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Italian Renaissance Prints at Vassar College

ART TIMES May, 2004

(Photos Courtesy: The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College)

Federico Barocci: "Annunciation" ca. 1585 (Etching, Engraving, and Drypoint)

IN OUR AGE of cyberspace and advanced technology when an image can be instantly reproduced and transmitted — witness the scan, the digital camera — or copied in such a manner that it is sometimes difficult to determine which is the original, which the copy — the giclée print, for example — we tend to forget that, in fact, we were not the "first kid on the block" to think up the idea of disseminating original artwork through reproduction. An informative and interesting exhibition currently on view at Vassar College* shows just how old the concept is.

Some 40 prints — woodcuts, engravings, etchings — comprise the show, all from the period of the Italian Renaissance and almost all from the holdings of Vassar’s permanent collection; two are on loan from private collections — Trento’s "Martyrdom of Saint Paul;" "Veneziano’s "The Massacre of the Innocents" — and one, Caraglio’s "Martyrdom of Saint Paul, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As the title of the exhibit indicates, all were intended for the purposes of bringing the works of the masters to a wider audience.

What is markedly different from today’s hi-tech methods is the fact that, in almost all cases, the making of "copies" was the work not of "middlemen" or simple technicians, but rather of full-fledged masters in their own right. Shortly after its advent, the making of prints during the Italian Renaissance was quickly seized upon as a primary way of broadcasting new works of art to audiences across Europe. So effective was the method that many artists undertook their own printmaking, quickening both their fame and their financial stability in the normal processes of their workaday world.

What "middlemen" did exist, were highly skilled professionals who, perhaps, knew as much about making art as did the masters who were making the originals. Still, if they did not originate the image, it took a skilled hand indeed to faithfully reproduce a Michelangelo or a Raphael on a woodblock or copper plate that would not do violence to either the master’s desegno or his manner. Some, like Marcantonio Raimondi, became so famed as a high-fidelity engraver that he has come down to us today with a reputation that has outlived and overshadowed many of the lauded painters of his day.

The exhibit proves just how versatile the print had served its purpose, offering many examples of reproductions of not only paintings, but of sculpture as well. Also made evident is how quickly (relatively speaking) the art of printmaking had been developed and improved upon — as for example in the skillful combination of the etching and engraving processes in Federico Barocci’s beautifully compelling "The Annunciation" executed sometime around 1585. The show also indicates that the method and process was not the sole province of the Italians — as the inclusion of two prints by Dürer’s student Georg Pencz ("Triumph of Fame;" "Triumph of Time"), Cornelia Cort ("The Birth of the Virgin"), and several from Anonymous engravers and etchers from the School of Fontainebleau (e.g. "Cimon and Pero;" "Mars and Venus;" "The Nymph of Fontainebleau"), make clear.

Giulio Bonasone: "The Last Judgement (after Michelangelo)" (Engraving)

Though only a token sample from the considerable holdings of Vassar — the Loeb Center is in possession of over 15,000 works (perhaps not so surprising when we consider that the Vassar College Art Gallery was begun in 1864, long before other such educational institutions began their own such collections) — "The Transmission of Fame" is an important contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the evolution of the printmaking process. In addition to the works presented, a vitrine displaying the tools of the engraver’s trade rounds out the informative nature of this show. Kudos to Patricia Phagan, curator of the exhibit and author of the excellent catalogue that accompanies the show, and to The Smart Family Foundation, Inc. which sponsored this and the accompanying and companion exhibition** of maiolica.

*"The Transmission of Fame: Italian Renaissance Prints" (thru Jun 13): The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, NY (845) 437-5237.

**"Marvels of Maiolica" Italian Renaissance Ceramics from the Corcoran Gallery of Art (thru Jun 13).

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