Revealing the subtle fascination of Renaissance chiaroscuro prints.
While to most art enthusiasts, chiaroscuro (Italian for “light and dark”) refers to the use of strongly contrasting lights and darks in a composition in any medium, the term has another meaning. To initiates of the hermetic world of print collecting and print scholarship, chiaroscuro is a technique of woodblock printmaking, most popular in the 16th century, that gave an effect of heightened three-dimensionality coupled with subtle gradations of hue, more characteristic of a wash drawing than a print. Since chiaroscuros required multiple blocks to make, they were labor-intensive, expensive, and aimed at a sophisticated audience of print connoisseurs. Comparatively few were produced, and a large percentage of those have not survived. As a result, chiaroscuro woodcuts are little known and little understood.
Now, thanks to an exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), this refined and startlingly beautiful kind of printmaking is coming out of the dark and into the light. “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy” (through September 16), organized by LACMA in association with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is the first major exhibition on the subject ever presented in this country, gathering together over 100 prints from the collections of 19 museums. It also embodies important new research on chiaroscuro woodcuts. Naoko Takahatake, Curator of Prints and Drawings at LACMA and the organizer of the exhibition, says, “With its accompanying catalogue, the exhibition documents a decade of research that advances scholarly understanding of a broad range of critical questions—from attribution and chronology, to artistic collaboration, materials and means of production, publishing histories, aesthetic intention, and audience—forming a clearer view of the genesis and evolution of this captivating and complex medium.”
To explain it as briefly as possible, a chiaroscuro was made by using multiple blocks of wood to print a single image. One, called the key block or line block, usually bore an outline that would be printed in black or dark gray ink. A second, called the tone block, would print a background color, usually blue, green, or reddish-orange, with portions left blank so that the white of the paper beneath would provide highlights. Further tone blocks could be used, in different shades of the background color, to add more shading and modeling. The technique was invented in 1508 by a German, Hans Burgkmair, court artist for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, but it fell to an Italian printmaker, Ugo da Carpi, to launch chiaroscuro as an art-world phenomenon. In 1516, Ugo petitioned the Venetian senate for a patent on what he referred to as a “new technique” for printing “in light and dark.” While he may have inferred the method by looking at some Northern prints, rather than being taught it (and Ugo was, in fact, basically a self-taught artist), his pretention to invention was false, and he was probably as much pirate as pioneer. Nonetheless, he was a man of great skill and vision, and what he envisioned was a collaborative venture between artists who would conceive designs and himself, the printmaker, who would translate them into a reproducible medium with a whole new look.
Unusually for an artist, Ugo came from an aristocratic background, and he thought of himself as master, not servant. Unlike the reproductive printmakers who worked for artists’ studios making mass-produced versions of paintings, Ugo approached artists for original ideas that were not already paintings, paid them for them, and then took control of the process, signing his prints with his own name rather than that of the designer. He worked with such luminaries as Raphael, Titian, and Parmigianino. One of Ugo’s most famous chiaroscuros, Diogenes (circa 1527–30), is from a Parmigianino design. Described by the discerning Vasari as a “most beautiful print,” it shows the Greek philosopher in a bold pose, modeled by shadows and light, in a style that seems to eschew the busy detail favored by most printmakers at the time in favor of broader strokes and a softer finish.
This effect of chiaroscuro printmaking led to some misconceptions about it in later eras. For various reasons, chiaroscuros fell out of fashion after the 16th century, and when they were rediscovered by print collectors in the 18th century, they were uniformly described as imitations of drawing or painting. This was partly because using printmaking techniques to “mass-produce” drawings was prevalent at that time, especially in England, where the interest in chiaroscuros was greatest. And some late practitioners of chiaroscuro, notably the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, did delight in effects that border on trompe l’oeil. But the truth, as the researchers involved in the LACMA show have discovered, is that during its heyday, the chiaroscuro print was intended to deliver a unique print experience, not an imitation of any other kind of art. This was a subtle, yet bold kind of beauty best appreciated by seasoned print connoisseurs, who could marvel at the technical aspects as well as absorbing the aesthetic ones.
While chiaroscuro has been called the first color printmaking technique in the West, that is also a bit of a misconception. In the Renaissance, there were color prints—that is, black-and-white prints that were hand-tinted with watercolors. Because these were intended for a mass audience, and many of them were devotional objects, color prints came to be seen as vulgar. While someone as ingenious as Ugo—or, for that matter, fellow Italian practitioners such as Niccolò Vicentino and Domenico Beccafumi—could probably have come up with a multi-block method for printing in full color, like Japanese ukiyo-e, there was at least one very good reason not to: The painters’ guilds resented any challenge to their business, and chiaroscuro printmakers trying to horn in would likely have faced legal action.
So they instead concentrated on perfecting a uniquely monochromatic approach to color. One of the delights of contemplating chiaroscuros is seeing the same design rendered in different colors—first in a cool greenish palette, then perhaps in a warm orange. And one of the challenges is figuring out how the printmaker did it; often the design is spread over more than one block, so that the dichotomy of line block versus tone block breaks down. “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy” could help create the next generation of connoisseurs.
By John Dorfman