Printmaking in Italy  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
engraving, Italian art, master print


Italian line engraving

The early style of Italian engravers differs greatly from that of a modern chiaroscurist. Mantegna, for example, did not draw and shade at the same time. He got his outlines and the patterns on his dresses all very accurate initially. Then he added a veil of shading with all the lines being straight and all the shading diagonal. This is the primitive method, its peculiarities being due to a combination of natural genius with technical inexperience.

Marcantonio, the engraver trained by Raphael, first practiced by copying German woodcuts into line engravings. Marcantonio became an engraver of remarkable power and through him, the pure art of line-engraving reached its maturity. He retained much of the simplistic early Italian manner in his backgrounds. His figures are modeled boldly in curved lines, crossing each other in the darker shades, but left single in the passages from dark to light and breaking away in fine dots as they approach the light itself, which is of pure white paper. A new Italian school of engraving was born, which put aside minute details for a broad, harmonious treatment.

The earliest Italian engravings

Printmaking in woodcut and engraving both appeared in Northern Italy within a few decades of their invention north of the Alps, and had similar uses and characters, though within significantly different artistic styles, and with from the start a much greater proportion of secular subjects. The earliest known Italian woodcut has been mentioned above. Engraving probably came first to Florence in the 1440s; Vasari typically claimed that his fellow-Florentine, the goldsmith and nielloist Maso Finiguerra (1426–64) invented the technique. It is now clear this is wrong, and there are now considered to be no prints as such that can be attributed to him on anything other than a speculative basis. He may never have made any printed engravings from plates, as opposed to taking impressions from work intended to be nielloed. There are a number of complex niello religious scenes that he probably executed, and may or may not have designed, which were influential for the Florentine style in engraving. Some paper impressions and sulphur casts survive from these. These are a number of paxes in the Bargello, Florence, plus one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York which depict scenes with large and well-organised crowds of small figures. There are also drawings in the Uffizi, Florence that may be by him.


Where German engraving arrived into a still Gothic artistic world, Italian engraving caught the very early Renaissance, and from the start the prints are mostly larger, more open in atmosphere, and feature classical and exotic subjects. They are less densely worked, and usually do not use cross-hatching. From about 1460–1490 two styles developed in Florence, which remained the largest centre of Italian engraving. These are called (although the terms are less often used now) the "Fine Manner" and the "Broad Manner", referring to the typical thickness of the lines used. The leading artists in the Fine Manner are Baccio Baldini and the "Master of the Vienna Passion", and in the Broad Manner, Francesco Rosselli and Antonio Pollaiuolo, whose only print was the Battle of the Nude Men (right), the masterpiece of Florentine C15 engraving. This uses a new zigzag "return stroke" for modelling, which he probably invented.

A chance survival is a collection of mostly rather crudely executed Florentine prints now in the British Museum, known as the Otto Prints after an earlier owner of most of them. This was probably the workshop's own reference set of prints, mostly round or oval, that were used to decorate the inside covers of boxes, primarily for female use. It has been suggested that boxes so decorated may have been given as gifts at weddings.<ref name="Levinson"/> The subject matter and execution of this group suggests they were intended to appeal to middle-class female taste; lovers and cupids abound, and an allegory shows a near-naked young man tied to a stake and being beaten by several women.


The other notable early centre was Ferrara, from the 1460s, which probably produced both sets of the so-called "Mantegna Tarocchi" cards, which are not playing cards, but a sort of educational tool for young Humanists with fifty cards, featuring the Planets and Spheres, Apollo and the Muses, personifications of the Seven liberal arts and the four Virtues, as well as "the Conditions of Man" from Pope to peasant.

Mantegna in Mantua

Andrea Mantegna who trained in Padua, and then settled in Mantua, was the most influential figure in Italian engraving of the century, although it is still debated whether he actually engraved any plates himself (a debate revived in recent years by Suzanne Boorsch). A number of engravings have long been ascribed to his school or workshop, with only seven usually given to him personally. The whole group form a coherent stylistic group and very clearly reflect his style in painting and drawing, or copy surviving works of his. They seem to date from the late 1460s onwards.

Italy 1500–1515

For a brief period a number of artists, who began by copying Dürer, made very fine prints in a range of individual styles. These included Giulio Campagnola, who succeeded in translating the new style Giorgione and Titian had brought to Venetian painting into engraving. Marcantonio Raimondi and Agostino Veneziano both spent some years in Venice before moving to Rome, but even their early prints show classicizing tendencies as well as Northern influence. The styles of the Florentine Christfano Robetta, and Benedetto Montagna from Vicenza are still based in Italian painting of the period, and are also later influenced by Giulio Campagnola.

Giovanni Battista Palumba , once known as "Master IB with the Bird" from his monogram, was the major Italian artist in woodcut in these years, as well as an engraver of charming mythological scenes, often with an erotic theme.

Some engravers

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