsbergen, knew about my project and was excited to help me formulate an exhibition about the works in public and later, private collections that I discovered. This exhibition runs concurrently with a second exhibition at SFU Library Special Collections featuring early printed books by the Venetian publisher, Aldus Manutius. Our two exhibitions share a publication, where you can read more about how the works on paper at the Burnaby Art Gallery intersect with the books on display at the SFU Library, and in Burnaby.
Marco Polo What’s your favourite work?
Dr. Hilary Letwin There are so many! Two of the prints included in this exhibition are by artists who I studied during my doctoral research, and of course, they hold a special place in my heart. The first, River God Po and a Putto, on loan from the Belkin at UBC, is by Giovanni Battista Scultori. He worked as a sculptor for most of his life in the workshop of Giulio Romano in his hometown of Mantua. In a workshop, he was always following other people’s designs, but his printmaking seems to have been a much more independent undertaking. In the workshop, he often worked according to a patron’s commission, but used engraving as a way to explore his artistic practice. The second, Christ’s Charge to St Peter was engraved by Giovanni Battista Scultori’s daughter, Diana Scultori. It was very rare in the renaissance for a woman to be trained as an engraver. I can only speculate that Giovanni Battista wanted his daughter to taste the same independence that he experienced in printmaking and trained her in the art. She was just as good a printmaker as her father.
Marco Polo How are works on paper different from paintings?
Dr. Hilary Letwin Works on paper tend to be much more fragile. Even in larger museums, such as the British Museum, they never display their works on paper for longer than three months at a time, because the light fades the inks. The other main difference between historical drawings and paintings is that drawings are usually the initial idea that an artist is working out. They might use a drawing to create the composition, work out a problem with light and shading or determine which figures go where. A preparatory drawing, such as the ones included in this exhibition, is like an insight into the artist’s mind. A painting tends to be much more polished and finished. A third difference is also the value placed on these works: works on paper tend to be worth less than a painting. Unless it’s a drawing by Michelangelo!
Marco Polo How did these works come to be in Vancouver?
Dr. Hilary Letwin The works exhibited here came to Vancouver through many different people. Some of these works belong to artists, who have an interest in historical European art and may have collected them as references. Others of these works were purchased by collectors, who have larger collections of European paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Some of these works came to Vancouver 100 years ago with Italian immigrants who settled in the Vancouver area, while some were purchased fairly recently.
Marco Polo How did you find the works in private collections?
Dr. Hilary Letwin I think I asked everyone I knew! Do you have any Italians works on paper? Do you know anyone who does? Eventually, I ran out of people to ask, but not before I found a good amount of material from which to choose in various private collections. The works on loan from the public collections were a lot easier to track down!

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