CAT 114. Agostino Mitelli. Cartouche with death-head, head-piece for Mary M. Heaton, “David Scott,” in L’Art (Paris), 1879.
Agostino Mitelli (1609-1660) was a painter, architect, and engraver who was born near Bologna and studied at the Carracci Academy. Agostino Mitelli and Angelo Michele Colonna perfected what came to be known as the “Bolognese style” in architectural decoration and ceiling enframement. Mitelli excelled in “quadratura, the painting of illusionistic architectural space.” His major commissions in Italy included the Sala Grande of the Spada Palace in Rome (1635-36), the Jupiter reception room of the Pitti Palace in Florence (1639-41), and the Balbi Palace in Genoa (1655). Mitelli’s last commissions were in Madrid, where he was summoned by Velásquez on behalf of King Phillip IV to bring the art of quadratura to Spain (Feinblatt, Grove, 732).
Mitelli’s style of architectural decoration caught Melville’s eye in Genoa on April 17, 1857, when he wrote in his journal: “Palaces inferior to those of Rome, Florence, & Venice. One peculiarity is the paintings of architecture instead of the reality. All kinds of elaborate architecture represented in fresco.” In Florence one month earlier, Melville would have experienced Mitelli’s quadratura designs, in addition to those of Pietro del Cortona, on the ceilings of the Pitti Palace. In Rome two weeks before that, he had seen Guido’s Aurora “float overhead like sun-dyed clouds” in the quadratura illusion of the ceiling at the Rospiglioso Palace (NN J 123, 114, 116, 109).
As a draftsman, Agostino Mitelli was influential as a designer of ornamental cartouches. He published his first set of prints in 1636, “a suite of twenty four etchings of decorative cartouches and ornaments.” These were followed by a “set of twelve smaller cartouches,” first published in Bologna and then “re-etched in 1842 in Paris,” where they were published by François Langlois and reissued by Pierre Mariette II. Mitelli’s distinctive contribution to this design specialty was the way in which he “enframed his cartouches with sirens, masks, garlands, putti, scrolls, shells, swags, etc., enriching, varying and complicating the lobes so that they could be individual motifs themselves” (Feinblatt, 1965, 76-78). This is seen in the elegant Mitelli death-head in Melville’s collection, reproduced as the headpiece to an 1879 essay in the French journal L’Art.
In the fluidity of his style, as well as in his own publishing history in Paris, Mitelli’s career as an etcher paralleled that of his Italian contemporary Stefano della Bella, who was also known for the fluidity and inventiveness of his decorative cartouches (see Massar, p. 12; De Vesme, nos. 1016-19). In Melville’s collection, the sheet of L’Art including Mitelli’s cartouche was used to enclose four prints that Melville identified in the words he wrote immediately above the cartouche itself: “The Four Seasons by Abraham Bosse—French painter—born 1610” (CAT 151-154). It is possible that Melville chose this sheet primarily to protect Bosse’s prints, but the Berkshire Athenaeum assigned it an acquisition number when receiving it from Eleanor Melville Metcalf in 1952, so I am treating the Mitelli design as part of Melville’s collection, where it fits in well with the work of della Bella in particular. So does the decorative capital letter D by Agostino’s son Guiseppe Mitelli that is immediately under the cartouche on the same page of L’Art (CAT 115).