Exhibition: ‘The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy’ at the National Gallery of Art

Rare Renaissance color prints come to the capital
By Lorraine Ferrier, Epoch Times
October 25, 2018 Updated: October 25, 2018

Some of the rarest prints of the Italian Renaissance have come together for a comprehensive American show. “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy” presents around 100 prints, from American and British collections, at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington until Jan. 20, 2019.

The exhibition opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), organized by its curator of prints and drawings, Naoko Takahatake, in association with NGA. Having recently opened in Washington, under the care of curator Jonathan Bober, the exhibition and accompanying catalog edited by Takahatake highlight new insights from decade-long research into the art of Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts, a highly regarded, but little-known type of early color printmaking.

Chiaroscuro, Italian for light (“chiaro”) and shade (“scuro”), is more commonly referenced as a technique in painting whereby tonal contrasts are used to portray three dimensions, or to create a specific ambience. Leonardo da Vinci’s illuminating “Adoration of the Magi,” the dramatic paintings of Caravaggio, and the emotive paintings of Rembrandt all use chiaroscuro to some degree.

The chiaroscuro woodcut re-creates the light and shade seen in Renaissance drawings and paintings by applying a series of woodblocks, each varying in tone, to make a print.

Not much is known about the history of Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts; many of the prints give no indication of the date they were made or the hands that made them. There is no clear commentary in history on chiaroscuro woodcuts except from the biographies written by the artists’ contemporary biographer, art historian, and artist Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574).

What is known is that Italy and Germany seemed to simultaneously develop their own versions of chiaroscuro printing.

Developing Chiaroscuro Woodcuts in Italy

The exhibition shows the development of the chiaroscuro woodcut in Italy, focusing on the main chiaroscuro workshops and individual artists: their methods and materials, as well as the subject matter, style, and composition.

Warrior Hercules wrestles a lion, black and blue chiaroscuro print. Raphael. Ugo da Carpi.
“Hercules and the Nemean Lion,” circa 1518, by Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael or Giulio Romano. Chiaroscuro woodcut from two blocks in blue and black, 11 3/4 inches by 8 11/16 inches. The British Museum, London. (The Trustees of the British Museum)

Italy’s chiaroscuro woodcuts began in Venice when Ugo da Carpi (born 1480 and died between 1520 and 1532) approached the Venetian Senate to protect his new printing method “chiaro et scuro” from being copied. In 1516, the Venetian Senate granted him an exclusive privilege, a patent of sorts, that seems to have secured Ugo’s position as the only chiaroscurist in Italy for more than a decade.

"Diogenes" famous chiaroscuro woodcut old man sitting reading, print in brown, green.
“Diogenes,” circa 1527–1530, by Ugo da Carpi, after Parmigianino. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in light green, medium green, brown, and dark brown, state iii/iii, 18 7/8 inches by 13 3/8 inches. Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund. (National Gallery of Art)
"Diogenes" famous chiaroscuro woodcut old man sitting reading, print in blue, green.
“Diogenes,” circa 1527–1530, by Ugo da Carpi, after Parmigianino. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in light blue, green-blue, green, and gray, state i/iii, 18 3/4 inches by 13 3/4 inches. The University of Texas at Austin, purchase through the generosity of Julia and Stephen Wilkinson. (Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas)

He developed the chiaroscuro woodcut technique from using one linear and one tonal woodblock to using a series of sometimes up to four tonal woodblocks. Ugo’s strong technical ability and collaborations with the likes of Titian and Raphael set a firm foundation for the chiaroscuro woodcut in Italy. Ugo’s most celebrated work, “Diogenes,” circa 1527–1530, was made in collaboration with Parmigianino (1503–1540) and is deemed the best example of any chiaroscuro. Parmigianino was an exemplary draftsman who skillfully executed his chiaroscuro woodcuts using fine inks and precise printing. He worked in Bologna between 1527 and 1530, engaging the printmaker Antonio da Trento, who fluently translated Parmigianino’s graceful designs.

Classical scene: bluey-black renaissance chiaroscuro print of two Saints being martyred by Roman soldier
“Martyrdom of Two Saints,” circa 1527–1530, by Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino. Chiaroscuro woodcut from three blocks in light blue, medium blue, and black, state ii/ii, 11 1/8 inches by 18 1/2 inches. Gift of Andrew Robison. (National Gallery of Art)
Classical scene: gray-brown, black renaissance chiaroscuro print of two Saints being martyred by Roman soldiers.
“Martyrdom of Two Saints,” circa 1527–1530, by Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino. Chiaroscuro woodcut from three blocks in light gray-brown, medium gray-brown, and black, state i/ii, 11 1/2 inches by 19 inches. Gift of Ruth Cole Kainen. (National Gallery of Art)
Classical scene: red ochre and blue-gray color renaissance chiaroscuro print of two Saints being martyred by Roman soldiers.
“Martyrdom of Two Saints,” circa 1527–1530, by Antonio da Trento, after Parmigianino. Chiaroscuro woodcut from three blocks in red ochre, blue-gray, and gray-black, state ii/ii, 11 3/8 inches by 19 inches. Rosenwald Collection. (National Gallery of Art)

The workshop of Giuseppe Niccolò Vicentino (1470–1560), active circa the 1540s, became the highest producer of chiaroscuro woodcuts in the 16th century. The workshop developed efficient production methods, and its woodcuts were characterized by a strongly saturated palette. The majority of Vicentino’s prints were Italian designs from the mid-1510s to the late-1530s, including those of Raphael and Parmigianino.

Warrior Hercules wrestles a lion in forest, black and brown chiaroscuro print. Raphael.
“Hercules and the Nemean Lion,” circa 1560s, by Nicolò Boldrini, after Niccolò Vicentino (after Raphael school.) Chiaroscuro woodcut printed from two blocks in brown and black, 11 5/8 inches by 16 1/4 inches. Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund. (National Gallery of Art)

In the 1540s, the Sienese mannerist painter Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (1486–1551) used chiaroscuro woodcuts to express dramatic scenes, refining the chiaroscuro woodcut technique to take on his spirited designs with their exquisite play of light. Unlike his peers, Beccafumi designed and cut his own blocks, adapting the core chiaroscuro woodcut techniques to suit his vivid imagination and artistry; he used unconventional tools and cutting methods, and also changed the inking process.

Man in robes with book gazing into the distance. Chiaroscuro. Beccafumi
“Apostle With a Book,” circa 1540s, by Domenico Beccafumi. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in light red, medium red, gray-red, and black, 15 15/16 inches by 8 7/16 inches. (Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)

From the 1530s to the 1580s, Italian painters and printmakers continued exploring the chiaroscuro woodcut, as well as replicating the well-known mid-century designs of Titian, Raphael, and Parmigianino. The technique was further adapted as chiaroscuro woodcuts spread outside the main artistic centers, from Cremona to Naples.

Virute, woman being pulled in all directions, tempted by angels and creatures. Chiaroscuro print in brown.
“Allegory of Virtue,” 1585, by Andrea Andreani, after Jacopo Ligozzi. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in light brown, medium brown, dark brown, and black, state i/ii, 19 inches by 13 inches. Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund. (National Gallery of Art)

Beginning his chiaroscuro woodcuts around 1583, Andrea Andreani’s (circa 1558–1629) monumental works made him the best of his time. For example, the “Triumph of Julius Caesar” (1599), after Andrea Mantegna, is made of 10 sheets and measures a colossal 14 3/16 inches by 12 feet 5 5/8 inches. Andreani elevated the chiaroscuro woodcut by refining the technique and tailoring the designs to appeal to art connoisseurs and collectors. He achieved this by collaborating with highly accomplished artists of his day and replicating sculpture, bronze reliefs, and marble intarsia (inlay) designs, in addition to the traditional chiaroscuro woodcut subjects that replicated drawings and paintings.

The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington until Jan. 20, 2019.

Eve, woman kneeling under a tree in the forest, light shining through the clouds. Brown black chiaroscuro print.
“Eve,” 1587, by Andrea Andreani, after Domenico Beccafumi. Chiaroscuro woodcut from four blocks in ochre, gray-brown, dark brown, and black, 18 1/8 inches by 12 3/8 inches. Andrew W. Mellon Fund. (National Gallery of Art)
RECOMMENDED