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Attributed to Luca Ciamberlano (1580-circa 1641)

Portrait of Prester John, King of Ethiopia

inscribed ‘IL PRETEIANNI, RED/ EHTIOPIA/ Rome, Kal/ Man: 1599/ Iohannis Orla: formis’ (in the plate) and with inscription ‘a 24. […]bre/ 1793. 6’ (pen and grey ink), published in 1599
24.2 x 15.3 cm (plate);24.2 x 18.7 cm (sheet)
Bartsch 152[1] ; DeGrazia Bohlin R46, second and final state, a good impression with margins, there are four diagonal creases, a water stain across the sheet and some occasional foxmarks

Private Collection, The Netherlands.

Malvasia was the first to attribute this engraving to Agostino Carracci, but an attribution to Carracci’s follower Luca Ciamberlano is now widely accepted.[2] According to Bohlin ‘’the lively face must indeed be based on a drawing by Agostino, but the hardness of the engraving technique is certainly closer to his follower Luca Ciamberlano.’’[3]
The engraving shows the mythical king Prester John, depicted as a descendent of the Magi (as he was thought to be), with his crest in the background. The legend of Prester John has its origins in the 12th century; in 1165 a letter was supposably sent by someone known as Prester John, king of the Indies, to several European rulers. In it, he described his magical kingdom in the East which was in danger of being overrun by infidels and barbarians. In 1177 Pope Alexander III sent a letter in response to in order to find the magical kingdom, which was thought to be located in India. Over the centuries variations of the letter circulated, prompting continual pursuits by Western rulers in search of the land where ‘honey flows […] and milk abounds everywhere’.
The presumed location of this magical land of harmony and justice evolved through the centuries, in the 13th century it was thought to be in India and subsequently, in the 15th century it was thought to be in Africa. By the late 16th century, when the present engraving was published, Prester John was firmly believed to have been king of Ethiopia as is attested by the inscription at the bottom of this print. In the 17th century the search for the ‘Ethiopian king’ subsided, yet the legend had by then profoundly impacted world history, spurring European explorers and scholars to embark on journeys and mapping hitherto uncharted lands.

[1] D. DeGrazia Bohlin, The Illustrated Bartsch, 39, Formerly volume 18 (Part 1), Italian Masters of the Sixteenth Century, New York, 1980, p. 193. [2] D. DeGrazia Bohlin, 'Prints and Related Drawings by the Carracci Family. A catalogue Raisonné', Washington, 1979, p. 410, R46.
[3] 'ibid.', p. 410.

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