1902 Encyclopedia > Marcantonio (Marcantonio Raimondi)

(Marcantonio Raimondi)
Italian engraver
(c. 1480 – c. 1534)

MARCANTONIO, or, to give him his full name, MARCANTONIO RAIMONDI, is celebrated as the chief Italian master of the art of engraving in the age of the Renaissance. The date of his birth is uncertain, nor is there any good authority for assigning it, as is commonly done, approxi-mately to the year 1488. He was probably born some years at least earlier than this, inasmuch as he is mentioned by a contemporary writer, Achillini, as being an artist of repute in 1504. His earliest dated plate, illustrating the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, belongs to the following year, 1505. Marcantonio received his training in the workshop of the famous goldsmith and painter of Bologna, Francesco Raibolini, usually called Francia. " Having more aptitude in design," says Vasari, "than his master, and managing the I graver with facility and grace, he made waist-buckles and many other things in niello, such being then greatly in fashion, and made them most beautifully, as being in truth most excellent in that craft." The real fame, however, of Marcantonio was destined to be founded on his attain-ments, not in the goldsmith's art generally, but in that particular development of it which consists of engraving designs on metal plates for the purpose of reproduction by the printing press. This art was not new in Italy in the days of Marcantonio's apprenticeship. It had been practised, in a more or less elementary form, for not less than forty or fifty years in the workshops of both Tuscany and Lombardy. A. school of engravers had formed itself at Florence under the inspiration, as it appears, chiefly of Sandro Botticelli; in Lombardy the prevailing influence upon the nascent art had been that of Andrea Mantegna. But hitherto neither the engravers of Florence nor those of the Lombard cities had produced anything comparable for richness of effect and technical accomplishment to the work done during the same period on the other side of the Alps. The aim of the Italian engravers had not hitherto been directed, like that of Schongauer or Diirer, towards securing such freedom and precision in the use of the burin as should impart to the impressions taken from their engraved plates both a striking decorative effect and a power of suggesting to the eye a complex variety of natural objects and surfaces in light and shade. The Italian masters had been satisfied with a much more primitive order of effects. They had been content to omit all acces-sories and details except the simplest. They had merely drawn with the needle, or dry-point, upon the copper, in just the same way as they were accustomed to draw on paper with the pen or silver point,—taking great pains to get the outlines true and pure, and indicating shadows only by means of straight lines rapidly drawn in, or very simple hatchings.

By the beginning of the 16th century, however, when Marcantonio began to work at engraving along with the other pupils of Francia, a desire for a more complicated kind of effects was already arising among the followers of the art in Italy. Both backgrounds and passages of foreground detail were often imitated, martificially enough, from the works of the northern masters. Marcantonio himself was among the foremost in carrying out this movement. There exist about eighty engravings which can be referred to the first five or six years of his career (1505-11). Their subjects are very various, in-cluding many of pagan mythology, and some of obscure allegory, along with those of Christian devotion. The types of figures and drapery, and the general character of the compositions, bespeak for the most part the inspiration, and sometimes the direct authorship, of that artist as graceful as he was grave, Francia. But the influence of German example is very perceptible also in the work of the young Marcantonio, particularly in the landscape backgrounds, and in the endeavour shown by him to express form by means of light and shadow with greater freedom than had been hitherto the practice of the southern schools. In a few subjects also the figures themselves correspond to a coarse Teutonic, instead of to the refined Italian, ideal. But so far we find Marcantonio only indirectly leaning on the north for the sake of self-improvement. It must have been for the sake of commercial profit that he by and by pro-duced a series of direct counterfeits of northern work. We allude to the celebrated facsimiles engraved by Marcantonio on copper from Albert Diirer's woodcuts. These facsimiles are sixty-nine in number, including seventeen of Diirer's Life of the Virgin, thirty-seven of his Little Passion on wood, and a number of single pieces. According to Vasari, Diirer's indignation over those counterfeits was the cause of his journey to Venice, where he is said to have lodged a complaint against Marcantonio, and induced the signoria to prohibit the counterfeiting of his monogram, at any rate, upon any future imitations of the kind. Vasari's account must certainly be mistaken, inasmuch as Diirer's journey to Venice took place in 1506, and neither of the two series of woodcuts imitated by Marcantonio was published until 1511. The greater part of the designs for the Life of the Virgin had, it is true, been made and engraved seven years earlier than the date of their publication; and it is to be remarked that, whereas Marcantonio's copies of the Little Passion leave out the monogram of Diirer, it is inserted in his copies of the Life of the Virgin; whence it would after all seem possible that he had seen and counterfeited a set of impressions of this series at the time when they were originally executed, and before their publication. But the real nature of the transaction, if transaction there was, which took place between Diirer and Marcantonio, we cannot now hope to recover. Enough that the Bolognese engraver evidently profited, both in money and in education of the hand, by his work "in imitating in a finer material the energetic characters of these northern woodcuts. He was soon to come under a totally different influence, and to turn the experience he had gained to account in interpreting the work of a master of a quite other stamp. Up till the year 1510 Marcantonio had lived entirely at Bologna, with the exception, it would appear, of a visit or visits to Venice. Very soon afterwards he was attracted for good and all into the circle which surrounded Raphael at Rome. Where or when he had first made Raphael's acquaintance is uncertain. His passage to Rome by way of Florence has been supposed to be marked by an engraving, dated 1510, and known as the Climbers, Les Grimpeurs (Bartsch 487), in which he has reproduced a portion of the design of Michelangelo's cartoon of the Battle of Anghiari, and has added behind the figures a landscape imitated from the then young Dutch engraver Lucas of Leyden. The piece in which he is recorded to have first tried his hand after Raphael himself is the Lucretia (Bartsch 192). From that time until he disappears in the catastrophe of 1527, Marcantonio was almost exclusively engaged in reproducing, by means of engraving, the designs of Raphael or of his immediate pupils. Raphael, the story goes, was so delighted with the print of the Lucretia that he per-sonally trained and helped Marcantonio afterwards, adding, as some think, a touch of his own here and there to the engraver's work. A printing establishment was set up under the charge of Raphael's colour grinder, II Baviera, and the profits, in the early stage of the business, were shared between the engraver and the printer. The sale soon became very great; pupils gathered round about Marcantonio, of whom the two most distinguished were Marco Dente, known as Marco da Ravenna, and Agostino de' Musi, known as Agostino Veneziano ; and he and they, during the last ten years of Raphael's life, and for several years following his death, gave forth a great profusion of engravings after the master's work,—not copying, in most instances, his finished paintings, but working up, with the addition of simple backgrounds and accessories, his first sketches and trials, which often give the composition in a different form from the finished work, and are all the more interesting on that account.

The best of these engravings produced in the workshop of Marcantonio—those, namely, done by his own hand, and especially those done during the first few years after he had attached himself to Raphael—justly count among the most prized and coveted examples of the art. In them he enters into the genius of his master, the genius of choice, of balance, of rhythmical purity and charm ; he loses little of the chastened science and subtle grace of Raphael's contours, or of the inspired and winning sentiment of his faces; while in the parts where he is left to himself—the rounding and shading, the background and landscape—he manages his burin with all the skill and freedom which he had gained by the imitation of northern models, but puts away the northern emphasis and redund- ance of detail. His work, however, does not long remain at the height marked by pieces like the Lucretia, the Dido, the Judgment of Paris, the Poetry, the Philosophy, or the first Massacre of the Innocents. Marcantonio's engravings after the works of Raphael's later years are cold, osten- tatious, and soulless by comparison. Still more so, as is natural, were those which he and his pupils produced after the designs of the degenerate scholars of Raphael and Michelangelo, of a Giulio Romano, a Polidoro, or a Bandi- nelli. Marcantonio's association with Giulio Romano was the cause of his first great disaster in life. He engraved a series of obscene designs by that painter in illustration of the Sonnetti lussuriosi of Pietro Aretino, and thereby incurred the anger of Pope Clement VIL, at whose order he was thrown into prison. Marcantonio's ruin was completed by the calamities attendant on the sack of Rome in 1527. He had to pay a heavy ransom in order to escape from the hands of the Spaniards, and fled from Rome, in the words of Vasari, "all but a beggar." It is said that he took refuge in his native city, Bologna; but he never again emerges from obscurity, and all we know with certainty is that in 1534 he was dead. (S. C.)

The above article was written by: Sidney Colvin, M.A., Slade Professor of Fine Arts, University of Cambridge.

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