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The exhibition Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael celebrates the collaboration between the celebrated papal court painter Raphael Sanzio (1483–1520) and the lesser-known but respected Bolognese metal engraver and goldsmith Marcantonio Raimondi (ca. 1480–ca. 1534). Tracing the development of the close working partnership shared between artist and craftsman, the exhibition reveals how this unique relationship benefited both men in their chosen artistic fields.
Marcantonio Raimondi and Raphael centers on a number of exquisitely executed engravings in which the vision presented through Raphael’s drawings is transposed through the mastery of Marcantonio’s burin. Borrowed from collections throughout England, most notably from Manchester’s own John Rylands Library and the George Thomas Clough Collection (donated to the Whitworth in 1920), the over sixty works on display succeed in demonstrating Marcantonio’s extraordinary skill as a draughtsman and his virtually unparalleled understanding of composition. Although the inclusion of a small number of drawings by Raphael are necessary in understanding the exhibition’s background and narrative—and some might say steal the show—it is the examination of the role and status of the printmaker during a particular period of technical innovation that remains central within the project. In the 1510s, Marcantonio came to be held in such high regard for the quality of his work that he was not only ennobled with the title of peintre-graveur (painter-engraver), but found himself positioned center stage by Raphael in the fresco Expulsion of Heliodorus (1514). This is a sensitively curated exhibition in which the potential of the duplicated image for mass consumption is presented within the context of collaboration and dealership. At a time when new possibilities for reproduction and distribution were exercised, but not yet fully comprehended, artists and publishers confronted ideas of authorship and intellectual property, and grappled with moral evaluation and legal processes accompanying image reproduction.
The story of Marcantonio’s emergence as one of the most celebrated engravers of Renaissance Italy begins in 1506, when he moved to Venice and there encountered Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts depicting the Life of the Virgin (ca. 1503/4). In an open agreement between Marcantonio and the publishing house of Niccolò and Domenico dal Jesus, the press agreed to print extremely close copies of Dürer’s prints produced by the engraver, which were realized using the copperplate engraving technique rather than the more traditional wood. Dürer attempted to sue Marcantonio for plagiarism, but the Venetian Senate only demanded that he remove Dürer’s monogram from his reproductions. With no historical precedents for challenging such malpractice, there would not have been any particular reason to suspect Marcantonio of knowingly committing plagiarism, even though the inclusion of Dürer’s monogram might suggest otherwise. Whether or not this story holds true, the notion of intellectual property enters the critical arena, and the Western world begins to contemplate who, if anyone, owns the right to copy?
As the potential and technical knowledge of metal engraving spread, many other artists began to exploit the process, some even going as far as producing their own plates based on Marcantonio’s commercially successful works. In an ironic twist, the Bolognese master of multiplication saw his own work being copied and replicated. The inclusion in the exhibition of engravings by contemporary artists highlights the liberal borrowing of imagery that commonly practiced among early modern artists. Marcantonio, we find, even adopted landscape compositions from existing works by Lucas Van Leyden such as The Holy Family (ca. 1508), although whether he did so out of respect for the Dutch artist’s mastery, or simply through an innocent act of appropriation, will probably never be known.
The inclusion in the exhibition of prints by different artists, which are directly contrasted with those of Raimondi, is one of the delights of the show. These comparisons highlight Raimondi’s ability to create (and recreate) an image of exquisite detail, underscoring his unparalleled skill in handling the engraving tool. For example, the curators’ decision to display Dürer’s woodcut The Visitation (ca. 1506) adjacent to Marcantonio’s reproduction of the same print allows the viewer to contrast the dynamism of the former with the comparative flatness of the latter, which might be seen as overly stylized and finessed.
In another section of the exhibition, concerning Marcantonio’s late career, viewers again find the engraver testing the boundaries of dissemination of the multiple image. But where earlier in his career he questioned issues of plagiarism, in the 1520s he was imprisoned for the content of his images. In 1524, Marcantonio was sent to jail by Pope Clement VII for his production of engravings of I Modi (The Positions), an erotic series of drawings by Raphael’s chief assistant Giulio Romano. The contemporary law protected Romano as the author of these “private” and singular images; he escaped prosecution, while Marcantonio was punished as the originator of mass-produced and potentially widely disseminated, sexually explicit material. Yet in a display of his unrivaled talent, it was Marcantonio who had the last laugh, producing in ca. 1525 a large engraving entitled The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, in which Lawrence, while being slowly burned to death on a metal grill, asks to be turned over in order that he is properly cooked on both sides—surely a riposte by Marcantonio to the authorities who had incarcerated him. He may have been down on his luck, but he still retained the unquestionable skills of the best engraver of his time and had the ability and means to demonstrate this position.
The exhibition’s curators, Edward H. Wouk and David Morris, also oversaw the compilation of a rich catalogue, Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael and the Image Multiplied, which consists of nine essays that provide an in-depth history of the development of Marcantonio and Raphael’s partnership. With duotone and color images throughout, the catalogue illustrates the complete exhibition, providing the reader with an exceptionally rigorous and engagingly complex study of two revolutionary minds. The first, Raphael, is portrayed as an artist eager to impress his public and sponsors, but also interested in increasing his following and market through the potential of the multiple image. The second, Marcantonio, is shown as a magpie for the most sophisticated compositions and style, who set out his stall in a burgeoning arena of one-upmanship. The images the two created epitomize the brilliance of their partnership. In his essay “From Death to Print,” Wouk upholds printmaking, and engraving in particular, as a creative medium on a par with painting and sculpture, fully capable of promoting knowledge through its ability to disseminate to a wide and general audience. For Wouk, engraving was a mode of replication that allowed Raphael, with the collaboration and skills of his partner in business, “to spread his ideas beyond Rome.” But as Beverly Louise Brown elaborates in her essay, “Troubled Waters,” Marcantonio’s prints were not merely replications of Raphael’s designs. The engraver took inspiration from a range of pictorial sources, historic references, and, of course, his peers. But what he created from these sources was a personal vision of the social and political upheaval that was the order of the day—the grotesque, plague, and war.
The catalogue is exceptional in its detailed inclusion and translation of historic records and archives such as those of Frédéric Maximilien Waldeck, the collections of the Rylands Library, and the Raphael Collection of the Prince Consort at Windsor castle, among others. Its contributions, moreover, offer invaluable historical context, shedding light on the commercial potential of the relatively new technical process of metal-plate engraving, the growing influence of print dealers and publishers in early modern Europe, and beyond this, the aesthetic and commercial value of the printed image. Through catalogue essays, the reader is thus presented with a comprehensive journey of early visual reproduction, which brought with it new audiences and the development of commercial awareness and acumen. The story, although specific to Raphael, Marcantonio, and Renaissance Italy, is not dissimilar from that of countless other artists in history, who try to earn a living by experimenting with emerging technologies. These themes seem all too familiar, resonant with current discourses surrounding digital media and the issues regarding mass communication and copyright, exploitation and censorship, which are now encountered to a greater degree than ever before through access to and reliance on the internet and global dissemination via the web.
Thus, while the exhibition presents the full scope of the quality and scale to which Raphael and Marcantonio excelled as entrepreneurs of engraving, the catalogue uncovers the intricacies and complex networks that underpinned a historically important shift in how we consider authorship. In sixteenth-century Italy, the ability or right to copy was as flexible and problematic as currently experienced today.
Printmaker and Senior Lecturer in Fine Art, School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies, University of Leeds, UK
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