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Pietro Antonio Ferro: An Italian Painter and his Book

Sara D’Amico spent three months working with us as part of the EU Erasmus+ training scheme. Her project focused on 16th century Italian books in the Walter L. Bullock collection. This work is part of a partnership with the Italian Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo Unico to enhance their Census of 16th Century Italian editions (EDIT16). You can find out more about this in our previous post.

Milan, Christmas 1938: Helen Bullock gives her husband Walter the perfect Christmas present: a sixteenth-century Italian book, Trattato dell’arte de la pittura. Walter Bullock, Serena professor of Italian at the University of Manchester, was putting together an important collection which now enriches the shelves of the John Rylands Library.

The professor, always so keen on rarities, immediately recognised the essay, written by the Italian painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo in 1584 right after losing his sight; what he may have not realised, was that very same book had belonged to Pietro Antonio Ferro, another Italian painter who had much less fortune than Lomazzo.
As you can see in the picture above, Ferro signed his name and profession (Pietro Antonio Ferro pittore) on the titlepage of each of the seven books which make up the whole work. But at that time very few people may have recognised him: despite his success in the central regions of Italy during the seventeenth century, the painter was long forgotten. He was mentioned for the very first time in 1928 by Wart Arslan in his Relazione di una missione artistica in Basilicata, and was then referred to in a few local guides until 1981, when Anna Grelle redefined his artistic personality and reconstructed his style.

Though he didn’t have much luck in the artistic literature, Ferro’s works can be found almost everywhere in the region of Basilicata, especially in Matera. He was an important exponent of Italian Mannerism and a prolific artist: his activity spans over 40 years (1601-1644).
Very few biographical facts about him are known. Historians are still unsure about the date of his death (possibly around 1652), but what causes more doubts is his place of birth. In a contract signed in 1601, he refers to himself as a painter from the town of Ferrandina (“pictore de tera Ferandina”), but in a later document he’s referred to as a painter from the diocese of Tricarico (“pictore della città de Tricarico”). It is likeley that Ferro was born in Ferrandina and then moved to Tricarico, where he may have died: interestingly, on the titlepage of the second book of the essay, you can read another ownership inscription, made by Luigi Guerrisi in 1694. The Guerrisi family was an important noble family in Tricarico and the fact that Luigi came in possession of Pietro Antonio’s book a few decades after his death shows that their families must have had a deep connection.


Another interesting aspect of Ferro’s activity resides in his relationship with printing. Instead of taking inspiration from local artists, he looked at printed pictures (stampe) from the Tuscan-Roman region, so that his own works would be as modern as possible and could compete with those of more artistically evolved regions in Italy. This particular approach to painting led him to often travel to Rome, where he moved in the 1580s for an apprenticeship and where, in 1598, he bought Lomazzo’s essay.

The copy in Bullock’s possession holds more manuscript notes made by Ferro in the margins, notes that may shine a new light on his work. We know that three stages in his art have been identified and in the third stage (second half of the 1630s) we can see Caravaggio’s influence: the paintings tend to be darker. But if we read some of Ferro’s notes, it is clear that he had always been interested in the representation of light and shadows in painting: in the index that precedes Lomazzo’s essay, he marked with a dash the chapters that were most important to him, such as Grande auuertenza nell’allumar le figure di chiaro & scuro, Lumare & ombrare le figure senza contorno and Pittura è il corpo, & la poesia è l’ombra.


Even the manicule is drawn in a chapter named Come si diano i lumi à i corpi, where the author illustrates how to properly illuminate the bodies in a painting or where the shadows should be based on the direction of the light source.
The manicule is a punctuation mark in the form of a hand (its name derives from the Latin “small hand”), pointing a particularly interesting part of a text. It was first used in Spanish manuscripts in the 12th century, but it became rather popular in the 14th-15th century Italy, where it developed into more and more complex and elaborate drawings, as the one you can see in the picture above.

If you want to read the book and Ferro’s notes, or admire his beautifully coloured initials, you can find it in the John Rylands Special Collections (Walter L. Bullock Book Collection 1165).

Sara D’Amico (2019 Erasmus intern)

1 comment on “Pietro Antonio Ferro: An Italian Painter and his Book

  1. Pingback: Book for a Cardinal | John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

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