A few months ago the Hamburger Kunsthalle staged an exhibition of drawings by Stefano della Bella, an Italian draughtsman and printmaker, considered to have been one of the most important artists of the 17th century. When he died in Florence in 1664 he left 1052 prints and several thousand drawings, but only one known painting. Much of the fascination with his art derives from his unmistakeable and extremely skilled drawing style. The exhibition, which ran from 25 October 2013 to 26 January 2014, was the first comprehensive survey worldwide dedicated to his superb draughtsmanship, and the work on display, organised in close collaboration with the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, testified to the outstanding quality and range of his art. He was mainly active in Florence, Rome and Paris, and his practice is characterised by great diversity in terms of subject matter. His prolific graphic output includes military and court scenes, landscapes and genre scenes. Above all his ability to capture everyday life in all its different facets set him apart from most of his contemporaries. Della Bella's studies show him to be an attentive chronicler and astute observer of his surroundings. His oeuvre contains numerous depictions of noblemen, soldiers, farmers, herdsmen and labourers, as well as images of mothers with their children; other favourite subjects were animals and ships, and he also documented cavalcades, cityscapes and ancient monuments. A number of hauntingly beautiful images on the theme of death and some highly imaginative ornamental and costume designs round off his oeuvre.
Della Bella (1610-1664) was a contemporary of Rembrandt (1606-1669) and curiously enough they both sketched Hansken, a female Asian elephant that became famous in Europe in the early 17th century. Hansken could apparently wave a flag, fire a pistol, strike a drum, hold out her front feet, pinch money from pockets, put on a hat, carry a bucket of water, and pick up coins from the ground. She toured many countries, demonstrating circus tricks. Born in Ceylon, she was brought to Holland in 1637. Rembrandt saw her in Amsterdam in 1637 and made four sketches of her in chalk. Stefano Della Bella drew a significant number of sheets, probably in Paris and finally in Florence, where she had travelled to during a tour that included Zürich, Solothurn, Bregenz and St. Gallen.
One of Rembrandt's sketches of Hansken (1637)