Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

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[Image: Andrea Andreani, after Giovanni Fortuna (?), A Skull, c. 1588, chiaroscuro woodcut from 5 blocks in light brown, light gray, medium gray, dark gray, and black, 11 × 13 1/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1861,0518.199, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

 

In 1516 Ugo da Carpi petitioned the Venetian senate for an exclusive privilege to produce chiaroscuro woodcuts by a method over which he claimed rights. He would later receive the same privilege from the pope, with the threat of excommunication for anyone infringing his privilege, equivalent to a patent. The system of printing was so noteworthy that Vasari described it at length in his Lives of the Artists. Yet evidence shows that Ugo had not invented anything. Hans Burgkmair produced chiaroscuro woodcuts in Augsburg at least as early as 1508. It seems Ugo himself was using another artist’s system.

This catalogue accompanies the current exhibition The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (3 June-3 September 2018, Los Angeles County Museum; touring to National Gallery of Art, Washington, 14 October 2018-10 January 2019). While this could be viewed as a purely art-historical exhibition, it could also be considered an assessment of a cutting-edge reprographic technology developed during the Renaissance.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were colour prints made via the relief method, where the raised surface of a wooden block was cut and inked then impressed on a sheet of paper. This was done with multiple blocks with different designs each inked a distinct colour. The block designs ranged from those giving a base colour and highlights, ones with areas of tone to ones with line drawing. Together these different layers formed a unified composition somewhat akin to a line-and-wash ink drawing or a drawing in line and white highlight on colour paper. The broad areas of tone meant forms could be built using distribution of shadows and – to a very limited extend – shading, thus they were called chiaroscuro (Italian “light-dark”).

It was time-consuming to produce the wooden blocks and to print them. Aligning the blocks (called registration) was achieved by various means but none of those were easy or flawless. The specialist skills and effort required to proof chiaroscuro woodcuts meant that there were a limited number of printers capable of producing editions. Although over 200 Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts were produced before the style fell out of fashion, this represents only a small fraction of prints produced over this period. The technique never became common and once the skills needed to cut and print the blocks were lost, the chiaroscuro woodcut became a moribund medium.

The chiaroscuro woodcut was used not to produce a full range of colour (separately and by over layering of transparent inks) but to create pictures of tone using muted colour. The makers chose to evoke and reproduce tonal drawings, ink-wash drawings or grisaille paintings. The rise of this type of print was partly spurred by the market for tonal drawings on tinted paper, which was popular in the German states, hence Burgkmair pioneering the technique north of the Alps. It seems Ugo had studied one of these prints and deduced the process in 1515 or 1516 before petitioning the Venetian state for a privilege.

Designers, block-cutters and printers belonged to different guilds and often worked in different workshops. Anthony Griffiths suggests in his essay that there was a professional division that meant that multicolour prints were not produced by the chiaroscuro method. There existed a guild for colourists of woodcut prints. They painted line prints with water-based paint. These were mass-market and often crudely made devotional images which were sold cheaply. As few of these survive – due to casual treatment and an absence of connoisseur interest in collecting them – nowadays we overlook these prints. Griffiths suggests that the guild of print colourists may have actively opposed the introduction of multicolour prints but felt that tonal prints presented no competition. Thus Europe never developed the full-colour woodblock print that was so spectacularly perfected in Japan.

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[Image: Ugo da Carpi, after Titian, Saint Jerome, c. 1516, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in gray-brown and black, 6 1/8 × 3 3/4 in., The British Museum, London, 1860,0414.100, photo © 2018 The Trustees of the British Museum]

The exhibition opens with a print by Ugo da Carpi (c. 1468/70-1532) from a drawing by Titian. Ugo and many of the printmakers who followed used designs from painters, with or without their permission. Saint Jerome (c. 1516) is modest in size and hardly more than a fragment of larger composition, but it is an effective translation of Titian’s vigorous curving hatching and emotional expressiveness. When Ugo moved from Venice to Rome he began to work with Raphael, mostly indirectly it seems. He used Marcantonio Raimondi’s engravings for some designs, as in the case of his adaptation of The Massacre of the Innocents.

Ugo and Antonio da Trenta (fl. c.1527-1540s) both worked with Parmigianino, turning his Mannerist compositions with Madonnas with extended necks into effective prints. According to Vasari, Parmigianino’s drawings and printing blocks were stolen by Antonio da Trento and although he later recovered the blocks, he never saw his drawings again. One drawing by Parmigianino is exhibited with its printed version (Nude Man seen from behind (Narcissus) (c. 1527/30)), which allows us to compare a rare surviving source with a print. The cutting of blocks led to the destruction or discarding of many drawings.

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[Image: Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino, Nude Man Seen from Behind (Narcissus), c. 1527–30, chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks in green and black, 11 1/4 × 7 in., Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gray Collection of Engravings Fund, G7500, photo: Imaging Department © 2018 President and Fellows of Harvard College]

Domenico Beccafumi (1484/86-1551) was exceptional among chiaroscuro-woodcut printmakers in that he was a professional painter who not only designed prints but also cut the blocks and printed proofs personally. His restless experimentation can be seen in the varied inking. There are examples of engraved intaglio plates being printed over tonal designs made with relief woodcut blocks, of which Beccafumi’s Three Male Nudes (River Gods) (c. 1540s) is one. His greatest achievements are a suite of large Apostles, which have the grandeur of statues. Indeed, these are thought to relate to a sculptural project Beccafumi planned but never executed. The boldness of the designs, variety of mark making, strong colours and the force of the images make these some of the best prints produced in the chiaroscuro-woodcut technique.

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[Image: Domenico Beccafumi,Saint Philip, c. 1540s, chiaroscuro woodcut from 3 blocks in light red, medium red, and black, 15 5/8 × 8 1/2 in., Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC, FP-XVI-B388, no. 41 (B size), photo courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, DC]

Following a selection of various Italian printmakers, the exhibition concludes with the art of Andrea Andreani (c.1580-1610), who brought Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts to a dazzling climax. The clarity and complexity of his designs are exceptional, particularly as seen in the Washington impression of Allegory of Virtue (1585) and reproductions of Giambologna’s sculpture Rape of a Sabine (c. 1583-4). Two prints of skulls, an allegory of death and a print of a woman contemplating a skull attest to the compulsion that vanitas and death exerted over Andreani.

The catalogue includes essays covering the production of prints and the market for them. Essays situate chiaroscuro woodcuts in the overall print production of the time and explain some of the motivation behind the brief flourishing of the chiaroscuro woodcut in Sixteenth Century Northern Italy. Authors analyse the meaning of the prints, authorship and technical details, explaining how the blocks were reprinted, repaired and altered over their lifetimes. Other proofs are illustrated to demonstrate different choices of ink or the effects of ageing. Illustrated are variant states of prints and drawings, paintings and sculptures that served as sources. New scholarship has cleared up some matters of attribution and dating and illuminated issues which have not yet been clarified. A section on watermarks includes data that has helped to date these (usually undated) prints. The only shortcoming of the section on watermarks was that photographs were not accompanied by line drawings of the marks. Line illustrations would be helpful to scholars seeking to identify marks.

A particularly useful section in the catalogue shows experiments with printing. Blocks were cut to conform to an actual Italian design and printed using a variety of papers, inks, binders and so forth. The close-up photographs and technical analysis describe the causes of problems and how differing printing practices affected the production of prints. Paper was used dry or moistened, showing how the even reception of ink on moist paper had to be balanced against the issue of shrinkage, which made registration of plates imperfect. Overprinting on wet or dry ink alter how inks interact and adhere. Such data demonstrates the many decisions printers and cutters had to make to achieve satisfactory results.

The design and production qualities of this book are exceptional. The care and thought put into every aspect of this book make it a great pleasure to consult and handle, quite aside from the valuable content.

 

Naoko Takahatake (ed.), The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy, Prestel, 2018, hardback, 288pp, 192 col. illus., $60/£45, ISBN 978 3 7913 5739 3

© 2018 Alexander Adams

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