While engraving evolved from the craft of goldsmithing, etching, in which the work of cutting into the metal is accomplished through the action of acid, is closely related to the armorer’s trade. A plate of metal is first covered with a layer of acid-resistant varnish or wax, called the “ground.” The artist then scratches through the ground with an etching needle to expose the metal beneath. When the design is complete, the plate is dipped in acid, which eats away the lines where the metal has been exposed. The depth of the lines depends on the length of time the plate is exposed to the acid. Once the ground has been removed, the metal plate, with its incised lines, can be printed in the same way as any intaglio plate. While the printing requires considerable craft, the incising of the coated plate with the etching needle can be done by anyone who knows how to draw, encouraging many painters to try their hand.
Etchings were first produced around 1500 in southern Germany. These early German etchers made use of iron plates, stronger than copper yet susceptible to rust and harder to work. For many German printmakers, such as Albrecht Dürer, etching was a short-lived experiment, but for the artists of the Danube school working in the 1520s, famed for their calligraphic draftsmanship and for being the first to create works of pure landscape, the medium proved most congenial. Albrecht Altdorfer’s s Landscape with a Double Spruce (1993.1097) marks the beginning of a long and harmonious marriage between the medium of etching and the subject of landscape. Around the same time in Italy, Parmigianino recognized the potential of the medium to render the fluid lines of his drawn sketches. Prints like The Lovers (26.70.3 ), which read as a direct translation of his drawing technique, were much admired and imitated in Italy, where an artist’s draftsmanship was an important measure of his genius. In the 1540s, a burst of etching took place at Fontainebleau in France, where a group of artists—perhaps motivated by a desire to publicize their accomplishments in that remote locale—began to make use of etching to create prints after the designs of Rosso Fiorentino, Primaticcio, and others for the decoration of the palace of Francis I. A work by Léon Davent, Cadmus Fighting the Dragon (49.97.570), provides a good example of the appealingly light and delicate technique evolved by this short-lived school of etchers.
While etching continued to be practiced by some Italian artists, particularly in Venice and the Veneto, and usually with an admixture of engraving, it was the intimate and luminous Virgin Seated on a Cloud (18.104.22.168) by Federico Barocci, produced at the end of the sixteenth century, that pointed the way in the centuries to come, when etching would be the favored medium of painters both north and south of the Alps. Among the artists to be impressed by Barocci’s achievement was Annibale Carracci, whose reform of painting was to have an enormous impact on the art of the seventeenth century. Both Annibale and his brother Agostino, a professional engraver, produced engraved copies of Barocci’s Virgin Seated on a Cloud. It may have been Barocci’s example that caused Annibale to turn increasingly to etching, producing such expressive and atmospheric works as the Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (22.214.171.124).