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Chiaroscuro: Renaissance Woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, Royal Academy of Arts, 15 March – 8 June 2014

The history of political images is indeed rich in topoi. One of them is the inseparable conjunction of Emperor Maximilian I (1449-1519) and early modern prints. Hence, it should not be a surprise to be welcomed by the Habsburg at the entrance of an exhibition of Renaissance Chiaroscuro Woodcuts. Under the title Renaissance Impressions: Chiarascuro woodcuts from the collection of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna the Royal Academy of Arts, London, has assembled a selection of works either loaned by the Albertina, Vienna, or coming from the extensive private collection of the contemporary artist Georg Baselitz. Ordinary woodcuts became common in Europe around 1400. Very soon Popular Prints were beginning to circulate in numerous Single-leaf Woodcuts. Though, as historians like Robert W. Scribner have argued, that was not necessarily the same as a ‘democratisation’ of the image, the effect they had on a culture of communication is undeniable.1

The exhibition’s entrance is reserved for sheets from the German-speaking region around 1500. It is therefore dedicated to the beginnings of a specific technique of printing woodcuts that uses several, variably inked blocks to give the product an almost painted quality. A technique that, because of the contrasts that come about, is called ‘chiaroscuro’. Alongside woodcuts by Lucas Cranach the Elder and others there is the aforementioned Emperor Maximilian on Horseback, depicted by Hans Burgkmair the Elder as a heavily ironclad knight.

Emperor Maximilian on Horseback 1508 Hans Burgkmair  German, 1473-1531  Woodcut on painted paper, printed in black, gold, and silver  The Cleveland Museum of Art: John L. Severance Fund (1950.72)
Hans Burgkmair: Emperor Maximilian on Horseback, 1508, Chiaroscuro woodcut, The Cleveland Museum of Art: John L. Severance Fund (1950.72).

Opposite to it hangs Sebald Beham’s Head of Christ Crowned with thorns, a frontal view of the Holy Face. Here the patron of Ehrenpforte and Triumphzug, there a Veronica, the archetype of every image multiplied in a printing process. Those two programmatic items establish what is perhaps the most obvious, because self-evident, of the exhibition’s themes: reproduction.

Yet, this stiff paradigm is constantly challenged by the ambiguity of the history that is told throughout the various prints, revealed for example in a figure like Ugo da Carpi (1480-ca 1520) whose sheets form a large part of the exhibition. In 1516 the artist asked the Venetian Senate to equip him with the exclusive rights to publish chiaroscuro woodcuts. Ugo falsely claimed to have invented the method, hence mimicking the originator of a reproductive technique – that he himself had copied. His efforts were ultimately crowned by success when he formed an enterprise with Raphael. Not only did Ugo copy the great artist’s works but the latter supplied him exclusively with designs. In the light of such a congenial collaboration between painter and printer it becomes hard to speak of sheer ‘reproductions’. Especially, since Ugo and Raphael made some effort to ensure their ‘originality’: In 1518 their products were protected from unauthorised reproduction by another privilege – again certificated by the Venetian Senate but this time alongside the Pope. This papal copyright mirrors the value of the multiplied image that was not monetary alone but applied to the aura of the mechanically reproduced, yet individual artwork.

Here the exhibition benefits from the richness of the collections it relies on. Many motifs can be shown in several prints of various editions. Hanging side by side their differences become more than clear, ranging from unobtrusive details, to the colouring, up to a generally atmospheric impression. In this way the viewer is able to recognise over the course of the exhibition every single sheet’s uniqueness. Not a single copy comes up with its original’s quality. So one cannot speak of a sheer reproduction. Rather of a transformation, since the specific artwork acquires, by being reproduced, equivalent yet different qualities.

Among the gathered masterpieces, like the ones of Hendrick Goltzius and others, one work in particular stands out: the nine sheets which transfer Andrea Mantegna’s famous Triumph of Caesar from canvas into print.

This very media conversion, performed by Andrea Andreani in the late 16th century, is synonymic with the image’s shift from a geographically limited surrounding into a wider public. The series of paintings, commissioned by either Duke Federico I Gonzaga or his son Francesco II in the late 1480s, remained in Mantua until King Charles I bought them in 1629 and brought them to England where today they are exhibited at Hampton Court. Andreani’s reproductions, actually the products of a transfer, may have led to Charles I’s interest in the first place and thereby eventually to the physical movement of the paintings.

Andrea Andreani: Triumph of Caesar after Andrea Mantegna, pl.9, Chiaroscuro woodcut with gouache, ca 1599.
Andrea Andreani: Triumph of Caesar after Andrea Mantegna, pl.9, Chiaroscuro woodcut with gouache, ca 1599, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs (LC-USZC4-2833).

Remarkably the triumph itself is presented as a ‘convoy of images’. The trumpeters that lead the way are closely followed by soldiers bearing widths of cloth. On those widths, scenes are shown of a successful war. Obviously it brought in rich booty that – again – consists mainly of pictorial artefacts: painted shields, decorated armour, sculptures and figurative objects. In the far distance one sees idealised Roman architecture and the whole scene is overlooked by an ornamented column basically duplicating the action in the foreground. At the triumph’s end appears Caesar sitting on a chariot overflowing with images. The victorious sovereign is represented as the absolute ‘Bilderfahrzeug’ – to use the term, Aby Warburg created to describe the mobility of images, mainly tapestries and, of course, prints.

Andrea Andreani: Frontispiece of Andrea Mantegna's Triumph of Caesar, Woodcut, ca 1599.
Andrea Andreani: Frontispiece of Andrea Mantegna’s Triumph of Caesar, Chiaroscuro woodcut, ca 1599, Art Institute Chicago (1926.452.1).

But Mantegna’s Caesar has a counterpart to whom Andreani’s print version opposes him. None other than Mantegna himself is depicted in a frontispiece that precedes the nine triumphant sheets. Andreani who did not only ‘copy’ paintings but also bronzes such as the ones by Giambologna portrayed Mantegna after the bust that decorates his tomb in Mantua. Mantegna himself may have designed it and entrusted his close friend Gian Marco Cavalli with its execution. It shows the famous painter crowned with a laurel wreath. The triumphant artist as a true Poet laureate. Thus, it is not Caesar, to whose legendary victories the original paintings refer, and not even the Duke of Mantua who commissioned them, but Mantegna, the artist, whose memory lives in the sepia brown sheets that embrace both: his work, represented by the series of paintings, and his fame, appearing in the shape of the bronze bust. Mantegna celebrates a posthumous triumph owed to the printing technique that bestows on him an impact that his art already contains. Otherwise expressed, the prints’ multiplicity and physical mobility fulfil the artwork’s aura by increasing its range correspondingly. The chiaroscuro woodcuts, one may say, become the material equivalents of the cloth widths carried by the Roman soldiers announcing their General’s victory.

With the Emperor Maximilian I the topical patron stands at the beginning of this exhibition. The prints of Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar conclude it. In this narrative arch the latter become a source for the evolving history of a phenomenon that the historian Ernst Kantorowicz once called the ‘sovereignty of the artist’.2 This history is told, and even more, it is partly shaped by woodcuts – not mere reproductions but mobile agents in an already highly dynamic history of art.


1. Scribner, Robert W. (1981) For the Sake of Simple Folk. Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation, Cambridge.

2. Kantorowicz, Ernst H. (1961) ‘The Sovereignty of the Artist. A Note on Legal Maxims and Renaissance Theories of Art’ in Millard Meiss (ed.) De artibus opuscula XL: Essays in Honor of Erwin Panofsky, New York, 267-279.


OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Johannes von Müller (20. Juni 2014). Chiaroscuro: Renaissance Woodcuts from the Collections of Georg Baselitz and the Albertina, Vienna, Royal Academy of Arts, 15 March – 8 June 2014. Bilderfahrzeuge. Abgerufen am 16. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/psyb


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