Known as il Lucchesino after the city of Lucca where he was born, Testa moved to Rome at the age of 17 or 18 and began his career there by working for Vincenzo Giustiniani, who had employed a team of engravers under the supervision of Joachim von Sandrart (who later wrote Testa’s biography) to record his renowned collection of classical statuary. Soon after, Testa joined the studio of the painter Domenichino where he came into contact with a wide circle of learned artists and theorists, such as Nicolas Poussin and Giovanni Pietro Bellori, whose serious intellectual approach influenced the classicising tendencies and erudite subject matter of Testa’s own work. Following Domenichino’s move to Naples, Testa entered Pietro da Cortona’s studio, but because of his difficult character was quickly expelled.
Nevertheless, Testa’s thorough training with Domenichino brought him by the early 1630s to the attention of the influential antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo. Testa produced numerous drawings depicting the antiquities of Rome for Cassiano’s famous Museo cartaceo – an ambitious project that involved many artists in the creation of a ‘paper museum’ comprising thousands of drawings and prints recording antiquities as well as natural history. However, the relationship between the two men ended bitterly when Cassiano had Testa imprisoned in 1637 on suspicion that he was going to flee without delivering paintings for which Cassiano had evidently paid.
In Rome during the period after 1637 Testa devoted himself to writing a treatise on painting but it was never completed and remained as a collection of handwritten notes. Although his greatest ambition was to be a painter, Testa achieved a measure of success with his etchings and it is through these inventions, together with his drawings, that his name has been preserved for posterity.
As is often the case with Testa’s mature prints, which deal with austere or tragic themes, the etching of The sacrifice of Isaac illustrates one of the most dramatic of biblical passages, touching on heroic suffering and the psychological conflict of the father figure, Abraham. Testa’s proclivity for such subjects might have been an extension of his own mental despair: by all accounts he appears to have been an isolated soul beset with melancholy at his failure to succeed as a painter. He committed suicide by drowning himself in the Tiber at the age of 38.
The subject of Isaac’s sacrifice is told in Genesis (22: 1–19): God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, as proof of his obedience. The story was interpreted as a prefiguration of the crucifixion of Christ, whom the Father sent to be sacrificed. Testa depicts the moment when an angel appears and stays Abraham’s arm as he is about to strike his son; meanwhile, another angel brings a sacrificial lamb to be substituted for Isaac. There is a fully resolved compositional drawing for this etching, in pen and ink, only slightly larger and corresponding to it in most details, preserved in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
29.7 x 23.7 cm trimmed outside border line
Signature & date
Not signed. Not dated.
Not on display
Shown in 5 exhibitions
Three years on: acquisitions 1978-81, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Oct 1981–01 Dec 1981
Piety and Paganism, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 13 Jul 1991–29 Sep 1991
Mantegna to Piranesi - Italian Old Master Prints from the Collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 27 Jun 1998–20 Sep 1998
Old Europe: Prints & drawings from the collection 1500-1800, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 03 Jun 2006–06 Aug 2006
European prints and drawings 1500-1900, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 30 Aug 2014–02 Nov 2014
Referenced in 7 publications
Paolo Bellini, L’opera incise di Pietro Testa, Vicenza, 1976. no 26
Elizabeth Cropper, Pietro Testa 1612–1650: prints and drawings, Philadelphia, 1988, pp145-49. no 7
F.W.H. Hollstein, Dutch and Flemish etchings, engravings and woodcuts c.1450-1700, Amsterdam, 1949, vol. IX, p 181. cat no 27, no 1
Peter Raissis, Prints & drawings Europe 1500-1900, Sydney, 2014, p 56, col illus p 57.
Peter Raissis, Look, 'Early European works on paper', pg.20-23, Sydney, Aug 2014, illus p 22. no catalogue numbers
Adam von Bartsch, Le peintre graveur [21 vols], Vienna, 1803-1821, vol XX, p 215. no 2
Catalogue des estampes gravées d’après P P Rubens, Haarlem, 1873, p 11. no catalogue numbers, no 94