Prospero Fontana

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Prospero Fontana
Socrates Inspired by a Genius
ca. 1555
Pen and brown ink and wash, over black chalk, on paper; illusionistic frame in pen and brown ink, by the artist.
4 3/4 x 3 5/8 inches (121 x 91 mm)
Gift of Prof. Dr. Julius S. Held in honor of Felice Stampfle.

Inscribed on verso, at upper center, in pen and brown ink, "2".

Julius Held, Old Bennington, Vermont.

Like two others in the Morgan’s collection, this drawing is one of a series of eighty-four designs, in the same technique and size, formerly contained in an album that was sold at auction in 1972 and subsequently broken up.1 The drawings served as the designs for Giulio Bonasone’s engravings, most in the same direction, illustrating Achille Bocchi’s Symbolicarum Quaestionum, De Universo Genere, quas serio ludebat, Libri Quinque, published in Bologna in 1555. A second edition was produced in 1574 featuring different pagination, a copy of which is in the Morgan’s collection. Carlo Cesare Malvasia credited Fontana with the designs for the engravings and a poem accompanying Bocchi’s portrait, the first of the series of engravings, reads “Prosperus os potuit, non menten pingere Achillis.”2 In 1982, Adalgisa Lugli acknowledged these passages but favored an attribution to Bonasone of all but one sheet of the dismembered album.3 The following year, Philip Pouncey and John Gere assigned the entire group to Fontana, arguing that the elegance of the drawings could be reconciled with Fontana artistic personality, but not Bonasone’s.4 Rhoda Eitel-Porter cautioned that consideration for Bonasone should not be entirely dismissed, though she ultimately found the drawings ascribed to him to be less accomplished than the sketchbook designs.5 Without weighing in on the authorship of the group of studies in question, Sylvie Béguin pointed out that a drawing by Nicolò dell’Abate, now in Albertina, Vienna, is an initial sketch for one the designs in the Morgan’s collection and indicates that dell’Abate had a role in the design process.6

The sheet is preparatory to the third emblem, dedicated to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, who is invoked with the words “You who are the greatest of the Farnese.” Unusually, the philosopher Socrates is represented in the act of drawing because, according to the accompanying motto, “through images the most hidden meanings are revealed.”


  1. Morgan Library & Museum, New York, inv. 1992.25, 1992.26; Sotheby’s, London, 13 July 1972, lot 23 (as Giulio Bonasone).
  2. Malvasia 1841, 1: 176: “Nella casa famosa d’Achille Bocchio, entro scoparti di stucco, nelle volte di due stanze a basso, varie figure rappresentanti Virtu e Deita, designando [Prospero] per l’istesso molti de’ rami, che occorsero nell’erudito libro delle sue Simboliche Quistioni, intagliate da Giulio Bonasone.” See Lugli 1982, 93, notes 7-8.
  3. Lugli 1982, 87-96.
  4. Pouncey and Gere 1983, 76-79.
  5. See Ketelsen 1996, 446-453.
  6. Albertina, Vienna, inv. 24036; Béguin, in Bologna 2001, 76.

Selected references: Béguin, 2001, 76, 78, note 18; New York 2019, 54-55.


Watermark: none.

Associated names: 

Held, Julius S. (Julius Samuel), 1905-2002, former owner.

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