Published  02/11/2001

The Print in Italy 1550-1620

The Print in Italy 1550–1620

‘The Print in Italy 1550–1620’ at the British Museum (27 September 2001–6 January 2002) is an exceptional exhibition of over 150 works from the museum’s own collection as well as a number of important loans. It is the first exhibition to present a broad and representative survey of the printmaking of this period.

Roast-chestnut seller. Francesco Villamena 1565–1624

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The actual processes of printmaking are examined from the manner in which designs were conceived and transferred onto the prepared plates and then printed and packaged for sale. In the second part of the exhibition the group of individuals involved: designers, engravers, printers and print dealers are presented. The third section focuses on the cities of importance for printmaking: Rome and Venice; Bologna and Siena.

The scale of prints in the exhibition is of significant note since the period 1550–1620 saw the development of large-scale commercial prints. This scale of production is also evident in the marvellous range of skills and subject matter portrayed.

The scholarly presentation of this exhibition and the superb catalogue are exceptional, and enable one to study the period in depth.

A great deal of information can often be extracted from what is inscribed on the plates themselves. There are also documentary materials that can illuminate the methods and motivations behind the production of prints: letters, contracts, payments, official edicts, records of court cases, privileges and licenses as well as more formal writing of a systematic kind, such as biographies and treatises. Where possible the prints chosen have been ones for which such supporting information is available.1

Michael Bury’s catalogue clarifies certain problematic concepts in the literature on printmaking. One is that of the ‘reproductive’ print:

In clarifying prints as either ‘original’ or ‘reproductive’, present-day writers are making a distinction between those in which the composition is the original creation of the printmaker and those in which the composition is taken by the printmaker from another source.2

Bury distinguishes between the manner in which certain engravers’ or printmakers’ value lay exclusively in the accuracy of the rendition compared to an existing artist’s work, and an artist like Cornelis Cort who worked in close collaboration with the artists (for example, Titian) whose work he was ‘reproducing’.

The word ‘reproduction’ implies mechanical copying, but often what was going on was a highly creative attempt to find an equivalent and to create a graphic object that was of value in its own right.3

Printmaking enjoyed an increased appreciation in the second half of the 16th century; Vasari’s 1568 edition of his Lives of the Artists introduced a discussion of prints and printmakers where he established a framework for them to be discussed. The collection of prints also became a phenomenon. As the exhibition displays, the range of subject matter was wide-ranging: mythological and devotional images, maps, allegorie, erotica, records of antiquities, and ‘low-life’ depictions of street brawls and the tradesmen and artisans. ‘The Roast Chestnut Seller’ by Francesco Villamena (c. 1565–1624) belongs to this tradition that takes as its subject street sellers and carnival characters. Here, Villamena portrays his character, not in a particularly humane manner but as a grotesque individual; in the verse below the figure it states that the ‘Chestnut Seller’s’ voice is so loud that it would make hell shake. It is intended to be humorous. Prints were often sold at fairs, collected in albums, framed on walls in houses. In short, they became a visual currency with a wide audience. Writers and collectors showed unprecedented interest in the variety and creative enterprise.

Bury documents the roles and relationships of the individuals involved in the production of these prints – designers, publishers, artist/printmakers – and how the various circumstances determined how the production of works at different points came into existence. The term publisher is clarified by Bury not as in the modern usage:

The publisher will be identified here not as the person performing a functional role in relation to the issue of a specific print, that is to say, financing the issue of the print and controlling the plate. That person could be the designer, the engraver, the printer, the print dealer or anyone who had an interest in having the print available for whatever purpose. Not infrequently it was a group of people rather than a single individual.4

The co-operative nature of print production, in this and subsequent periods, lends itself to providing an insight into the structure of society and broader issues involved in art production. So too does it illuminate issues of working methods – the introduction of the important position of technical assistant – both of a single artist/printmaker and a print workshop. It reveals the technical proficiency and the ability to solve visual problems, for example, the fact that an engraved or etched image is by its nature a mirror image. In many images the mirror image was acceptable – even preferred – in others such as Cort’s ‘Marriage at Cana’ (c. 1533–78) it was necessary for the image to be the right way round, since in any images of Christ making a blessing the gesture could not be performed with his left hand. There existed a number of technically demanding methods for reversing the image. A technical assistant was used to achieve mastery in ambitious or difficult works. ‘The Practice of the Visual Arts’ by Jan van de Straet, called Stradanus (1523–1605) is a drawing that was clearly the design for an engraving that was subsequently produced by Cornelis Cort, also in the exhibition. The drawing is virtually the identical in size to the engraving, and all the figures are using their left hands, so displaying the artist’s intention to transfer the image onto an engraving plate.

In the drawing the creamy paper acts as a mid-tone, with different colours of ink/wash to give gradations of dark and white heightening for the highlights. Cort is able to create a comparably rich pictorial effect, although he has to alter the register, with the white of the paper now functioning as highlight.5

Stradanus was particularly interested in making designs specifically for an engraver to adapt. He seemed to work successfully with Cort who appeared to have been able to make certain alterations of his own. Cort is a particularly good example of a printmaker who could transfer the work of an artist into a graphic medium which paid tribute to the original while imbuing the print medium with a certain life of its own.

If the designer did not take up printmaking himself, he might employ a printmaker to work under his direction. The relationship that Titian established with Cort was of this kind, and produced some of the finest engravings of the century. Titian took the initiative and employed Cort, providing him with drawings of a carefully selected group of compositions to illustrate the range of his invention…Even when the compositions were derived from, or closely related to, compositions that Titian had used for paintings, they were adjusted to fit the demands of the graphic medium.6

Cort’s ‘Crucifixion’ involved the designer Guilio Clovio (1498–1578) at a further stage; that of the illuminator of the print once his original image had been engraved and printed by Cort. It was printed on a blue-grey silk and mounted on paper. Once coloured by Clovio, ‘the engraving was transformed into an exquisite ‘unicum’.7

Engravings also played an important role in the teaching of drawing and anatomy. Taken from a drawing manual, the ‘Details of Feet’ by Odoardo Fialetti (1573–1637/8) offers basic instruction, primarily for ‘gentlemen amateurs’ in Venice. Erotic images were produced from the 15th century on. They were prone to destruction by moral forces, and so very few survive. Biblical or mythological subjects were chosen sometimes to justify an erotic motivation, and in turn they were not as likely to be destroyed. Agostino Carracci (1557–1602) produced a group of plates known as the ‘Lascivie’, which included two biblical and six mythological subjects as well as five ‘unspecific satyr stories’. A previous author, Malvasia, suggested that Agostino’s great success was due to these erotic prints, and that his printer/dealer was motivated by financial gain. Venice, however, did not encourage erotica ‘discouraging indecent images’.8

The period covered by this exhibition (1550–1620) saw a number of outstanding printmakers working in Italy: Carracci, Federico Barocci, Cornelis Cort, Aegidius Sadeler and Francesco Villamena. With the arrival from the Low Countries of Cort and Sadeler, for example, Italy became a lively and international centre for printmaking. The range and quality of work was extraordinary. Michael Bury’s catalogue The Print in Italy 1550–1620 is the only survey of this period in any language, and draws upon a remarkable range of hitherto unpublished and unexplored material. This is a splendid exhibition and a fine, scholarly study and presentation of detailed and fascinating material; both visual and documentary.


1. Bury, M. The Print in Italy, 1550–1620. London: The British Museum Press, 2001: 9.
2. Ibid, p.10
3. Ibid, p.11
4. Ibid, p.68
5. Ibid, p.21
6. Ibid, p.70
7. Ibid, p. 54
8. Ibid, p.198




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