The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in the Early Modern Period

Strange Impressions: The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in the Early Modern Period

Eileen Reeves - Princeton University


16th century Chiaroscuro Woodcut by Antonio Campi: Seated woman facing right playing a lute (allegory of music).
© Albertina Wien, Inv. DG2002/561.

This paper will address the ways in which information about the production of the chiaroscuro woodcut circulated in early modernity. Like many other processes and technologies of the period, this sort of woodcut has two origin stories: the earlier and slightly more primitive version of the print emerged, as a series of experiments and more or less without fanfare, in Southern Germany around 1500; the second and more celebrated birth, trumpeted by Giorgio Vasari, dates to about 1516 and is associated with Ugo da Carpi, likely via German influence in Venice. The process itself involves the use of two, three, or four superimposed blocks to produce colored prints, but the ways in which color was deployed in these compositions differed significantly both over the course of the first hundred years of the art, and from one region to another.

The transmission of this practical knowledge, occurring through various routes, involves a number of interesting problems. First and foremost, such knowledge traveled in several guises: the artifact of the print itself, the rare but rather durable pear or boxwood blocks from which they were made, and textual descriptions. The print, traveling far and wide, would have communicated, at least to other woodcutters, certain information about its own manufacture; the sets of woodblocks were occasionally mentioned as a purchase or a theft; brief aesthetic and technical evaluations and slightly longer origin stories emerge in the works of Vasari, his successors, and seventeenth century collectors of this medium. Secondly, the process was sometimes a collaborative one involving a painter, a designer, and a woodblock carver, but these three roles were often shared by two or even just one individual; more dramatically, the chiaroscuro woodcut was not infrequently either an unauthorized interpretation of a painted original, or itself an original gesturing toward a painterly antecedent that had never in fact existed. Thirdly, while the process of designing and executing the chiaroscuro woodcut underwent improvement and refinement, the codification of such knowledge does not tend toward a single and recognizable aesthetic goal. Though Vasari described, for instance, Ugo da Carpi’s initial movement from two components—a tone and a line block—to woodcuts of three tones, it is not clear that greater tonal complexity and chromatic range represented progress; indeed, there is some hint that by the end of the century, aesthetic minimalism overwrote the increased technological accomplishment of larger formats and more tone blocks. Because prints could be and sometimes were executed after the death of the painter or the designer or the woodblock cutter—the blocks themselves being the crucial survivors here—the resultant works could have an archaic air, an aura of belatedness on which their authenticity and aesthetic value depended. 

In the interest of reducing these issues to more manageable proportions, I would like to concentrate on the Italian chiaroscuro woodcut, leaving aside, for the most part, the German, French, and Netherlandish analogues. The resurgence of the medium in Northern Italy in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries is only partially explained by the sometime reliance on chiaroscuro woodcuts as faithful copies of the works of Titian, Barocci, and Reni; technical and aesthetic developments, some experimentation with the anti-naturalism of the genre and its resistance to a merely mimetic function, the increasing autonomy of some prints, and their desirability among collectors serve as complementary considerations.