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Stefano Della Bella, Death on a Battlefield

Etching, 22.5 x 30.3cm, Baillieu Library Collection, The University of Melbourne, Gift of Dr. Orde Poynton, 1959. Accession No. : 1959.4585.000.000.
Stefano Della Bella (1610-1664) came to Paris in 1639, while the Thirty Years’ War was still raging. This conflict had caused huge loss of life through its battles, disease (bubonic plague and typhus) and famine (Wilson, 2009, pp. 786-95). This engraving was long thought to date from the end of Della Bella’s career in 1663 (Jombert, 1772), but Massar dates it to 1646-7 on stylistic grounds (De Vesme & Massar, 1971, cat. no. 93). It had been associated with Della Bella’s contemplation of his own mortality but the earlier date actually fits with the larger historical picture, as the Thirty Years’ War was not finally ended until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The French poem, inscription and royal imprimatur also indicate that this work belongs to the artist’s stay in Paris, which lasted until 1650. Della Bella had represented the long and devastating war in several ways, including his 1638 The Siege of Saint-Omer and the series Various Designs as much for Peace as for War(D’Adda et al., 2007, cat. nos. 8 & 9).
This jaunty and martial rider is of course none other than death personified. Not only is human anatomy exposed, but also that of the horse. The print brings together several strands from Della Bella’s work, such as anatomy, both human and animal, war and scenes of death. The theme of this engraving is closely associated with a series by Della Bella known as The Five Deaths. These oval shaped prints show Death on Horseback, Death taking a Baby, Death Taking a Child, Death taking a Woman and Death taking an Old Man. A sixth in the series, Death taking a Young Man, was begun by Della Bella but finished by Giovan Battista Galestruzzi (De Vesme & Massar, 1971, cat. nos. 87-92).

While The Siege of Saint-Omer lays out the field of battle from the point of view of the noblemen in its foreground, with camps, forts, towns and ships arranged across land and sea like so many chessmen, the Various Designs series is much more observational, showing things such as camp life with soldiers standing around, the heat of battle with a horse bolting from its dead rider, and the aftermath with an army on the move, a soldier in the foreground carrying a piglet. In the present engraving we see war allegorically, Death is wreaking havoc amongst the chaos of the battlefield, his plumes and sash an extravagant parody of the dress of noblemen in the foreground of The Siege of Saint-Omer.


Conservation treatment of this print was carried out in 2011. See the treatment page for further details and before and after treatment photos.

D’Adda et al., 2007
D’Adda, R, E Lucchesi Ragni and M Mondini, Stefano della Bella: Incisioni della Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia, Grafo, 2007, p. 56, cat. no. 24.De Vesme & Massar, 1971
De Vesme, A. and P. D. Massar, Stefano della Bella: Catalogue Raisonée, New York, Collectors Editions, 1971, I, p. 67, cat. no. 93.

Eitel-Porter, 1999

Eitel-Porter, R., ‘Stefano Della Bella (1610-64), Death Riding Across a Battlefield‘ cat. entry in Frances Carey (ed.), The Apocalypse and the Shape of Things to Come, London, British Museum Press, 1999, p.205,  cat. no. 116.

Jombert, 1772

Jombert, C-A, Essai d’un catalogue de l’oeuvre d’Etienne de la Belle, Paris, Jombert, 1772.

Klem, 2009

Klem, D., Stefano della Bella (1610-1664): Zeichnungen aus dem Kupferstichkabinett der Hamburger Kunsthalle, Cologne, Weimar and Vienna, Böhlau, 2009.

Viatte, 1972
Viatte, F., ‘Stefano della Bella: Le Cinque Morti’, Arte Illustrata, 5, no. 49, pp. 198-209.

Viatte, 1977
Viatte, F., ‘Allegorical and Burlesque Subjects by Stefano della Bella’, Master Drawings, 15, No. 4, 1977, pp. 347-365, 425-444.

Wilson, 2009
Wilson, P. H., The Thirty Years War: Europe’s tragedy, Cambridge, Mass., Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2009.


Tim Ould
Tim Ould is a PhD candidate in Art History at the University of Melbourne and completed this entry in July 2010 for a developmental version of the website.

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