Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)

Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)

Stefano della Bella (Florence 1610 – 1664 Florence)

Design for a Playing Card: a Queen

Pen and brown ink, laid down onto card, partial brown ink framing lines, 51 x 34 mm (2 x 1.3 inch); presented on a modern Mariette-style mount and contained in a faux-porphyry frame

- Ancienne collection Lagrenée; troisième vente, Drouot (Tilorier), 27 June 1980, lot 311
- Private collection ‘Monsieur J.J.S.’, Paris, until 2014


The etcher and draftsman Stefano della Bella worked ceaselessly throughout his life, creating one of the largest paper oeuvres in Italian art: his catalogue raisonné numbers 1052 prints, and literally thousands of drawings are preserved in print rooms all over the world, often in sketchbooks.1 Like a devoted photographer intent on capturing the major events of his time, della Bella recorded the lavish theatrical pageants of Florence's nobility, daily life in Rome and Paris, and the battlefield realities of the Thirty Years War.

Della Bella began his career in the studio of a goldsmith, but apart from this early apprenticeship, the artist was basically self-taught. Before the age of twenty, he had allied himself with the powerful Medici court, which provided him with patronage throughout his career. With the Medici's support, in 1633, Della Bella travelled to Rome where he remained until 1639. During these six years, he honed his drawing skills. He worked mostly outdoors, recording ancient and modern buildings, the countryside, public spectacles, and the daily activities of the Roman people. Della Bella would later mine his sketchbooks for figures and backgrounds for his prints.

Supported by the Florentine ambassador, in 1639, Della Bella relocated to Paris. For the French nobility, he created a diverse range of prints including battle scenes, architecture, and animals. He moved effortlessly between large, topographically precise landscapes and fanciful works commissioned by Parisian dealers. He returned to Florence in 1650 where he again served the Medici court.

This charming and minuscule drawing is executed in Della Bella’s usual techique of a very light brown or golden ink applied by an in this case extremely finely sharpened quill-pen. The masterly handling on such small scale shows Della Bella's origins as a goldsmith. Our drawing is part of a small group of designs for playing cards, dating from Della Bella’s French period. A group is preserved in the Louvre as part of the collection of Edmond de Rothschild, for instance a sheet with nine designs for playing cards (see fig.).2 Some of the Louvre designs were engraved for games such as the Jeu de la Géographie and the Jeu des Rois de France (see last fig.).3 In 1644 playing cards like these were used to teach history and geography to the future King Louis XIV of France.


1. For Della Bella’s drawings, see for instance: A. Blunt, The drawings of G.B. Castiglione and Stefano della Bella in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen at Windsor Castle, London 1954 and F. Viatte, Dessins de Stefano della Bella, Inventaire général des dessins italiens, Paris 1974.

2. Viatte, op. cit., p. 255, no. 579, repr. p. 252. Further designs for playing cards are no. 577 (six designs), no. 578 (six designs), no. 580 (thirteen designs), no. 581 (thirteen designs), Viatte, op. cit., pp. 249-57.

3. ‘Elisabeth’, from the Jeu des Reynes Renommées, etching, 1644; British Museum, London, inv. no. 1871,0513.506. The pack contained 52 playing cards of famous queens.

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Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)
Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)
Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)
Stefano della Bella (1610–1664)
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