By DONNA URSCHEL
In the 16th century, a handful of Italian printmakers started using a new technique, the chiaroscuro woodcut, to beautifully reproduce the drawings of great masters, and these prints were highly valued at the time by citizens.
The Library of Congress holds a rare and important collection of these Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts, created during the 16th and 17th centuries. The collection, known as the “Pembroke Album,” contains 90 prints by seven Renaissance and Baroque printmakers. It is one of the Library’s exceptional treasures.
During the next year, Linda Stiber Morenus will set aside her duties as a conservator in the Library’s Preservation Directorate and immerse herself in the study of these woodcuts. Morenus is the Library’s 2008-2009 staff fellow in the John W. Kluge Center. Her project will examine the relationship between the artists’ color printing techniques and the style or esthetic objective of the Italian chiaroscuro woodcut.
“As a conservator, I have always been fascinated by printing inks as well as artists’ materials and techniques generally, and how they’re used to convey the artists’ intent,” said Morenus, who has worked at the Library since 1991.
Morenus also will study other aspects of the woodcuts, such as comparing the prints, if possible, to the original art works used as models. Some of the design sources were drawings, paintings, sculptures and even mosaic floors.
“To be able to focus on this one project for a year is a complete luxury,” Morenus said. “And I feel quite privileged to work with this fabulous collection.”
In the 16th and 17th centuries, chiaroscuro prints were a way for printmakers to disseminate art to a public that could not travel easily to cultural centers to see original works or art. The chiaroscuro woodcuts were printed on single sheets of paper and likely sold at annual fairs or by booksellers. They were a less expensive investment than oil paintings or drawings.
“At that time, an increasingly educated public had a thirst for images and interest in the art being created,” said Morenus.
The Italian chiaroscurists would use several wood blocks to make a print; each block would be cut to produce a different tone of the same color. The printmakers would build their pictures out of three or four successive tone blocks, subtly achieving a three-dimensional effect. Their oil-based colored inks also helped to enhance the sense of volume and spatial coherence, which were prime objectives of Renaissance and Baroque imagery, according to Morenus.
The woodcut artists represented in the “Pembroke Album” include Ugo da Carpi, who is considered responsible for introducing chiaroscuro woodcut prints into the Italian art arena from Germany around 1516. He made prints from the designs of Raphael, Titian, Parmigianino (Francesco Mazzola) and others.
Domenico Beccafumi was a printmaker, as well as a painter and sculptor. In the later part of his career, he made prints from his own designs. Antonio da Trento was one of Parmigianino’s students who created prints based on his teacher’s artwork.
Giuseppe Niccolò Vicentino was a woodcutter and printer who made prints based on the works of Giulio Romano, Polidoro da Caravaggio, Camillo Boccaccino and Parmigianino. Other printmakers in the Library’s “Pembroke Album” are Girolamo Bolsi, Andrea Andreani and Bartolomeo Coriolano.
The fine condition and secure provenance of the Italian chiaroscuro woodcuts in the “Pembroke Album” make the collection an outstanding subject for diagnostic study. The album comes from one of 16 volumes mounted for Thomas, the 8th Earl of Pembroke, a collector and patron of the arts. Between 1683 and 1733, the Earl arranged the collection with an eye toward the technical history of the print.
In her project proposal, Morenus explained: “The albums were organized as a series of different printing techniques, rather than by subject or creator, reflecting a distinctly British view on print collecting. Consequently, the 10th album, now belonging to the Library of Congress, was dedicated to the Italian chiaroscuro woodcut.”
The Library purchased the “Pembroke Album” in 1919 from a London dealer. Katherine Blood, curator of fine prints in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, said there has been growing scholarly interest in the album. The first in-depth study was published in an article by Alan Fern and Karen Beall in the book “Graphic Sampler” (1979).
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.