8. Jean Duvet

The Unicorn Purifies the Water with his Horn
Plate: 22.6 × 40.2 cm
Sheet: 23.5 × 40.9 cm

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A very rare engraving, printed in grey-black, c. 1545–60, from ‘The Unicorn Series’, a very good silvery impression of the second (final) state, printing with clarity, on paper with a Grapes watermark (Eisler, Bessier 68). Duvet signed his prints emblematically, with the bird plucking its down (‘duvet’, lower right).

This lyrico-mystical engraving is fascinating on many different levels. Firstly, for the personality of its creator, Jean Duvet, a name virtually unknown today in spite of his great accomplishments. He is the earliest known French engraver, having been trained as a goldsmith by his father in Dijon. For his exceptional skills in both these areas he received the royal patronage of kings François I and Henri II. He was in charge of the complicated pageantry celebrating the triumphal entry into Langres of François I in 1533. Fortress design was another of his specialities, and his mark remains in the striking ramparts of Langres and Geneva. Among his other skills were die-making and metal-casting. His fame as an engraver rested on two series of prints: the twenty-three plates of The Apocalypse, for which he was granted the Privilege by Henri II in 1556; and the six large engravings of ‘The Unicorn Series’. Already, in 1666, Michel de Marolles, the first cataloguer of Duvet’s oeuvre, referred to him as ‘The Master of the Unicorn’.

Secondly, for the environment in which it was produced, and for which it is a giant rebus, referencing the complexity of the humanistic culture of Renaissance Europe. The new ideas that flowed from Marcilio Ficino’s Platonic Academy in Florence, from Pico della Mirandola’s Nine Hundred Theses, from Trithemius of Sponheim, Johann Reuchlin, Paracelsus, and Cornelius Agrippa – among many others – introduced Greek philosophy, alchemy, Hermeticism, Neo-Platonism, Sufi mysticism and Cabbala into the mainstream of European thought, establishing for the first time an intellectual forum outside the Church. Most of those involved in this enterprise were part of the Church, participating in the debate about the Reformation instituted by Martin Luther, and, until the Counter-Reformation unleashed by the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century, were largely tolerated within the Catholic Church. The public burning of Giordano Bruno in Rome in 1600 signalled a brutal end to tolerance. Ficino had inspired Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Dürer, and this inspiration, along with the influence of those who had built upon it, provided the intellectual fabric of Renaissance France, within which artists such as Ronsard, Rabelais and Duvet flourished. This was no New-Age-type phenomenon but a deep enquiry into the purpose of human life and its meaning. They did not reject religion, but tried with new tools to expand their understanding beyond the sterile doctrines of the Church.

Jean Duvet was a deeply religious man, Catholic in his upbringing but drawn to Luther, as were most artists of his generation. His solution was to remain a member of the Catholic Church, while keeping his connection with the communities of the Reformation. When the situation became too complicated he retired to Geneva, 80 miles from Dijon, where he had work designing fortifications and coinage. His stance is interesting and subtle, suggesting that he was able to avoid the common habit of accepting or rejecting one doctrine or another, precisely because another possibility had opened up in the humanistic environment in which he lived and worked.

Jean Adhemar wrote in his preface to Colin Eisler’s The Master of the Unicorn (New York, 1979): ‘We are amazed that Duvet was not rediscovered by the Symbolists in the nineteenth century. Probably, this is due to the extreme scarcity of his works. A Huysmans or a Robert de Montesquiou would have pronounced him “l’inextricable graveur” as they have characterized Rodolphe Bresdin for a similar amalgam of malaise and enchantment.’ Earlier in the 19th century, William Blake and Samuel Palmer must have been aware of Jean Duvet’s magical creations.