The fundamentally anti-aristocratic stories of Bertoldo has been shaped by the 16th century Bolognese cantastorie out of an ancient popular tradition. They found their written expression, at the beginning of 17th century, thanks to Giulio Cesare Croce (1550-1609) and Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634). These stories, with their popular character, were well suited to the themes of the genre painting practiced by Giuseppe Maria Crespi. This first set of etchings (c. 1710) was the result of collaboration between Crespi and his friend, the printmaker Ludovico Mattioli. Although these etchings, in both their formulation and spirit, closely follow the examples of the prints of Giuseppe Maria Mitelli (1634-1718), the most renewed printmaker in Bologna, and fit precisely into the popular tradition, their artistic and technical quality is much more refined and reveals Crespi's long and careful preparation as a draughtsman. Whether Crespi learned these techniques from Mattioli, or whether, instead, Mattioli was spurred by Crespi's skill to develop his mastery of strokes, remains uncertain. But there is no doubt that a common fund of techniques was used in this first set of etchings. The extraordinary success of this first series convinced the Bolognese publisher Lelio della Volpe to print, in 1736, a new edition of the stories. The illustrations were commissioned to Mattioli only, who etched a new set of copperplates inspired by the first set.
For an accurate focus of the Bertoldo etchings within the graphic works of Giuseppe Maria Crespi see, recently published, Marco Riccòmini, Giuseppe Maria Crespi. Catalogo Ragionato dei disegni e delle Stampe, Turin, 2014.