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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Printed Image in the West: Engraving

The highly skilled craft of engraving, in which a wedge-shaped metal tool known as a burin is used to gouge clear, sharp furrows in a metal plate, appears to have been adapted from goldsmithing. Two of the great early masters of the technique in the North, Martin Schongauer and Albrecht Dürer, had fathers who were goldsmiths, and in Italy the medium seems to have had its origins in the niello plaques—small engraved plates of silver or gold whose incisions were filled with a dark substance to shade the design—made by Florentine goldsmiths. The earliest engravings were produced in Germany in the 1430s, but the first monumental engravings, rivaling painting in their ambition, were created in the 1470s—in Germany by Schongauer and in Italy by the Italian painter Andrea Mantegna. Schongauer raised engraving from a minor craft to a major art form with compelling works like the Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons (20.5.2), in which deeply engraved lines create a vivid linear pattern against the white background. To create texture, Schongauer used a great variety of strokes—from the long, sinuous lines that create the beard of the saint and the curling fur of one of the demons, to the short flecks of the saint’s coarsely woven robe; he also made use of crosshatching in the deepest shadows to model the forms. Mantegna, on the other hand, interested above all in achieving the tone that would give his figures a three-dimensional presence, evolved a technique of shading his engravings with short lines of varying width, a method that seems to have derived from his drawing practice. Mantegna’s idiosyncratic approach was not well suited to printing large editions; however, early impressions of his engravings such as the Bacchanal with a Wine Vat (1986.1159) show the subtle tonalities that could be obtained with this method. Albrecht Dürer, a great admirer of Mantegna’s pictorial inventions, derived his engraving technique from Schongauer and other Northern engravers. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Dürer carried the technique to a degree of richness and detail that has never been surpassed. His Adam and Eve (19.73.1) contains an almost unimaginable density of fine distinct lines, whose great variety creates form, texture, and shading simultaneously. Dürer’s closest rival was the Netherlandish artist Lucas van Leyden, whose innovative approach to both subject matter and technique can be seen in The Poet Virgil in a Basket (41.1.23). Lucas’ style of engraving is characterized by long, flowing, gently curved strokes that impart grace to his draped figures, emphasize gesture, and unify the image.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi developed an influential technique that effectively translated Raphael’s drawings into prints without imitating the painter’s actual marks. Marcantonio’s system of uniform, equidistant, parallel lines that curve around the forms to give them a sculptural presence is beautifully illustrated by his Judgment of Paris (19.74.1). It was a Flemish engraver, Cornelis Cort, who elaborated on this system by developing a flexible engraved line that became thicker and thinner along its length, thus allowing the engraver to vary the lightness or darkness in an area without adding more lines. Cort’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence (49.97.537), after Titian, shows the coloristic effects that could be achieved through this technique, so well suited to conveying the color and painterly qualities for which the Venetian painter was famous. The swelling and tapering line was carried to new extremes by the virtuosic Dutch engraver Hendrick Goltzius, whose calligraphic line becomes a marvel in its own right in works like the Farnese Hercules (17.37.59).

Goltzius and his students and followers represent the last heroic age of engraving. In the next century, while the difficult craft of engraving would still be practiced by professionals as a means of reproducing the artwork of others, the most talented artists would turn to the more easily mastered technique of etching.