Their general effect is purely conventional; and, owing to the uniform depth of the 40 blacks, their insignificant modelling expresses neither the relief nor the comparative depression of the forms. In short, we find in these early dotted prints nothing but perfect falseness to nature, and all the mendacity 42 inherent in feebleness of taste and slavish conformity to system.
How comes it that this sorry child's-play has appeared to deserve in our day attention which is not always conceded to more serious work? This might be better excused had these prints been investigated in order to demonstrate the principles of the method followed afterwards by the engravers of illustrations for books. The charming borders, for instance, which adorn the "Books of Hours," printed in France at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, would naturally suggest comparisons between the way in which many parts are stippled, and the process of the early dotted engraving.
But we may surely term excessive the efforts of certain scholars to fix on these defective attempts in a particular method of work the attention of a public naturally attracted elsewhere. Between the authors of the Low Countries and of Germany, long accustomed to skirmishes of the kind, this new conflict might have begun and continued without awaking much interest in other nations; but, contrary to custom, these counterclaims originated neither in Germany nor in the Low Countries.
For the first time the name of France was 43 heard of in a dispute as to the origin of engraving; and though there was but scant honour to be gained, the unforeseen rivalry did not fail to give additional 44 interest to the struggle, and, in France at least, to meet with a measure of favour. The words "Bernhardinus Milnet," deciphered, or supposed to be deciphered, at the bottom of an old dotted engraving, representing "The Virgin and the Infant Jesus," were taken for the signature of a French engraver, and the discovery was turned to further profit by the assumption that the said "Bernard or Bernardin Milnet" engraved all the prints of this particular class; although, even supposing these to belong to a single school, they manifestly could not all belong to a single epoch.
The invention and monopoly of dotted engraving once attributed to a single country, or rather to a single man, these assertions continued to gain ground for some time, and were even repeated in literary and historical works. A day, however, came when they began to lose credit; and as doubts entered even the minds of his countrymen, the supposed Bernard Milnet is now deprived of his name and title, and is very properly regarded as an imaginary being.
Does it follow from this, as M. Passavant 14 would have it, that all these prints, naturalised for a little while in France, ought to be restored to Germany? Their contradictory character with regard to workmanship and style might cause one, with the most honest intentions, to hesitate, though their intrinsic value is not such as to cause the former country any great loss.
Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of anything less interesting, except with regard to the particular nature of the process. The outlines of the figures have none of that drawing, firm even to stiffness, nor 46 has the flow of the draperies that taste for abrupt forms, which distinguished the productions of the German school from its beginnings. The least feeble of these specimens, such as the "Saint Barbara," in the Brussels Library, or the "St.
But it is unnecessary to debate the point at greater length. Whether produced in France, in the Low Countries, or in Germany, the dotted engravings of the fifteenth century add so little lustre to the land which gave them birth, that no scepticism as to their origin need lie very heavily on the conscience. In the general history of the documents on the origin of engraving, the dotted prints form a series distinguished by the method of their execution from any other earlier or contemporary specimens of work; the date mark , borne by one among the number, gives us 47 authentic information as to the time of these strange experiments, these curiosities of handicraft rather than of art.
This is as much as we need to bear in mind upon the subject, and quite enough to complete the history of the elementary attempts which preceded or which co-existed for a few years with the beginning of engraving by incised line in Italy. We have now arrived at that decisive moment when engraving, endowed with fresh resources, was practised for the first time by real masters.
Up to the present, the trifling ability and skill possessed by certain wood-cutters and the peculiar methods of dotted engraving have been the only means by which we could measure the efforts expended in the search for new technical methods, or in their use when discovered. We have now done with such hesitating and halting progress.
The art of printing from plates cut in intaglio had no sooner been discovered by, or at least dignified by the practice of, a Florentine goldsmith, than upon every side fresh talent was evoked. In Italy and Germany it was a question of who should profit most and quickest by the advance. A spirit of rivalry at once arose between the two schools; and fifteen years had not elapsed since Italian art had given its note in the works of the goldsmith engravers of the school of Finiguerra, before German art had found an equally definite expression in the works of the Master of But, before examining this simultaneous progress, we shall have to say a few words on the historical part of the question, and to 48 return to the origin of the process of intaglio engraving, as we have already done with the origin of engraving in relief.
We have seen that Gutenberg's permanent improvements in the method of printing resulted in the substitution, so far as written speech was concerned, of a mode of reproduction almost infinitely fruitful, and even rapid when compared to the slowness and the limited resources of the xylographic method. Typography was destined to abolish the use of block printing, and more particularly of caligraphy, which, till then, had occupied so many pious and patient hands both in monasteries and in schools.
The art of printing from engravings worked similar mischief to the illuminator's craft. Such were, before long, the natural consequences of the progress made; and, we may add, such had been from the first the chief object of these innovations. Perhaps this double revolution, so potent in its general effect and in its influence on modern civilisation, may have appeared to those engaged in it no more important than a purely industrial improvement.
Surely, for instance, we do no injustice to Gutenberg if we accept with some reserve the vast 50 political and philosophical ideas, and the purposes of universal enfranchisement, with which he has been sometimes credited? Probably the views of the inventor of printing reached neither so far nor so high. He did not intend to figure as an apostle, nor did he regard himself as devoted to a philanthropic mission, as we should put it in the present day.
He considered himself no more than a workman with a happy thought, when he proposed to replace the lengthy and costly labours of the copyist by a process so much cheaper and so much more expeditious. A somewhat similar idea had already occurred to the xylographic printers. Even the title of one of the first books published by them, the "Biblia Pauperum," or "Bible for the Poor," proved their wish to place within the reach of the masses an equivalent to those illuminated manuscript copies which were only obtainable by the rich.
One glance at the ancient xylographic collections is enough to disclose the spirit in which such work was undertaken, and the design with which it was conceived. The new industry imitated in every particular the appearance of those earlier works due to the pen of the scribe or to the brush of the illuminator; and, perhaps, the printers themselves, speculating on the want of discernment in the purchasing public, thought less of exposing the secret of their method than of maintaining an illusion.
In most of the xylographic books, indeed, the first page is quite without ornamentation. There are neither chapter-headings nor ornamental capitals; the 51 blank space seems to await the hand of the illuminator, who should step in to finish the work of the printer, and complete the resemblance between the printed books and the manuscript. Gutenberg followed; and even he, although less closely an imitator of caligraphy, did not himself disdain at first to practise some deception as to the nature of his method.
It is said that the Bible he printed at Mayence was sold as manuscript; and the letterpress is certainly not accompanied by any technical explanation, or by any note of the printer's name or the mode of fabrication. Not till somewhat later, when he published the "Catholicon," did Gutenberg avow that he had printed this book "without the help of reed, quill, or stylus, but by means of a marvellous array of moulds and punches.
It was a farewell salutation to the past, and the latest appearance of that old art which was now doomed to pass away before the new, and to leave the field to the products of the press. Did the inventor of the art of printing from plates cut in intaglio, like the inventor of the art of typography, only wish at first to extend to a larger public what had hitherto been reserved for the favoured few?
Was early engraving but a weapon turned against the monopoly of the miniature painter? We might be tempted to think so, from the number of manuscripts belonging to the second half of the 52 fifteenth century, in which coloured prints, surrounded by borders also coloured, are set opposite a printed text, apparently in order to imitate as nearly as possible the familiar aspect of illuminated books.
Next in turn came printed books with illustrations, and loose sheets published separately for every-day use. The Italian engravers, even before they began to adorn with the burin those works which have been the most frequently illustrated—such, for instance, as the religious handbooks and the poem of Dante—employed the new process from as early as , to assure their calendars a wider publicity. But let us return to the time when engraving was yet in its early stages, and when—by chance, by force of original genius, or by the mere completion of what had been begun by other hands—a Florentine goldsmith, one Maso Finiguerra, succeeded in fixing on paper the impression of a silver plate on which lines had been engraved in intaglio and filled with black.
Finiguerra's great glory does not, however, lie in the solution of the practical difficulty. Amongst the Italians none before him had ever thought of trying to print from a work engraved in incised line or intaglio on metal; and therefore, at least, in his own country, he deserved the honours of priority. But the invention of the process—that is, in the absolute and literal sense of its name, the notion of reproducing burin work by printing—was certainly not peculiar to Finiguerra.
Unconscious of what was passing elsewhere, he may have been the first in Florence to attempt this revolution in art; but 53 beyond the frontiers of Italy, many had already employed for the necessities of trade that method which it was his to turn into a powerful instrument of art. His true glory consists in the unexpected authority with which he inaugurated the movement. Although it may be true that there are prints a few years older than any Florentine niello—the German specimens of , discovered but the other day by M.
Renouvier 15 or the "Virgin" of described by M. Passavant 16 —it cannot change the real date of the invention of engraving; that date has been written by the hand of a man of talent, the first engraver worthy of the name of artist. That Finiguerra was really the inventor of engraving, because he dignified the new process by the striking ability with which he used it, and proved his power where his contemporaries had only exhibited their weakness, must be distinctly laid down, even at the risk of scandalising some of the learned.
As a mere question of date, the "Pax" of Florence may not be the earliest example 54 of engraving; be it so. But in which of these earlier attempts, now so much acclaimed as arguments against the accepted tradition, can we glean even the faintest promise of the merits which distinguish that illustrious engraving? He who wrought it is no usurper; his fame is a legitimate conquest.
It is a singular coincidence that the discovery of printing and that of the art of taking proofs on paper from a plate engraved in intaglio, or, to speak more exactly, that the final improvements of both these processes, should have sprung up almost simultaneously, one in Italy and the other in Germany. There is only an interval of two years between the time when Finiguerra printed his first engraving in , and the time when Gutenberg exhibited his first attempts at printing in Till then, copies drawn, painted, or written by hand had been the only efficient means of reproduction.
None, even amongst those most capable of original thought or action, considered it beneath them to set forth the thought of others. Boccaccio and Petrarch exchanged whole books of Livy or of Cicero which they had patiently transcribed, and monkish or professional artists copied on the vellum of missals the paintings which covered the walls or adorned the altars of their churches.
Such subjects as were engraved on wood were only designed to stimulate the devotion of the pious. Both by their inadequate execution, and the special use for which they were intended, they must rank as industrial products rather than as works of art.
Besides illumination and wood engraving, there 55 was a process sometimes used to copy certain originals, portraits or fancy subjects, but more frequently employed by goldsmiths in the decoration of chalices, reliquaries, and altar canons. This process was nothing but a special application and combination of the resources belonging to the long known arts of enamelling and chalcography, which last simply means engraving on metal. The incised lines made by the graver in a plate of silver, or of silver and gold combined, were filled with a mixture of lead, silver, and copper, made more easily fusible by the addition of a certain quantity of borax and sulphur.
This blackish-coloured mixture nigellum , whence niello , niellare left the unengraved parts exposed, and, in cooling, became encrusted in the furrows where it had been introduced. After this, the plate, when carefully polished, presented to the eye the contrast of a design in dull black enamel traced upon a field of shining metal. Towards the middle of the fifteenth century this kind of engraving was much practised in Italy, especially in Florence, where the best niellatori were to be found.
One of them, Tomaso, or for short, Maso Finiguerra, was, like many goldsmiths of his time, at once an engraver, a designer, and a sculptor. The drawings attributed to him, his nielli, and the bas-reliefs partly by him and partly by Antonio Pollajuolo, would not, perhaps, have been enough to have preserved his memory: it is his invention—in the degree we mentioned—of the art of printing intaglio engravings, or rather of the art of engraving itself, that has made him immortal.
It is even difficult to understand why it was not made before, when we remember not only that the printing of blocks engraved in relief had been practised since the beginning of the fifteenth century, but that the niellatori themselves were in the habit of taking, first in clay and then in sulphur, an impression and a counter-impression of their work before applying the enamel.
What should seem more simple than to have taken a direct proof on a thin elastic body such as paper? But it is always easy to criticise after the event, and to point out the road of progress when the end has been attained. Who knows if to-day there is not lying at our very hand some discovery which yet we never think of grasping, and if our present blindness will not be the cause of similar wonder to our successors? At any rate, Finiguerra had found the solution of the problem by This was put beyond doubt on the day towards the close of the last century , when Zani discovered, in the Print-Room of the Paris Library, a niello by Finiguerra printed on paper of indisputable date.
This little print, or rather proof, taken before the plate was put in niello, of a "Pax" 17 engraved by the Florentine goldsmith for the Baptistery of St. John 58 represents the Coronation of the Virgin. It measures only millimetres by As regards its size, therefore, the "Coronation" is really only a vignette; but it is a vignette handled with such knowledge and style, and informed with so deep a feeling for beauty, that it would bear with perfect impunity the ordeal of being enlarged a hundred times and transferred to a canvas or a wall.
Yet he would be ill-advised, on the other hand, who should regard this masterpiece of art as a mere historical curiosity. The rare merits which distinguish Finiguerra's "Coronation" are to be seen, though much less conspicuously, in a certain number of works attributed to the same origin.
Other pieces engraved at the same time, and printed under the same conditions by unknown Florentine workmen, prove that the example given in had 59 at once created imitators. It must be remarked, however, that amongst such works, whether attributed to Finiguerra or to other goldsmiths of the same time and country, none belong to the class of engravings properly so called.
In other words they are only what we have agreed to call nielli: that is, proofs on paper of plates designed to be afterwards enamelled, and not impressions of plates specially and finally intended to be used for printing. It would almost appear that the master and his first followers failed to foresee all the results and benefits of this discovery; that they looked upon it only as a surer test of work than clay or sulphur casts, as a test process suitable to certain stages of the labours of the goldsmith.
In one word, from the time when he made his first success till the end of his life, Finiguerra probably only used the new process to forward his work as a niellatore, without its ever occurring to him to employ it for its own sake, and in the spirit of a real engraver.
Florentine engravings of the fifteenth century, other than in niello, or those at least whose origin and date are certain, are not only later than Finiguerra's 60 working days, but are even later than the year of his death In Germany, from the very beginning, so to speak, of the period of initiation, the Master of and his disciples were multiplying impressions of their works, and profiting by the full resources of the new process. In Florence, on the contrary, there passed about twenty years during which the art seems to have remained stationary and confined to the same narrow field of practice as at first.
You may visit the richest public or private collections without meeting with the exception of works in niello any authentic and official specimen of Florentine engraving of the time of which we speak. Yet it is impossible to find any explanation of this sterility—of this extraordinary absence of a school of engravers, in the exact acceptation of the word, outside of the group of the niellatori.
Some years later, however, progress had led to emancipation. The art of engraving, henceforth free, broke from its industrial servitude, deserted the 62 traditions of enamelling and chasing, and took possession of its own domain. But the burin, though only able as yet imperfectly to treat lines in mass and vary the values of shadows, has mastered the secret of representing life with precision and elegance of outline, and can render the facial expression of the most different types.
Sacred and mythological personages, sybils and prophets, madonnas and the gods of Olympus, the men and women of the fifteenth century, all not only reveal at the first glance their close pictorial relationship to the general inclinations and habits of Florentine art of the fourteenth century, but show us these tendencies continued and confirmed in a fresh form. The delicacy which charms us in the bas-reliefs and the pictures of the time; the aspiration, common to contemporary painters and sculptors, of idealising and heightening the expression of external facts; the love of rare, exquisite, and somewhat subtle expression, are to be found in the works left by the painter-engravers who were the immediate followers of Finiguerra, no less clearly than in the painted and sculptured subjects on the walls of contemporary churches and palaces.
Whatever we may suppose to have been the part due to Baccio Baldini, to Botticelli, to Pollajuolo, or to anybody else; with whatever acuteness we may 63 discern, or think we discern, the inequalities of style and the tricks of touch in different men; all their 65 66 works display a vigorous unity, which must be carefully taken into account, inasmuch as it gives its character to the school.
Though we should even succeed in separately labelling with a proper name each one of the works which are all really dependent on one another, the gain would be small. Provided that neither the qualities nor the meaning of the whole movement be understood, we may, as regards the distribution of minor parts, resign ourselves to doubt, and even ignorance, and console ourselves for the mystery which enshrouds these nameless talents: and this the more readily that we can with greater impartiality appreciate their merits in the absence of biographical hypothesis and the commentaries of the scholar.
The prints due to the Florentine painter-engravers who followed Finiguerra mark a transitional epoch between the first stage of Italian engraving and the time when the art, having entered upon its period of virility, used its powers with confidence, and showed itself equal to any feat. The privileges of fruitfulness and success in this second phase no longer, it is true, belong wholly to Florence. It would seem that, after having again and again given birth to so much talent, Florentine art, exhausted by rapid production, reposed and voluntarily allowed the neighbouring schools to take her place.
Even before the appearance of Marc Antonio, the most important proofs of skill were given outside of Tuscany; and if towards the beginning, or at the beginning, of the sixteenth century, the numerous 67 plates engraved by Robetta still continued to sustain the reputation of the Florentine school, such a result was owing far less to the individual talent of the engraver, than to the charm and intrinsic value of his models.
Of all the Italian engravers who, towards the end of the fifteenth century, completed the popularisation in their country of the art whose first secrets and examples were revealed and supplied by Florence, the one most powerfully inspired and most skilful was certainly Andrea Mantegna. We need not here 69 recall the true position of this great artist in the history of painting. Such of his pictures and decorative paintings as still exist possess a world-wide fame; 70 and, though his engravings are less generally known, they deserve equal celebrity, and would justify equal admiration.
The engraved work of Mantegna consists of only twenty plates, about half of which are religious, and the remainder mythological or historical. Though none of these engravings bears the signature or initials of the Paduan master, their authenticity cannot be doubted. It is abundantly manifest in certain marked characteristics of style and workmanship; in the delicate yet strong precision of the drawing; and in that somewhat rude elegance which was at the command of none of his contemporaries in the same degree.
Every part of them, even where they savour of imperfection or of extravagance, bears witness to the indomitable will and independent genius of a master. His touch imparts a passionate and thrilling aspect even to the details of architectural decoration and the smallest inanimate objects.
One would suppose that, after having studied each part of his subject with the eye of a man of culture and a thinker, Mantegna, when he came to represent it on the metal, forgot all but the burning impatience of his hand and the fever of the struggle with his material. The burin in Mantegna's hand displays a firmness that can no longer be called stiffness; and, while it hardly as yet 72 can be said to imitate painting, competes in boldness and rapidity at least with the effect of chalk or the pen.
Unlike the Florentine engravers, with their timid sparse strokes which scarcely served to mark the outlines, Mantegna works with masses of shadow produced by means of closer graining, and seeks to 73 express, or at any rate to suggest, internal modelling, instead of contenting himself with the mere outlines of the body.
In a word, Mantegna as an engraver never forgot his knowledge as a painter; and it is this, combined with the rare vigour of his imagination, which assures him the first place amongst the Italian masters before the time of Marc Antonio.
Some of them, as Mocetto, Jacopo Francia, Nicoletto da Modena, and Jacopo de' Barbari, known as the Master of the Caduceus, though profiting by his example, did not push their docility so far as to sacrifice their own tastes and individual sentiment. Others, as Zoan Andrea and Giovanni Antonio da Brescia, whose work has been sometimes mistaken for that of Mantegna himself, set themselves not only to make his manner their own, but to imitate his engravings line for line.
However strongly Mantegna's influence may have acted on the Italian engravers of the fifteenth century, or the early years of the sixteenth, it hardly seems to have extended beyond Lombardy, Venice, and the small neighbouring states. It was neither in Florence nor in Rome that the Paduan example principally excited the spirit of imitation. The works it gave rise to belong nearly all of them to artists formed under the master's very eyes, or in close proximity to his teachings, whether the manner of the leader of the school appeared in the efforts of pure copyists and imitators more or less adroit, or whether it appeared in a much modified condition in the works of more independent disciples.
It was in Verona, Venice, Modena, and Bologna that the movement which Mantegna started in art found its most brilliant continuation. As the engravers, emboldened by experience, gradually tended to reconcile something of their own inspirations and personal desires with the doctrines transmitted to them, assuredly a 75 certain amount of progress was manifested and some improvements were introduced into the use or the combination of means; but in spite of such partial divergences, the general appearance of the works proves their common origin, and testifies to the imprudence 76 of the efforts sometimes made to split into small isolated groups and infinite subdivisions what, in reality, forms a complete whole, a genuine school.
The same spirit of unity is again found to predominate in all the works of the German engravers belonging to the second half of the fifteenth century. With respect to purpose and style, there is certainly a great difference between the early Italian engravings and those which mark the beginning of the art in the towns of High and Low Germany. But both have this in common: that certain fixed traditions once founded remain for a time almost unchangeable; that certain fixed methods of execution are held like articles of faith, and only modified with an extreme respect for the time-honoured principles of early days.
The Master of , and shortly after him, Martin Schongauer, had scarcely shown themselves, before their example was followed, and their teaching obediently practised, by a greater number of disciples than had followed, or were destined to follow, in Italy the lead of the contemporaries of Finiguerra or Mantegna. The influence exerted by the latter had at least an equivalent in the ascendancy of Martin Schongauer; while the Master of , in the character of a founder, which belongs to him, has almost the same importance in the history of German engraving as the Florentine goldsmith in that of Italian engraving.
The Master of may, indeed, be regarded as the Finiguerra of Germany, because he was the first in his own country to raise to the dignity of an art 77 what had been only an industrial process in the hands of talentless workmen. Like wood engraving, intaglio engraving, such as we see it in German prints some years before the works of the Master of , had only 78 succeeded in spreading abroad, in the towns on the banks of the Rhine, productions of a rude or grotesque symbolism, in which, notwithstanding recent attempts to exaggerate their value, a want of technical experience was as evident as extreme poverty of conception.
If the anonymous artist called the Master of be the true founder of the German school of engraving; if he show himself cleverer than any of the Italian engravers of the period—from the point of view only of practical execution, and the right handling of the tool—it does not necessarily follow that he holds the same priority in talent as he certainly holds in order of time before all other engravers of the same age and country.
One of 79 these, Martin Schongauer, called also "handsome Martin," or for short, "Martin Schon," may have a better right to the highest place. Endowed with more imagination than the Master of , with a deeper feeling for truth and a clearer instinct for beauty, he displays at least equal dexterity in the conduct of the work and in the handling of the graver.
Assuredly, if we compare Martin Schongauer's prints with the beautiful Flemish or French engravings of the seventeenth century, the combinations of lines which satisfied the German engraver cannot fail to appear insufficient, or even archaically simple; but if we compare them with the engraved work of all countries in the fifteenth century, it will be acknowledged that, even as a technical worker, the master of Colmar 19 exhibited a striking superiority over all his 81 82 contemporaries.
Such plates as the "Flight into Egypt," the "Death of the Virgin," the "Wise Virgins," and the "Foolish Virgins," are distinguished above all by power and by grace of expression; but to these ideal qualities there is added so much firmness of drawing, and so much decision of handling, that, in spite of all subsequent progress, they deserve to be numbered with those which most honour the art of engraving.
Martin Schongauer, like the Master of , at once raised up both imitators and rivals in Munich, in Mecheln in Westphalia, in Nuremberg, and in many other towns in the German States. His influence and reputation extended even beyond the borders of Germany; and it was not the artists of the Low Countries alone who sought to profit by his example. In Florence young Michelangelo did not disdain to study, nor even to copy him, for he painted a "Temptation of St.
Anthony," after Schongauer's engraving. Italian miniature painters and engravers, Gherardo and Nicoletto da Modena, amongst others, reproduced many of his prints. The very figures and ornamentation which decorate the "Books of Hours," published by Simon Vostre and Hardouin at the beginning of the sixteenth century, show that in the France of that period a zeal for imitation of the master's manner was 83 not always restrained by the fear of actual plagiarism.
But the influence of Martin Schongauer on the 84 progress of art and the talent of artists was more extended and decided in Germany itself. His painted pictures still belonging to the town of Colmar, and, setting aside his rare talent as an engraver, even the little "Death of the Virgin," which has been the property of the London National Gallery since , would be enough to establish his reputation.
The importance of such an artist is in every respect that of the leader of a school and a master in the strictest acceptation of the word. Thanks to the Master of and to Martin Schongauer, line engraving in Germany was marked by brilliant and unexpected advances, whilst wood engraving merely followed the humble traditions of early days.
It is true that the latter process was no longer exclusively applied to the production of occasional unbound prints, or cheap religious pictures on loose leaves, of which we have a specimen in the "Saint Christopher" of In Germany, towards the end of the fifteenth century, the custom had spread of "illustrating" as we now call it type-printed books with wood engravings.
To mention a few amongst many examples, we have the "Casket of the True Riches of Salvation" "Schatzbehalter" , published at Nuremberg in , and the "Chronicorum Liber" called the "Nuremberg Chronicle," printed in the same town in , both of which contain numerous wood-cuts interpolated in the text. These cuts are not so bad as the earlier German work in the same process, yet they are far from 87 good. Though they are not of much value in themselves, the prints which accompany the writings in the "Casket" and the "Nuremberg Chronicle" deserve attention.
He tells us himself how, at the age of fifteen, he left his father's shop for Wolgemut's studio: not that he wished to free himself from parental authority, but simply to hasten the time when he might do his share towards satisfying the wants of a numerous family.
He suffered in addition many adversities and troubles. He did not seek worldly pleasures, was a man of few words, kept little company, and feared God. My dear father was very earnest about bringing up his children in the fear of God, for it was his greatest desire to lead them aright, so that they might be pleasing to God and man.
And his daily injunction to us was that we should love God, and deal uprightly with our neighbour I felt at length more like an artist than a goldsmith, and I begged my father to let me paint; but he was displeased with the request, for he regretted the time I had lost in learning his trade. However, he gave in to me, and on St. Andrew's Day, , he apprenticed me to Master Michael.
The charming portrait of himself at the age of thirteen, still preserved at Vienna in the Albertine Collection, sufficiently proves that he required no lessons from his new master in the skilful handling of a pencil: the teaching of his own mind had been enough. But it was otherwise with engraving, where he had to advance by way of experiment, and gain capacity from practice. And it was not till about , after many years of apprenticeship, that he ventured to publish his first engraved work.
His early works, moreover, are very probably only copies from 89 Wolgemut 22 whereas the original works which followed, though retaining something of the traditional manner, bear nevertheless a stamp of independent feeling. Thus too, and at nearly the same time, the genius of Perugino's gifted pupil began to show itself under the borrowed forms of the only style permitted in the school; and the obedient hand which portrayed the "Sposalizio" in the manner and under the eyes of his master, in secret already obeyed the mind of Raphael.
If we may believe report, the union was unhappy, and darkened and shortened by cruel domestic troubles the life of the noble artist. The story has often been told how his imperious and greedy wife kept him continually at work, and how, as prints paid better than pictures, she would not allow him to sacrifice the burin to the brush. One day, for instance, they relate that he was discovered in the street by his wife, whom he believed to be at the other end of the town, and was 90 forced to return and to expiate his momentary idleness by working far beyond his usual time.
The poor artist died at last of overwork and misery; and his hateful widow only regretted his death because it set a term to his earnings. But the facts of the case were not carefully examined. It was not long, however, before the fraud was discovered 91 when he tried, it is said, to turn it into a joke; but the German artist could not be brought to see it in that light. It was a case in which his wife was not concerned, and he could take his own part openly.
He applied at once to the Senate, denounced the fraud, and obtained a decree condemning the offender thenceforth to affix to his plates no other name than his own. This name, destined to become celebrated, was no other than that of Marc Antonio Raimondi. In our own days the truth of this story has been more than once doubted, at least in so far as the legal consequences are concerned, for the forgery itself cannot be denied.
It is impossible not to suppose that in the meantime a judgment of some sort was passed, obliging the copyist to appear under his true colours. Some Venetian painters followed the example of Marc Antonio, and, adding insult to injury, energetically abused the very man whose works they impudently copied. For my part, I can never help laughing at them when they speak to me. They are quite aware that one knows all about their knavery; but they don't care.
You may be sure I was warned in time not to eat and drink with them. There are painters in Venice who copy my works, clamouring loudly the while that I am ruining art by departing from the antique. Old Giovanni Bellini himself overwhelmed his young rival with praise, and begged for one of his works, for which he declared himself "eager to pay well.
What happened at Venice was nearly happening at Nuremberg. The German engraver did not dream of copying the works of his old imitator as a sort of quid pro quo ; but, as he really appreciated them at their true value, he did not hesitate to show them to his pupils, and to recommend them to their imitation. Perhaps he scarcely welcomed such excessive docility.
But their master having thus almost acknowledged a superior, these young men hurriedly left him to put themselves under the guidance of the conqueror. The deserters were numerous. Georg Pencz, Bartholomew Beham, and Jacob Binck, who had been the first to cross the Alps, succeeded in copying Marc 94 Antonio well enough to cause several of the subjects they engraved to be mistaken for his own.
They now possess zealous admirers, and modern painting now and then shows signs of being affected by this enthusiasm; it is in the new German school, of which Cornelius and Kaulbach were the chiefs, that the Nuremberg master seems to have exerted the most important influence, and one which is, even in some respects, to be regretted. However exaggerated may have been the reaction produced by his followers three centuries after his death, considered separately and apart from 96 them, he remains, nevertheless, an eminent artist and the greatest of all his countrymen.
Vasari considers that, as a painter and sculptor, "he would have equalled the great masters of Italy, if he had been born in Tuscany, and if the study of the antique had helped him to impart to his figures as much beauty and elegance as they have truth and delicacy;" as a mathematician he ranked among the first of his time in Germany; as an engraver—and it is as such only that we can look upon him here—he enormously advanced the progress of the art.
No one before him ever handled the burin with the same skill and vigour; no one ever cut outlines on the metal with such absolute certainty, or so carefully reproduced every detail of modelling. The qualities which distinguished his talent and manner are found to nearly the same extent in all his work.
As examples, however, peculiarly expressive of his delicate yet powerful talent, we may mention the hunting "St. Hubert"—or, more probably, St. Eustace—kneeling before a stag with a miraculous crucifix on its head, the "St. Jerome in his Cell," the print called the "Knight and Death," and lastly the subject known as "Melancholia," which should rather be called "Reflection," but reflection in its gravest, darkest, one might almost say its most despairing, attitude.
This piece, which even Vasari allows to be "incomparable," represents a woman seated, her head resting on one hand, whilst she holds in the other a compass with which she is trifling mechanically. As though to suggest the limitations and 97 nothingness of human knowledge, an hour-glass and various scientific instruments are scattered about; whilst in the middle distance a child, doubtless an image of youthful illusions, is attentively writing, and contrasts in its serenity with the troubled countenance and despairing attitude of the principal figure.
There are many, besides the "Melancholia," where the almost savage energy of the style is allied to an extraordinary manipulative delicacy in the expression of details. Sometimes, indeed, his energy degenerates into violence and his precision into dryness; sometimes—as a rule, in fact—the general effect is impaired by a too detailed insistence on subordinate forms, while the beauty of these forms is at least affected by the minute care with which they have been separately studied and expressed.
But these imperfections, or, if you like, these faults, may be attributed in part to the tendencies and prejudices of the period, and in part to that national taste for excessive analysis which has been a characteristic of the German mind in every age. Neither in Italy, nor anywhere else, is it possible to find in the sixteenth century an engraver of such original inspiration and possessing so much knowledge and technical skill.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, the young engraver was not content with copying these, the best models of the day, for his own improvement, but, to secure a double profit, pushed his imitation a step further, and copied the signature with as much care as the style.
Some years later he went to Rome, where Raphael, on the recommendation of Giulio Romano, allowed him to engrave one of his own designs, the "Lucretia. The nobility of feeling, and the purity of taste and execution, which shine in these now classic plates have never been surpassed.
These are the qualities, and these only, which we must look for and admire unreservedly; to seek for more, as to regret its absence, would be superfluous. Rembrandt's prints are impregnated with poetry in their tone and in the harmony of their effects; those of Marc Antonio are models of beauty, as regards line and dignity of form. The two great masters of Bologna and of Leyden, so opposed to each other in the nature of their aspirations and the choice of their methods, have yet, each in his own way, proved their case and carried their point; and to each must be allotted his own peculiar share of glory.
It would be idle to point out with regret, as some have done, what is lacking in the masterpieces of Marc Antonio, or to say that greater freedom in rendering colour or in managing light and shade would have lent them an additional charm.
In sixteenth century Italy they could scarcely come from the burin of one of Raphael's pupils: an epic burin, so to speak, and one contemptuous of qualities then considered of secondary importance. Moreover, the hand of him who held it was bold rather than skilful, vigorous rather than patient.
To model a body in shadow, he employed unevenly crossed or almost parallel hatchings, drawn at different widths apart, and in subordination to the larger feeling of the form and movement he wished to express. Then lighter strokes led up to the half-light, and a few dots at unequal distances bordered on the light. What could be simpler than such a method? Yet what more exact in its results, and what more expressive in drawing? The exact crossing of lines mattered little to Marc Antonio.
What he was taken up with and wanted to make visible was neither the manner nor the choice of workmanship: that might be simple indeed, and he was satisfied if only the beauty of a head or the general aspect of a figure were striking at a first glance, if only the appearance of the whole was largely rendered and well defined. Sometimes one outline is corrected by a second, and these alterations, all the more interesting as we may suspect that they were ordered by Raphael himself, prove both the engraver's passion for correct drawing and his small regard for mere niceties of craftsmanship.
The time was yet distant when, in this same Italy, the trifling search after common technicalities should take the place of such wise views; when men should set to work to reproduce the shadows of a face or a piece of drapery by lozenges containing a semicircle, a little cross, or even something resembling a young serpent; when engravers like Morghen and his followers should see, in the reproduction of masterpieces of the brush, only an opportunity for assembling groups of more or less complicated lines and parading their dexterity, and should gain by these tricks the applause of all men and the name of artists.
The school founded by Marc Antonio soon became the most numerous and active of all. Engravers came to learn or to perfect their knowledge in the same school from every part of Italy. Some years later came the family of the Mantovani, a member of which, Diana Scultori, more often called Diana Ghisi, presented perhaps the first example, so common afterwards, of a female engraver. Many others, whose names and works have remained more or less celebrated, descend from Marc Antonio, whether they received his teaching directly or through his pupils.
He, whilst so much talent was being developed under his influence, continued the kind of work in which he had excelled from the beginning of his stay in Rome, confining himself to the engraving of Raphael's compositions: that is, as we have already said, of his drawings. It is this which explains the difference, at first sight incomprehensible, between certain prints by Marc Antonio and the same subjects as painted by Raphael. The painter often submitted to the engraver pen or pencil sketches of subjects which he afterwards altered with his brush when transferring them to walls or panels: the "St.
Cecilia," the "Parnassus," the "Poetry," for instance, which are so unlike in the copy and in what wrongly appears to have been the original. Raphael's death, however, deprived the engraver of an influence which, to the great advantage of his talent, he had obeyed submissively for ten years. Marc Antonio would not continue to work from the drawings of the master who could no longer superintend him; but he still continued to honour him in the person of his favourite pupil, Giulio Romano, to whom he attached himself, and whose works he reproduced almost exclusively.
Giulio Romano, following the dissolute manners of the day, rather than the example and traditions of the noble leader of the school, stooped to design a series of boldly licentious subjects. Marc Antonio consented to engrave them, and Pietro Aretino helped still further to degrade the undertaking by composing an explanatory sonnet to be printed opposite to each plate.
The result was a book whose title is still infamous. In publishing it the two artists took care not to sign their names. They were, however, discovered by the boldness of the style and the firmness of the line; for, surprising as it may seem, neither took the trouble to alter his usual manner: they merely profaned it. Here, assuredly, their wonted dignity of form and energy of workmanship appear somewhat incongruous qualities.
Aretino fled to Venice, Giulio Romano to Mantua, and the only sufferer was the engraver. He was imprisoned for several months, and only set at liberty, thanks to frequent requests made by Giulio de' Medici and the sculptor Baccio Bandinelli, from whose original, to prove his gratitude, he executed the beautiful "Martyrdom of St. Lawrence," one of the masterpieces of Italian engraving. The rest of Marc Antonio's life is only imperfectly known. It is said that he was wounded and left for dead in the streets when Rome was sacked by the Spanish under the Constable de Bourbon; that he was then taken prisoner, and only recovered his liberty at the cost of a ransom large enough to ruin him; and that he then took refuge at Bologna, where it would appear he soon afterwards died: not, as has been alleged, murdered by the lawful possessor of one of his plates, which he had himself forged, but, so says Vasari, "nearly reduced to beggary" "poco meno che mendico" , and at any rate completely forgotten.
Marc Antonio's death did not bring with it the ruin of line engraving in Italy. The numerous pupils he had educated, and in turn the pupils of these, handed down to the beginning of the seventeenth century the master's manner, and propagated his doctrines in neighbouring countries.
We have spoken of the revolution which their works produced in German art; we shall presently see French art submitting in its turn to Italian influences. Meanwhile, and even during Marc Antonio's life, a particular sort of engraving was making rapid progress in Italy.
He conceived the strange idea of painting a whole picture with his finger, without once having recourse to a brush, and, the proceeding appearing to him praiseworthy, he perpetuated the recollection of it in a few proud words at the bottom of the canvas. Michelangelo, to whom the picture was shown as a remarkable curiosity, merely said that "the only remarkable thing about it was the folly of the author. We have plates from the drawings of the master, engraved, if not entirely by himself, at any rate to a certain extent with his practical co-operation; we have others—for instance, the "Life of the Virgin" and the "Passion," to which we have referred in speaking of Marc Antonio's copies of them with the burin.
But, in addition to these, we have a number of wood engravings, earlier than the second half of the sixteenth century, which prove the progress made in the art at this time in Germany, and the ability with which it was practised by the successors of Wolgemut. Wood engraving was no longer, as in the time of Wolgemut, a mere mode of linear imitation, and only fit to represent form by outlines; it was now capable of suggesting modelling and effect, not of course with that finished delicacy and freedom which can only be produced in true line engraving, but with an energetic exactness quite, in accordance with the special conditions and resources of the process.
Whilst this regeneration in wood engraving was being accomplished in Germany, the art continued to be practised in Italy, and especially in Venice, with a feeling for composition, and that delicate reticence of handling, of which the cuts in the "Hypnerotomachia Poliphili," published before the end of the fifteenth century , and in other books printed some years later, are such striking examples.
The Italian wood engravers of the sixteenth century, however, did not limit themselves so entirely to the national traditions as to stifle altogether any attempt at innovation. They had already tried to enliven even the execution of the illustrations intended to accompany letterpress by more decided suggestions of light and shade and general effect.
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