Raphael and Engraving

In Pôle muséal et culturel
Dominique Allart and Antonio Geremicca

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Chisel engraving by the French artist Léon Davent, active at the court of Francis I, after one of the frescoes by Giulio Romano, one of Raphael's disciples, at Palazzo Te, suburban residence of the Marquis of Mantua. It is a bezel of the Hall of Psyche. It shows one of the trials imposed by Venus on the young mortal that Cupid had fallen in love with

The year 2020 was the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, one of the three emblematic geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.

This gifted artist, born in 1473, was barely 25 years old when he was entrusted with the decoration of the Vatican ‘Raphael Rooms’. Thus, propelled to the forefront of the Roman art scene, he was, from that moment on, overloaded with prestigious commissions and responsibilities. In addition to his immense qualities as a painter, he was also recognised as a skilled architect. For example, after Bramante's death, he was entrusted with the management of the reconstruction of St. Peter's Basilica. As he was an excellent connoisseur of ancient remains, he also had to supervise the archaeological excavations that were multiplying in Rome at that time. Formidably prolific in all fields, as charismatic as he was talented, he had become a legendary hero when a sudden illness took his life on 6th April 1520, his 37th birthday.

Following his unexpected death, the myth he embodied became even more widespread. More than ever, his creations continued to have an extraordinary audience, both north of the Alps and in Italy. The instrument of this success was a relatively new technology at the time, printmaking, which allowed many copies of the same image to be printed using an engraved matrix of wood or metal. Raphael, better than anyone else, saw the benefits of this. He was the first painter to organise the distribution of his own creations on a large scale, calling on specialised engravers to make reproductions. After his death, his disciples and collaborators played an important role in propagating, via engraving, a style that they knew perfectly well how to imitate. The "Raphaelism" style, which spread to the main centres of European artistic production, thus overturned local figurative traditions and became the catalyst for a veritable visual revolution.

This was particularly true in the old Netherlands, where, as early as 1516, the arrival of models designed by Raphael for a grandiose suite of tapestries that Pope Leo X had commissioned from a Brussels workshop caused a sensation.

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The Healing of the Paralytic, etching and chiaroscuro engraving by the great Mannerist painter Parmigianino around 1527-1530. The work is based on one of Raphael’s designs for the famous Acts of the Apostles tapestries, commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1516 for the Sistine Chapel. The tapestries were woven in the Brussels workshop of Pieter van Aelst, who was well known throughout Europe.
The flourishing print industry in Antwerp soon provided a particularly favourable context for the Italianate inspiration, which resulted in the development of an artistic production studded with Raphaelesque echoes. The principality of Liège was not to be outdone. Lambert Lombard was one of those who contributed most significantly to the development and triumph of a new figurative language deeply imbued with the rhetoric of Raphael and his followers.
A dialogue was thus established, through the medium of engraving, between Raphael and his disciples on the one hand, and Flemish, Dutch and Liege-based artists on the other. This will be the subject of an exhibition that will open shortly at the Grand Curtius. Thanks to a collaboration with the Accademia Raffaello, this exhibition will be held in a museum in Raphael's birthplace, Urbino, in the Marche region.
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A detail of one of the most attractive Raphaelesque works in Rome, the Loggia of Cupid and Psyche, in the villa of the wealthy banker Agostino Chigi (today better known as Farnesina), and a chisel engraving by the Veronese Jacopo Caraglio that reproduces the composition in reverse, as is often the case in engraving. The engraving was produced a few years after the execution of the fresco, between 1523 and 1525.


The Wittert Museum's Collection of Early Graphic Arts: an Unexplored Treasure

The exhibition presented in Liège, at the Grand Curtius, from 16th October 2021 to 15th January 2022 and the book entitled "Raphael et la gravure. De Rome aux anciens Pays-Bas et à Liège" (Raphael and Engraving: From Rome to the Netherlands and Liège) are part of a research programme, financed by the University of Liège (PDR-SH), called the Wittert Project, led by Professor Dominique Allart. This project initiates a global plan for the in-depth scientific study of the prestigious collection of ancient graphic arts (drawings and engravings) that the University of Liège inherited from Baron Adrien Wittert. In 1903, this great collector of works of art and books bequeathed no less than 25,000 engravings and old drawings to our Institution, alongside 20,000 books, 117 manuscripts and incunabula, to which must be added nearly 150 objects of art and curiositý, as well as some fifty paintings.

Thanks to this bequest, our Alma Mater now boasts an exceptional artistic heritage, both beneficial to its image and useful for its teaching and research. However, almost 120 years later, it has to be said that the extraordinary collection of early graphic arts, which is undoubtedly the most remarkable component of the Wittert collection, has remained largely unexplored. Only a few Belgian and foreign experts suspect that it contains drawings of considerable interest and are surprised that these remain unpublished to this day. As for the engravings, although their number and interest make it one of the most important collections in Belgium, they have yet to be properly identified. Of the nearly 25,000 engravings bequeathed to the University of Liège by Wittert, a few hundred at most are well known and regularly exhibited (works by Rembrandt, Dürer and Bruegel, in particular).

The Wittert Project aims to remedy this deficiency. Taking advantage of a favourable dynamic linked to the creation of the Cultural and Museum Centre, it lays the foundations for a long-term undertaking, which consists of drawing up an in-depth scientific catalogue of the thousands of old engravings and drawings from the Wittert collection.

This catalogue, conceived according to the most exacting standards of research in the field, will lead to works like the one mentioned above, but also to a digital corpus accessible online. It is intended to be a tool for specialists, researchers and students, but will also showcase our Institution to a wider public.

The project is in line with the Centre's objectives, since it aims to shed light on the ways in which scientific information is constructed in the field in question. Its repercussions for teaching are considerable: in the wake of the research in progress, students on the Master's degree programme in Art History will now have the opportunity to learn the rudiments of expertise in ancient graphic arts by having access to these original pieces. The University of Liège is thus establishing itself as one of the few universities in Europe where the teaching of art history is rooted in direct and concrete contact with the works.

Expertise of Old Engravings

Just as historians cannot exploit an archival source without first establishing its nature and verifying its authenticity, specialists in ancient images must, before any interpretative approach, undertake the expertise of the pieces that fall within their field of investigation.

Understanding what an engraving is, what it represents, when it dates from, who the artist is: these are essential components of the expertise process. It is a question of distinguishing a print (which exists - or at least has existed - in multiple copies) from a drawing (which is a unique piece). This is the first difficulty that the expert must tackle. The second is to identify the technique used: is it a copperplate engraving, an etching, a xylograph, a lithograph? All these options not only determine the appearance of the print, but also guide the work aimed at dating it and identifying its creator, i.e. the person who made the matrix. If necessary, we would also try to identify the inventor, i.e. the person who made the model that the print reproduces, and finally, the publishing house that made the matrix and proceeded to print and sell the proofs.

An engraved matrix can pass from one publisher to another and be used for centuries, sometimes undergoing alterations, wear and tear, retouching and corrections. The age of an engraving, and its authenticity, are therefore crucial questions, which cannot be avoided by the expert who examines it. It is, on the one hand, thanks to the material study of the work itself, and, on the other hand, through comparisons with other engravings, preserved in other museums, that the identity of a print is gradually clarified.

The material study requires fairly simple means. A light box can be used to detect the possible presence of a watermark, i.e. the mark of the paper manufacturer, in the thickness of the sheet itself. This is a valuable dating clue. Studying it with a magnifying glass is enough for the expert to identify the technique of an engraving, as well as the reveal specificities of the print from which it comes.

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The identification of possible collectors' marks, and the examination of inscriptions sometimes recorded on the back of an engraving, also provide information on its history.

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Example of the information that can be found on the reverse of a drawing or an engraving. Here, it is the engraving Cupid and Psyche by Jacopo Caraglio. It shows the stamp of the University of Liege (used until around 1968-1970) and recent notes in black pencil. They identify the author of the engraving and its inventor, and depict an older collection mark in the lower right-hand corner. This is the stamp of the owner of the engraving in the 19th century the Roman Enrico Lodolo.


All these data must be interpreted in the light of those revealed by other prints made from the same matrix, or supposedly so. Some of them are from the same print run, others are from earlier or later print runs, and some are copies. Groups are thus formed, in which the particularities of each piece - the circumstances of its making and its subsequent history - gradually appear.

In the past, engraved prints of the same composition were considered collectively and sometimes indiscriminately. Today, it is better understood that each one has its own history, and also has a unique meaning.



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Some of the works studied in the Wittert Project  


The authors

Dominique Allart is a professor of Modern Art History at the University of Liège and a specialist in 16th century art. She is the author of publications on Bruegel, Lambert Lombard and the artistic relations between the Netherlands and the Principality of Liège and Italy. She directs the WittertProject, which aims to initiate a scientific inventory of the Wittert Museum's collection of early graphic arts.

Antonio Geremicca is a post-doc researcher at the University of Liège, a specialist in sixteenth-century Italian painting and graphic arts and co-director of the WittertProject. He has contributed to numerous international exhibitions on Cinquecento art and published several books, including a monograph entitled Agnolo Bronzino "La dotta penna al pennel doto pari" (Rome, 2013).

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